Dr MK Teng
The study undertaken by Sandhya Jain , published by Rupa-co, New Delhi, in an attractively designed volume, titled “ Evangelical Intrusions- Tripura, a case study” is the first systematic and in-depth inquiry into the evangelical intervention in the religious cultures of the tribal societies and indigenous peoples of India to “ coerce the entire tribal populace to convert to a millenarian tradition.” The study is a bold attempt to investigate into “concerted efforts by several western evangelical denominations to achieve their objective of complete conversion” of the tribal peoples and the inability of the Indian state to support the tribal and the indigenous people to preserve their religious cultural tradition. The state of Tripura, situated in the north-east of India, where the evangelical intrusion has been widespread, forms the universe of the field-study. Tripura, the author notes “was chosen as the subject of the study because its large tribal population is resisting organized armed assault upon its native faith and way of life”.
The problem of evangelical intrusions in India is a part of the larger problem of Semitisation of the Indian Society, which has a longer history in India, and forms an important aspect of the political sociology of the Indian people. The promise of redemption basic to all religious expressions of the Semitic civilization, has been widely used during last several hundred years, more specifically, after the Peace of Westphiallia in 1648, as a portent instrument of state policy for the expansion of the political power and in the consolidation of imperial authority over the peoples subject to colonial dominance. India, a nation of the former colonial peoples, ruled by the British for centuries, was freed from the bondage, two years after the end of Second World War, which brought the era of colonialism to its close. The ideological commitment of the colonial powers to spread the promise of redemption assumed blatantly crude expression in India, where the boundaries of the Sanskrit civilization were remotely visible and less resistant to evangelical intervention.
Sandhya Jain makes a departure from the generally accepted methodological paradigms followed in the study of social change in India. Her work makes the beginning of a new academic effort, which may in the years to come, provide an alternative methodological framework, and which may delink the study of social change in India from its reformist trappings. Sandhya Jain underlines a methodological format which is not confined to the investigation into the structure and function of a fixed-set, which the Semitic methodological paradigms underline. Her work has a normative dimension. The frame of reference she has adopted for evaluation is not located in liberal- reformism and its abstract derivatives of logical positivism. It is located in the history of the Sanskrit Civilization of India. She takes pains to relate the evolution of tribal traditions and ritual cultures of the indigenous peoples of India to the continuity of the Indian History.
The work is a bold attempt to unravel data and facts to establish that the Semitisation, as a part of the political process of the colonial era, continues to be followed uninterruptedly in the independent India. The survey, Sandhya notes, is “aimed to test the hypothesis that over the past few years an increasing number of tribal hamlets and households have been directly or indirectly ‘invited’ to embrace a monotheistic religion.” She notes further: “The questionnaires were designed to learn if inducements were made, if there was any violent incident in the village or its vicinity, if there was an atmosphere of fear due to incidents in the neighboring areas, if there was native resentment against the attempts of proseletisation, and tribal leaders were contacted to understand if change of faith disrupted family or community life and culture and the resultant cultural alienation.” The revelations she has made are startling. “The conversions do not appear suomoto, but by deliberate interventions of other actors, usually organized groups, with the objective of expanding their influence in the life of a community, state and nation. Conversions by external faiths are inherently political, which is why they are backed by foreign funds, foreign evangelists and political support from foreign countries. In the contemporary world conversions are portent political and emotional issues as changes in religious demography have been intimately linked to secessionist movements and partitions. Besides being deeply divisive of natal societies, conversions (and partitions) are usually achieved with violence and foreign interventions.”
Sandhya Jain admits that the inspiration to undertake the study came from the persistent reports of religious political violence in the north-eastern states of India, in some of which proseletisation and religious conversion was accompanied by the growth of separatist and secessionist movements. Her investigations have yielded facts, which establish that the political objectives of the separatists and secessionist movements are “linked to an agenda of religious conversion which is rupturing the cultural and civilisational unity of the native faith and culture”. Evangelical intervention in the traditional social culture of India, she states, is a deliberately planned political campaign to bring about change in the tribal belief-systems and cultural mores which, “involves the rejection of the natal socio-economic tradition and community and transferring allegiance to the faith originating outside the national boundaries.” The objectives, She stresses are evident. With foreign governments, “ playing a pro-active role in funding evangelism and promoting it through a foreign policy and the intrusive activism of human rights groups”, proseletisation assumes the form of a religious campaign for political objectives- a form of neo-colonial expansion under the cover of religious freedom.
A large part of the study is devoted to an in-depth investigation into the religious cultures of tribal peoples of Tripura. The inferences she has drawn from the facts and data, her investigation has yielded, has demolished many myths such as: (a) that the tribal cultures in India are an expression of a historical disconnect in the evolution of the Indian civilization and therefore the religious cultures of the tribal and indigenous people of India form a separate universe of spiritual experience; (b) that the tribal people follow religious practices which form a part of the pagan past of India; (c) that the tribal communities need to be insulated from their environment which is predominantly Hindu to preserve their autochthonous identity; and (d) the tribal people must be assured the right to religious freedom, to accept the promise of redemption that the Semitisation offers, to salvage them from their pagan past.
