The Janjatis or the Tribal people are the torch-bearers of our civilisation. Peaceful co-existence with nature or an eco-centric vision of life is at the core of Janjati culture. In the context of current ecological degradation and the resultant threat to human civilisation, Scholars/Philosophers across the globe have advocated for an eco-centric perspective or a better Man-Nature relationship. Our Janjati people have been living an eco-centric life since time immemorial. However, with the advent of colonialism, this eco-centric vision of life got affected. The project of Colonial modernity subverted nature, and tranquillity was lost. Western Self/Other concepts and anthropocentric vision intruded into our cultural space. Both repressive and ideological state apparatuses were used to suppress the indigenous people. Missionaries were invited and patronised to; the Church served as an ideological state apparatus for the colonisers in Northeast Bharat. In the 1872 census there were no Christians in Northeast Bharat. The Nagas, Mizos, Garos, Khasis and others had their unique Janjati way of life prior to the advent of the Missionaries. The Nagas, and Garos worshipped Nature spirits. Nature and Nature deities were worshipped by almost all the tribal communities of North East Bharat. The advent of colonialism altered the socio-cultural landscape of Northeast Bharat. Religious demography has also been affected. In recent times, Missionaries intruded even into the spiritual heartland of Assam.
Missionaries have established their base in Majuli, the most prominent Vaishnavaite site of Assam and converted hundreds of people from the Mising Janjati. In Assam’s Dimasa Janjati-dominated Dima Hasao district, Missionaries have converted 30 per cent population of the district and in Karbi Janjati dominated Karbi Anglong district Christian population is now around 17 per cent. In Bodo dominated Kokrajhar district more than one lakh people have been converted. As per 2011 census the district has 101091 Christians. 10 per cent Bodos have been converted,17.63 per cent Karbi population has been converted; 15.38 per cent of the Tiwas have been converted. During 1941-1951 Christian population increased 326.7 per cent in Assam, 64 per cent in 1951-1961 ; 44 per cent in 1961-71; 32.5 per cent during 1991-2001 period. During 1941-51 period Assam’s total population increased 19.93 per cent and during 1951-61 period Assam’s total population increased 34.98 per cent. Disproportionate increase of Christian population may be attributed to the large scale conversion of the tribal people.
Study reveals that the converted section is capturing all the important Govt posts and seats in Educational institutions (which are) reserved for genuine Tribal people. A person once converted cannot observe the Tribal rituals, he/she needs to disown his tribal faith and culture.
For example, a person converted to Christianity or Islam needs to accept monotheism. In Christian philosophy Nature worship is prohibited. History says Renaissance philosopher Jacob Bauthumlay was brutally killed for declaring “God is green” i.e. in Nature one can see God. Famous poet William Wordsworth had to beg for forgiveness for declaring himself a ‘worshipper of nature’. Thousands of Cathars were burnt alive for not conforming to orthodox Christianity. Nature is subservient ‘Other’ in Christianity. Lynn White (Jr) in his essay “Historical Root of Ecological Degradation” held Christianity responsible for current ecological degradation. In Christianity God makes Man master over nature and thus consolidates the foundation of Man/Nature binary structure. Francis Bacon in his “Advancement of Learning” justified exploitation of nature and argued for utilitarian approach to nature. On the contrary the Sanatan culture sees the presence of God in Nature.
Nature is not ‘Other’ but our Mother. Nature sustains life and is part of our self. The Higher Self is present both in human being and Naure. Purush-Prakriti is not binary but One in different forms. The ‘Pancha bhuta’ or the five great elements–prithvi, Agni, Vayu, Jala, Akasha–constitute the basis of cosmic creation. Our saints and sages worshipped these elements since time immemorial. The Janjatis have upheld this tradition in different forms since time immemorial. Without Nature Janjati way of life cannot be defined; Nature is the foundational pillar of Janjati culture or way of life.
How can a person who has given up tribal faith and culture be entitled to the reservation facilities guaranteed for the ST people? Article 342 entitles the Parliament ‘to include or exclude… any part of or group within any tribe or tribal community’ from the list of Scheduled Tribe. Only the genuine Tribal people should get the benefit of reservation. Those who have left or abandoned Tribal Faith and tradition should not be allowed to take away the rights and privileges guaranteed to the Tribal people. Those who have got converted into Foreign Faith antithetical to Janjati culture should be excluded from the ST list. Only the genuine Janjati must get constitutional safeguard. The Joint Parliamentary Committee formed by the then Indira Gandhi led Congress Govt on the issue also recommended for delisting of converted persons from the list of ST: “ If any person leaves the tradition, culture behind and converts to Islam or Christianity, he will not be considered as part of the Scheduled Tribe”. The committee presented the report on 17th November, 1969 to the parliament.
Tribal people today, across the country are demanding to fulfill the unfinished task of delisting in order to protect Janjati Faith and culture. Janjjatis united under “ Janjati Dharma Sanskriti Suraksha Manch” organising public meetings/rallies and demanding to bring the necessary amendment in article 342 and provide a strong shield to the genuine Janjati people. The Janjati warriors fought in the past against the colonial oppressors to protect the people and culture.
The Angami Naga warriors, for example, killed 27 British soldiers when British political officer G.H. Damant led a troop of 87 British soldiers to the Naga Hills to subdue the Nagas on October 4, 1879. G.H.Damant was a also killed. Several attempts by the British colonial force to subdue the Nagas were thwarted by the Nagas. The Khamtis killed some 80 British soldiers including col. Adam White in 1839 when the British tried to subjugate the Khamtis. The Adis fought four wars with the British in 1858, 1859, 1894 and 1911 known as ‘ Anglo-Abor wars’. U Tirot Sing , Rani Gaidinlu, Dimasa warrior Sambhudhan Phonglo, Bodo lady warrior Theng Phakhri fought the British colonial force and laid down their lives. The Tiwa people organised in large number and raised voice against British policy at Phulguri in Nagaon district in 1861. Many tribal people who took part in the agitation were tortured and killed. There are so many instances of valour and sacrifices by the Tribal people of Northeast Bharat. The colonisers facilitated the Missionary activities as part of their ideological strategy to subjugate the indomitable tribal spirit. Jenkins, the then British commissioner for Assam invited the Missionaries to calm the Khamti Janjati in the eastern part of Assam so that the British can take control over the oil and other resources of the region. The Sinpho discovered tea in Assam and later the British took over the land and started tea plantation. Lakhs of people were forcefully brought from Jharkhand, Odisa, as labourers and the labourers were forced to live without a piece of land allotted to them. Many died on the way to Assam. The colonial British Govt prohibited entry of Brahmin Pandits and other people from the plain areas into the Janjati areas but facilitated Christian Missionary activities. The Missionaries undertook proselytisation mission and large no of people in Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Assam were converted.
The Northeasten states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya are now Christian dominated. Pre-colonial cultures have been trampled underfoot by the British colonisers. As Aime Cesaire wrote, ‘societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out.’ The conversion activities continued even after independence. “When the Missionaries came … they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land”, wrote Desmond Tutu in African context. The same can be said of many tribal people of Northeast India.
At a time when the country is entering into Amrit Kaal, the Janjatis are reclaiming the pre-colonial past, asserting self-hood (swa). Swa Dharma, Swa Bhasa, Swa Sanskriti must be reclaimed and protected. For this constitutional safeguard is the need of the hour.