Christianity & Naga Political Identity

A review of Missionaries, Church and the Formation of Naga Political Identity, 1918-1997, by John Thomas.

John Thomas’ dissertation, Missionaries, Church and the Formation of Naga Political Identity, 1918-1997, historicizes the formation of Naga political identity. It examines the intersection of religious and national identity in the formation of the Naga self by critically evaluating missionary, colonial, and nationalist representations of Naga political identity. Thomas is critical of a particular theological perspective, produced by American and Naga Baptist missionaries that mediated this identity formation. This theological perspective is based on a particular interpretation of Christianity based on a fundamentalist variety of Evangelical Christianity that emphasizes “ahistorical and fundamentalist reading of the Bible; solely interested in questions of personal sin, morality and salvation; aggressively exclusive in relating with secular ideologies and other religious faiths; and yet supportive of preserving the existing status quo” (p. 10). This kind of fundamentalist, evangelica understanding imposes a particular religious identity on national identity “wherein being an evangelical Christian increasingly becomes a pre-requisite towards being a Naga” (p. 10). Therefore, this theology is limited by a narrow focus on individual salvation, which reiterates a colonial logic of “saving the savage,” thereby taming the understanding of the Naga self. As such, it is inadequate to understand the complexities of the social, political and cultural specificity of the Naga situation, Thomas argues.

Even though American and British missionaries entered Assam in the 1820s and the 1830s, they could not make much headway in converting the “tribes” inhabiting the hills surrounding the Assam valley. They faced stiff resistance from the Nagas until the 1870s when they made some gains. Missionaries entered Assam as conduits of colonialism and were in collaboration with the British in “pacifying and controlling the tribes” (p. 44). Of course, the primary motive for missionaries was the desire to evangelize the regions beyond Burma, into China and Central Asia. The British annexed this region primarily to consolidate their control of the frontier region that separated the British Indian empire from Burma. Thomas addresses this history in Chapter 1 of his dissertation, “American Missionaries and Political Conquest.”

Chapter 2, “The Making of a Christian Civilization,” describes the expansion of American Baptist missionary activity through mission fields, schools, and preaching tours. These activities were initially challenged by the Nagas as it devalued their customary cultural and ceremonial practices and, instead, preached a particular theology of salvation through Christ alone that also celebrated the exceptionalism of white Christian America. Eventually when the missionaries were able to gain some followers, it created rifts between converts and non-converts in the villages. However, conversion to Christianity was quite slow, with only twenty percent of the population converting until the 1940s. In this chapter, Thomas deftly demonstrates the everyday workings of power that mediated the missionary civilizing mission.

Resistance to conversion was also followed by attempts from within the Naga community to reform certain customary and cultural practices to keep up with the changes introduced by colonialism. One such movement was the political and cultural movement initiated by Jadonang and Gaidinliu in the 1920s and 30s. This anti-colonial movement, with its own vision of an alternative modernity, first articulated the notion of a Naga Raj that would unite all Naga tribes and declare independence from both colonial rule and rulers from the plains. This period also saw the formation of another group, the Naga Club, formed by men educated in mission schools who articulated a modern vision of a Naga national identity different from the one envisaged by Jadonang and Gaidinliu (Chapter 3, “Sending Out the Spears”).

Members of the Naga Club eventually formed the Naga National Council, which became representative of a collective Naga national identity. Disagreements between the Indian state and Naga nationalists on the question of Naga sovereignty resulted in a face-off, where the Indian state responded with military force. The Nagas were left with no alternative except to participate in an armed struggle. This period of the 1940s also saw the largest numbers of Nagas converting to Christianity, almost fifty percent of the population. Conversion was part of a process that enabled the Nagas to access structures of modernity in opposition to the colonial and Indian nationalist constructions of Naga “primitivism.” It also came in the wake of growing attacks on churches, pastors, and evangelists by the Indian armed forces, such that attacks on religion seemed like attacks on Naga national identity. This is an important argument that counters the conventional history that argues that the spread of Naga nationalism and conversions was because Christianity fueled separatism amongst the Nagas. This was far from accurate since “it was more the case that Naga nationalism found the access to modernity provided by Christianity relevant only at that particular historical juncture where constructing a modern national identity was important (p. 224).” Thus, Christianity was hardly a priority for the Naga national movement in the initial period, though it gained more significance later as a way of opposing Indian nationalism (Chapter 4,” War, Nationalism and Conversion”).

