Evangelical Intrusions: Tripura, A Case Study

published on July 19, 2010

Harvesting souls for politics

This book exposes the vicious politico-secessionist game being played by foreign missionaries in the Northeast, writes MK Teng

Evangelical Intrusions: Tripura, A Case Study
Author: Sandhya Jain
Publisher: Rupa & Co
Price:Rs 395

The book is a systematic and in-depth inquiry into the evangelical intervention in India’s tribal societies to “coerce the entire tribal populace to convert to a millenarian tradition.” It investigates “concerted efforts by several Western evangelical denominations to achieve their objective of complete conversion” of the tribals, and the inability of the Indian state to support the latter in preserving their age-old tradition.

Tripura forms the universe of the field-study. This State, the author notes, “was chosen as the subject of the study because its large tribal population is resisting organised armed assault upon its native faith and way of life.”

The issue of evangelical intrusions in the country is part of a larger problem of Semitisation of Indian society. The promise of redemption, a fundamental tenet of all Semitic religions, has been widely used in the past few hundred years, more specifically after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, as an instrument of state policy for the expansion of political power and colonial dominance. This is all the more apparent in tribal

India where the traits of Sanskrit civilisation are remotely visible.

Sandhya Jain makes a departure from the generally accepted methodological paradigms followed in the study of social change in India. Her work marks the beginning of a new academic effort which may, in the years to come, provide an alternative methodological framework and de-link the study of social change in the country from its reformist trappings. The writer takes pains to relate the evolution of tribal traditions to mainstream culture.

Jain says that Semitisation, as a part of the political process of the colonial era, continues to be a dominant force in independent India. The survey in the book, she 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 adds, “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 neighbouring areas, if there was native resentment against the attempts of proselytisation, and tribal leaders were contacted to understand if change of faith disrupted family or community life and culture and the resultant cultural alienation.”

The answers are startling. “The conversions do not appear suo motu, but an act of deliberate interventions by other actors, usually organised 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 a potent politico-emotional issue as changes in religious demography have been intimately linked to secessionist movements and partitions,” she writes.

Jain admits that the inspiration to undertake the study came from persistent reports of religio-political violence in the Northeast where proselytisation was often accompanied by secessionist movements. She says that the political objectives of the separatists 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 country’s traditional culture, Jain says, is a planned political campaign to bring about change in the tribal belief-systems and cultural mores which involve “the rejection of the natal socio-economic tradition and community and transferring allegiance to the faith originating outside the national boundaries.”

The objectives 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, proselytisation assumes the form of a religious campaign for political objectives.

The study busts the myth of tribal isolation. “In India,” Jain notes, “natal faith traditions are viewed as a part of the civilisational continuum, and tribes are embedded in this larger civilisation. Movement across the spectrum is neither threatening nor objectionable because there is an intrinsic unity of the civilisation as a whole.” No wonder Jain writes that Tripura’s ancient tribes represent the coherence and the continuity of a living civilisation, which embraces, absorbs and exchanges values with peoples and cultures that have arisen from the same socio-geographic matrix.

The study reveals that the tribal traditions are not pagan practices. In fact, the Sanskrit civilisation does not have a pagan past. Pagan history is an exclusive part of the Semitic civilisation.

Jain also sounds a warning. “Our study has revealed 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 Northeast, 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 Northeast can thus pose a serious threat to India’s territorial integrity, cultural diversity and civilisational unity,” she writes.

The book is a must-read for both lay readers and scholars.

— The reviewer is former head of department of political science, Kashmir University, Srinagar

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