Political ramifications of Religious Conversion
by M K Teng on 31 Jul 2010 14 Comments

BOOK REVIEW: Evangelical Intrusions: Tripura: A Case Study

This study by Sandhya Jain, published in an attractively designed volume, is the first systematic and in-depth inquiry into the evangelical intervention in the religious cultures of the tribal societies and indigenous peoples of India, to “coerce the entire tribal populace to convert to a millenarian tradition.” The study is a bold attempt to investigate “concerted efforts by several western evangelical denominations to achieve their objective of complete conversion” of the tribal peoples, and the inability of the Indian state to support the tribal and the indigenous people to preserve their religious cultural tradition. The state of Tripura in the north-east of India, where evangelical intrusion has been widespread, forms the universe of the field-study. Tripura, the author notes “was chosen as the subject of the study because its large tribal population is resisting organized armed assault upon its native faith and way of life”.


The problem of evangelical intrusions in India is part of the larger problem of Semitisation of Indian Society, which has a longer history in India, and forms an important aspect of the political sociology of the Indian people. The promise of redemption, basic to all religious expressions of Semitic civilization, has been widely used in the last several hundred years, more specifically, after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, as a potent instrument of state policy for the expansion of political power and in the consolidation of imperial authority over the peoples subject to colonial dominance. India, a former colony of Britain, was freed from bondage two years after the end of the Second World War. The ideological commitment of the colonial powers to spread the promise of redemption assumed blatantly crude expression in India, where the boundaries of the Sanskrit civilization were remotely visible and less resistant to evangelical intervention.


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 which may delink the study of social change in India from its reformist trappings. Jain underlines a methodological format which is not confined to investigation into the structure and function of a fixed-set, which the Semitic methodological paradigms underline. Her work has a normative dimension. The frame of reference she has adopted for evaluation is not located in liberal- reformism and its abstract derivatives of logical positivism. It is located in the history of the Sanskrit Civilization of India. She takes pains to relate the evolution of tribal traditions and ritual cultures of the indigenous peoples of India to the continuity of Indian History.


The work is a bold attempt to unravel data and facts to establish that Semitisation, as a part of the political process of the colonial era, continues to be followed uninterruptedly in independent India. The survey, 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 notes further: “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.”

Her revelations are startling. “The conversions do not appear suo moto, but by deliberate interventions of other actors, usually organized 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 potent political and emotional issues as changes in religious demography have been intimately linked to secessionist movements and partitions. Besides being deeply divisive of natal societies, conversions (and partitions) are usually achieved with violence and foreign interventions.”


Jain admits that the inspiration to undertake the study came from persistent reports of religious political violence in the north-eastern states, in some of which proselytisation and religious conversion was accompanied by the growth of separatist and secessionist movements. Her investigations have yielded facts which establish that the political objectives of the separatists and secessionist movements 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 traditional social culture of India, she states, is a deliberately planned political campaign to bring about change in the tribal belief-systems and cultural mores which, “involves 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 - a form of neo-colonial expansion under the cover of religious freedom.


A large part of the study is devoted to an in-depth investigation into the religious cultures of tribal peoples of Tripura. The inferences drawn from the facts and data yielded by the investigation demolishes many myths: (a) that the tribal cultures in India are an expression of a historical disconnect in the evolution of the Indian civilization and therefore the religious cultures of the tribal and indigenous people of India form a separate universe of spiritual experience; (b) that the tribal people follow religious practices which form a part of the pagan past of India; (c) that the tribal communities need to be insulated from their environment which is predominantly Hindu to preserve their autochthonous identity; and (d) the tribal people must be assured the right to religious freedom, to accept the promise of redemption that Semitisation offers, to salvage them from their pagan past.


The study brings to surface evidence of interlocking processes of social change in India, which relate the belief-systems and ritual structures of the tribal peoples to the Sanskrit religious culture of India. The study uncovers the Sanskrit sub-stratum of the religious culture of the tribal people. “In India,” she notes, “natal faith traditions are viewed as a part of the civilisational continuum, and tribes are embedded in this larger civilization. Movement across the spectrum is neither threatening nor objectionable because there is an intrinsic unity of the civilization as a whole.”


