Archive for July, 2017

Evangelising the Nation

John Thomas. 2016. Evangelising the Nation: Religion and the Formation of Naga Political Identity. New Delhi: Routledge. xvii + 223 pp. Notes, bibliography, index. `895 (hardback).

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Evangelising the Nation is an attempt to understand the role of the colonial/postcolonial state and the evangelical church in shaping the Naga nationalist political movement in northeast India. Thomas asks: How has the Naga nation come to be defined? What role has religion played in shaping the Naga nationalist imagination and political identity? And, how has the (colonial/postcolonial) state dealt/engaged with the Naga nationalist political movement? Thomas uses archival data and historical narratives to address these questions. His central argument is that the idea of the ‘Naga nation’—which began by the coming together of disparate Naga tribes to challenge increasing Christian missionary intervention—has, in fact, been hijacked by the missionaries. With support from the colonial and postcolonial state, the local church and the evangelical bodies have sidelined the indigenous Naga leaders and come to play a dominant role in defining nationhood and political identity for the Nagas.

Thomas begins the book by discussing the relationship between the Nagas and the colonial state. Like many other tribal groups in India, the Nagas also tried to stay away from valleys to evade the power of the state—in the form of taxes, kings, war and hierarchy. In the hills they were self-sufficient and politically autonomous. However, with the arrival of the colonial state, they lost their land and forests as well as their political freedom. The presence of the colonial state increasingly threatened the indigenous Naga culture and identity and as a response, they resisted British rule in the hills. It is in this context, argues Thomas, that two contradictory movements emerged—one by the British to pacify Naga resistance and incorporate them into the colonial state apparatus, and another by the Nagas to drive away the colonial authorities and reconstitute their indigenous cultural and political identity.

Though the colonial state initially undertook ‘military pacification campaigns’ (p. 19) to bring the Nagas under its direct control, it later followed the ‘civilizing mission’ project. Despite the existing official policy of ‘non-interference’ and ‘strict neutrality’ in matters of religion, at a more practical level, the colonial state supported the missionary project in the Naga hills (p. 21). With this support, the missionaries intervened in the mundane and everyday life of the local people and gradually altered their religious and cultural self by converting them to Christianity. The question is: What were the implications of conversion for the indigenous belief system? Thomas argues that the missionaries and the colonial state ridiculed the traditional cultural practices and ceremonies of the Nagas, and termed them irrational. Conversion to Christianity was carried out actively and the missionaries created a ‘city set on the hill’ (p. 4)—an exclusive spatial zone—that kept the (civilised) converts physically and socially separated from the (heathen) natives.

Following such exclusionary practices and humiliation experienced in their everyday lives, the ‘natives’ felt the need to reconstitute their cultural and political identity, which eventually took the form of a nationalist political movement to establish ‘Naga Raj’ (p. 68). However, in the postcolonial period, this movement was hijacked by the ‘Naga Club’ (p. 74)—an organisation of mission school-educated men who took a leading role in articulating the socio-political grievances of the native people. Following the prominence of the Naga Club, conversion to Christianity increased. In 1941, the percentage of Christians was 17.9 per cent; by 1961, it had increased to 51.9 per cent (p. 117). The question one may ask is: Why did the natives feel the need to convert to Christianity? According to Thomas, conversion began to be perceived as an opportunity to escape humiliation and access modernity. The local evangelists and church leaders played a major role in this effort. By the 1970s, members of the Naga Club and the local church and evangelical bodies had sidelined the indigenous Naga nationalist political movement and assumed the leadership of protecting and promoting Naga interests. In fact, the indigenous leaders were portrayed as insurgent communists with links to China, which rendered them as enemies of the state. As a consequence, the indigenous Naga movement became isolated and the local evangelists emerged to define the Naga nation and political identity. This shows how Christianity, ‘armed with universal truth claims, assumptions and agendas, invaded the existing religious and cultural landscape’ (p. 205) of the Nagas and successfully imposed on them a new notion of nationhood and identity.

Broadly, Evangelising the Nation is an excellent account of the dynamism and contradictions associated with the encounter between the indigenous Naga nationalist movement, and the colonial/postcolonial state and Christian missionaries. The book provides a revealing narrative of the politics of (Christian) conversion and its implications for the native religion and culture. The major strength of the book lies in its longue durée approach to understand church–state relations as well as the role of religion in articulating collective political identity. However, there are a few shortcomings. First, though the central argument of the book is related to religion, ethnicity, nation and nationalism, there is no theoretical section that explains how these concepts are defined and how they are situated in relation to the broader literature. Second, the book is missing a methodology section, which could have explained how the data sources were classified and used. This is particularly relevant in the context of the bibliography where similar kinds of published materials are put under both primary and secondary sources. Finally, the lack of sub-themes makes it difficult for the reader to imagine the structure of the chapters.

Notwithstanding these limitations, the book provides a comprehensive historical account of the relationship between indigenous Naga nationalism on the one hand, and the colonial/postcolonial state and evangelical Christianity on the other. Filled with historical narratives, the book is a fine piece of historical scholarship and contributes immensely to our understanding of the history of Christianity in northeast India. The book will be useful to scholars of history, anthropology and the sociology of religion.

SARBESWAR SAHOO

Indian Institute of Technology Delhi

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@ Sarbeswar Sahoo (2017) Contributions to Indian Sociology, Vol.51, No.2, pp.262-264

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