The growth in Christian population also led to the emergence and influence of local ecclesiastical organizations like the Nagaland Baptist Church Council. Their slogan of “Nagaland for Christ” was an affirmation of the American missionary project that anticipated converting the entire Naga population. This articulation also mediated the efforts of the Naga National Council in its imagining of a Naga nation, which would be inclusive of other religious persuasions. In the 1960s and 70s the Church was involved in mediating armed conflict between the Indian state and the Naga national movement. However, the limitation imposed by an American evangelical theology contributed to the taming of the political movement leading to the signing of the Shillong Accord (1975) by a section of the Naga National Council and the Indian state (Chapter 5, “Peace, Crusades and Pacification.”)

The signing of the Shillong Accord led to dissatisfaction amongst a group of Naga nationalists who formed another organization, The Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), which continued the armed struggle against the Indian state demanding sovereignty for the Nagas. The Church and the Indian state’s allegation that they were communists led the NSCN to increasingly demonstrate their commitment to “Nagaland for Christ.” This was followed by the adoption of strict moral code by individual cadre members within an evangelical framework.

Faced with the increasing fragmentation of the Naga movement and other national movements in the region following the counterinsurgency policies of the Indian state, the Church was increasingly involved in efforts to mediate between the Naga nationalists and the Indian state. The Church was initially reluctant to deal with issues of human rights violations, but had to confront these issues because of the severity of human rights abuses. However, this effort was limited by an individualized moral and political philosophy espoused by this theology. Even though there were attempts to move beyond this framework to engage with the context of the Nagas, it was curtailed once again by the limited nature of Indian Church thinking, which could not take into account the material, socio-political context of the Nagas (Chapter 6, “Church, Politics and the Limits of Theology”).

Thomas’ dissertation makes a critical contribution to the debate on historiography in India’s Northeast. He challenges colonial historiography that represents Naga history as a movement from “Darkness to Civilization.” He demonstrates the contradiction of a Naga nationalist history that coexists with this missionary history, which disparages the Naga past. Naga nationalist history, on the other hand, attempts to reclaim a proud pre-colonial past in which the Nagas were a brave and independent people un-subjugated either by the British or by the rulers of the plains. The missionary and Naga nationalist attempt at writing history is further complicated by Indian nationalist efforts to incorporate the Nagas into the new Indian nation-state as “tribals” and not as a distinct nationalist group, thereby reflecting the unequal process by which they were incorporated into the newly decolonized Indian nation-state. This Indian nationalist perspective on the Nagas is shared by the Indian state, Indian administrators, historians, anthropologists, and the military, which prioritize the Indian nation-state. At the same time, Thomas is also critical of contemporary attempts at writing transnational and post-frontier histories, which do not seem to historicize the formation of Naga political identity. Thomas’ dissertation is a much-needed critical historiography of the Northeast, which can help us engage with Naga history on its own terms.

Papori Bora
Centre for Women’s Studies
Jawaharlal Nehru University

Primary Sources

Missionary literature
Anthropological and colonial administrative sources
Indian administrative sources
Naga Baptist Church sources
Naga nationalists sources journalistic sources.

Dissertation Information

Jawaharlal Nehru University, Centre for Historical Studies. 2010. 346 pp. Primary Advisor: Tanika Sarkar.

Image: Christian Endeavour Class, American Baptist Missionary Album, Council of Baptist Churches in North East India, Guwahati.

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