I can’t honestly say that I had given a lot of thought to the subject of religious conversions in India until I went to Arunachal Pradesh last week.
There has always seemed to be so much else in India that was more deserving of thought and comment – education, violence against women, poverty alleviation – that whether or not people should convert wasn’t anything I had deeply pondered. And that is an intellectual lacuna entirely of my own making, I freely admit.
I guess I would have said – pre my Arunachal trip – that religion is a personal issue and as such, the decision to convert or not therefore also remains personal.
I am a Christian, and a product of a country where everyone is allowed to practice his or her religion freely. England has churches and temples and synagogues and mosques and gurdwaras, and so with that as my cultural DNA, I suppose I would have said (pre-Arunachal), “Yes, if someone wishes to convert to another religion, why not?”
How 10 days can change one’s views!
The people we met in Arunachal were from two tribes, the Apa Tanis and the Nishi, and I was surprised at how often the subject of religion arose in general conversation. The tone of these discussions was always restrained and moderate, but there does seem to be a real concern at the activities of Christian missionaries working in this still relatively remote part of India.
We met some delightful, highly educated Christian Arunachalis, although most people with whom we interacted follow the indigenous religion called Donyi Polo, in which the sun and moon are worshipped as supreme beings.
Not to oversimplify things, but it would seem that conversion out of the traditional faith worries Arunachalis since it also impacts the very fabric of their tribal system and structure. And this tight-knit structure is something that binds these people together in the face of all the other “outside” influences that increasingly affect their lifestyle. TV, mobiles, the internet, Bollywood movies, English, Hindi – even the presence of outsiders such as this memsahib – all of these have an effect on a centuries old, very traditional social structure.
That these bonds are still so strong is admirable. Everyone is connected to their village, to their clan, to their tribe, and this web of closely-knit allegiances is what makes the Nishis and the Apa Tanis function so well. They are close, supportive and cohesive, in a way that many city dwellers might well envy. They really and truly do appear to help and care for their own, they take an active pride in the successes and achievements of their own — and it is through age-old rituals and ceremonies that these bonds are constantly re-enforced and reiterated.
It is the possible dissonance between these traditional beliefs and ceremonies, and Christianity that worries Arunachalis? We all know how life seems to be changing so rapidly these days, and there isn’t one of us who doesn’t marvel at how we managed in a pre-Google or pre-email world. Imagine the repercussions, therefore, on a society that was still ‘primitive’ a mere 65 years ago. To have moved from a centuries-old, unchanged lifestyle to a Facebooking, SMSing society in such a short space of time, and still stay cohesive, is a tribute to the strength of the ties binding the tribes to one another.
Prior to this trip, had I been asked, I would probably have trotted out a comment that missionaries provide good schooling, which might have served as a raison d’etre. In Arunachal, where (we were told) all children attend school, such an argument doesn’t hold water, since the villages all have Government schools.
So, where does one draw a line between preserving the traditional and permitting freedom of choice? What comes first, social cohesion or the right of an individual to worship as they please?
Ten days is obviously too little time to claim to have understood anything at all profound about a society, and so I can offer no great revelations. But I found the degree of concern about religion, and the worries about the presence of missionaries, to be intriguing. Coupled with the obvious success in keeping the younger generation in tune with, and proud, of their tribal heritage and culture, the worries about missionary activity took on an added dimension.