The study has brought to surface evidence of interlocking processes of social change in India, which relate the belief-systems and the ritual structures of the tribal peoples to the Sanskrit religious culture of India. The study uncovers the Sanskrit sub-stratum of the religious culture of the tribal people. “In India,” Sandhya notes, “natal faith traditions are viewed as a part of the civilisational continuum, and tribes are embedded in this larger civilization. Movement across the spectrum is neither threatening nor objectionable because there is an intrinsic unity of the civilization as a whole.” Cutting through the conventional approaches to the understanding of the tribal cultures and the cultures of the indigenous people in India, Sandhya Jain formulates a new set of theoretical propositions for a more objective inquiry into the traditions, belief-systems and ritual structures of the tribal people in India. Sandhya notes, “Tripura’s ancient tribes represent the coherence and the continuity of a living civilization, which embraces, absorbs, exchanges values, with peoples and cultures that have arisen from the same socio-geographic matrix”. In her search for a frame of reference, she turns to the history of the Hindu India and writes, “Hindus appreciate diversity as they accept similarity; and the absence of homogeneity does not inculcate fear, loathing or intolerance, much less the desire to enforce uniformity by eradicating cultural distinctiveness A shared universe is quickly established with the threads of unity and multiplicity, and this is the most striking aspect of the description above. The religious beliefs, traditions and rituals of Tripura tribes reveal the integrated matrix upon which their culture and civilization is founded and a cohesiveness that embraces their non-tribal neighbors, whose beliefs, prayers and practices have been joyously embraced by the regions autochthones.”
The study reveals that the traditions and rituals of the tribal communities and indigenous people in India are not pagan practices. The Sanskrit civilization does not have a pagan past. Pagan history is a part of the Semitic civilization. “ Nor can we countenance academic distortion of the spiritual beliefs of vulnerable communities through the use of terminology such as ‘animism’, ‘spirit worship’, ‘ghosts’, or ‘pagan’, which have no basis in the idiom of the tradition being discussed, but are a part of verbal abuse by those seeking to exterminate an ancient way of life”.
The promise of redemption cannot salvage people who do not have a pagan past. No Right to freedom of religion can entitle the tribal communities and indigenous people in India to opt for salvation by accepting the promise of redemption. Sandhya Jain rightly notes, “Dharma is primarily a matter of family, clan, social, religious and cultural inheritance. All human beings are born into a spiritual tradition and initiated into beliefs, customs, philosophy, tenants and taboos from an early period of life, just as they are provided with a family name, Jati and Kula at birth. Ordinarily a human being does not grow without a faith and then choose a dharma on intellectual merit or emotional appeal on achieving adulthood. The argument that an individual, born embedded in a faith has the right to arbitrarily uproot himself and cause hurt and injury to his natal family, clan, tradition and community is faulty and subversive of ancient societies.” The Evangelical Intrusions exposes the perfidy. She records, “the contention that religion is a matter of individual choice is not borne out by the experience of human society anywhere in the world. This specious plea is in fact a legal subterfuge by those seeking to earn adherents to a particular religious ideology by atomizing human society in order to break and undermine traditions”.
Evangelical interv-ention to induce change in the indigenous social forms, from outside their systemic boundaries, poses a threat to the existence of the indigenous peoples and tribal communities in India. It poses a greater threat to the Sanskrit substratum of their tribal traditions and cultures. The fundamental issue, evangelical intervention underlines, is not whether India recognizes the freedom of choice of the Indian people to accept the promise of redemption for their salvation. The fundamental issue, evangelical intervention in India involves, is whether India recognizes the promise of redemption as the objective of social change. The acceptance of the promise of redemption as an objective of social change by the Indian people, tantamounts to the abandonment of the continuity of the Indian history. The recognition of the continuity of the history of the Indian civilization forms the bedrock of the unity of the Indian people and their national identity.
Sandhya Jain has sounded a warning, “Our study revealed that there is merit in the conviction of Tripura’s tribal communities that there exists a grand coordination between the evangelical and insurgent groups operating in the state. Equally their misgivings that the drive to win converts is powered by a political agenda, viz, to carve out a separate Christian state(s) in the North-east, cannot be dismissed as utterly baseless, particularly after the carving out of an oil rich Christian East Timor from Muslim Indonesia in 2002. Evangelism in the sensitive North-East can thus pose a serious threat to India’s territorial integrity, cultural diversity and civilisational unity.”
The study is expected to be of help to the common reader as well as the researcher. To the former the study is expected to help in the understanding of the issues involved in the various processes of evangelical intervention in the tribal cultures and traditions of the indigenous peoples in the North-East of India. To the latter, the study is expected to provide an alternate methodological model for the study of social change in India as well as furnish him valuable data and facts in respect of the “religio-cultural traditions” and demographic configuration of the indigenous peoples in India. To the scholar the study is also expected to give an insight into the processes of Semitisation of the Indian society, which has been going on this country, almost unnoticed, throughout the years of its freedom. In India, the secularization of government and society is tilted in favour of the, “right to freedom of faith”, more than committed to the secular integration of the Indian people on the basis of the fundamental right to equality. Both, the right to freedom of faith and the right to equality are enshrined in the Constitution of India. The cleavage between the right to freedom of faith and the right to equality as the basis for the secular integration of the Indian people, irrespective of creed and religion, is brought to surface by this study. A new beginning needs to be made to investigate into the political ramifications of the ideological conflict, evangelical intrusion in India underlines.