Cutting through the conventional approaches to the understanding of tribal cultures and the cultures of indigenous people in India, Jain formulates a new set of theoretical propositions for a more objective inquiry into the traditions, belief-systems and ritual structures of the tribal people. She notes, “Tripura’s ancient tribes represent the coherence and the continuity of a living civilization, which embraces, absorbs, exchanges values, with peoples and cultures that have arisen from the same socio-geographic matrix”. In search of a frame of reference, she turns to the history of Hindu India and writes, “Hindus appreciate diversity as they accept similarity; and the absence of homogeneity does not inculcate fear, loathing or intolerance, much less the desire to enforce uniformity by eradicating cultural distinctiveness. A shared universe is quickly established with the threads of unity and multiplicity, and this is the most striking aspect of the description above. The religious beliefs, traditions and rituals of Tripura tribes reveal the integrated matrix upon which their culture and civilization is founded and a cohesiveness that embraces their non-tribal neighbours, whose beliefs, prayers and practices have been joyously embraced by the regions autochthones.”


The study reveals that the traditions and rituals of tribal communities and indigenous people are not pagan practices. The Sanskrit civilization does not have a pagan past. Pagan history is a part of Semitic civilization. “Nor can we countenance academic distortion of the spiritual beliefs of vulnerable communities through the use of terminology such as ‘animism’, ‘spirit worship’, ‘ghosts’, or ‘pagan’, which have no basis in the idiom of the tradition being discussed, but are a part of verbal abuse by those seeking to exterminate an ancient way of life”.


The promise of redemption cannot salvage people who do not have a pagan past. No Right to freedom of religion can entitle the tribal communities and indigenous people to opt for salvation by accepting the promise of redemption. Jain rightly notes, “Dharma is primarily a matter of family, clan, social, religious and cultural inheritance. All human beings are born into a spiritual tradition and initiated into beliefs, customs, philosophy, tenets and taboos from an early period of life, just as they are provided with a family name, Jati and Kula at birth. Ordinarily a human being does not grow without a faith and then choose a dharma on intellectual merit or emotional appeal on achieving adulthood.


The argument that an individual, born embedded in a faith, has the right to arbitrarily uproot himself and cause hurt and injury to his natal family, clan, tradition and community is faulty and subversive of ancient societies.” Evangelical Intrusions exposes the perfidy: “the contention that religion is a matter of individual choice is not borne out by the experience of human society anywhere in the world. This specious plea is in fact a legal subterfuge by those seeking to earn adherents to a particular religious ideology by atomizing human society in order to break and undermine traditions”.


Evangelical intervention to induce change in indigenous social forms, from outside their systemic boundaries, poses a threat to the existence of indigenous peoples and tribal communities in India. It poses a greater threat to the Sanskrit substratum of their tribal traditions and cultures. The fundamental issue, evangelical intervention underlines, is not whether India recognizes the freedom of choice of the Indian people to accept the promise of redemption for their salvation. The fundamental issue is whether India recognizes the promise of redemption as the objective of social change. Such acceptance is tantamount to the abandonment of the continuity of Indian history. Recognition of the continuity of the history of Indian civilization forms the bedrock of the unity of the Indian people and their national identity.


Jain sounds a warning, “Our study revealed that 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 North-east, 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 North-East can thus pose a serious threat to India’s territorial integrity, cultural diversity and civilisational unity.”


The study is helpful to the common reader as well as the researcher. To the former the study will help in understanding the issues involved in the various processes of evangelical intervention in tribal cultures and traditions of indigenous peoples in the North-East. To the latter, it provides an alternate methodological model for the study of social change in India, besides furnishing valuable data and facts regarding “religio-cultural traditions” and demographic configuration of the indigenous peoples. To the scholar the study offers an insight into the processes of Semitisation of Indian society which has been going on almost unnoticed throughout the years of freedom.


In India, the secularization of government and society is tilted in favour of the “right to freedom of faith”, more than committed to the secular integration of the Indian people on the basis of the fundamental right to equality. Both, the right to freedom of faith and the right to equality are enshrined in the Constitution. The cleavage between the right to freedom of faith and the right to equality as the basis for secular integration of the Indian people, irrespective of creed and religion, is brought to the surface by this study. A new beginning needs to be made to investigate the political ramifications of the ideological conflict that evangelical intrusion in India underlines.


Evangelical Intrusions: Tripura: A Case Study
Rupa & Co., Delhi, 2009
Pages: 251
Price: 395/-
ISBN_HB: 9788129115652

Prof MK Teng is a retired Professor and Head of the Political Science Department of Kashmir University; he has authored many books, including a seminal work on Article 370

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