Cover image: Memorial of Prembhai
Chhotebhai and his wife Meera in Kolkata on 2nd July 2018 on return from North-east
What the Dickens? This is not the tale of two cities, but a study in contrast of two of the seven sisters of the North East (NE); specifically Arunachal Pradesh (AP) and Manipur, where I spent a few days recently. My wife, Meera, and I, had been invited by Rev V. Kulandai, the former parish priest of Harmutty Mission, Assam, to participate in the 10th death anniversary commemoration of our colleague Prembhai.
This story goes back to 1980, when Meera befriended some Arunachali boys in Meghalaya, where she was then working. At their request she visited Kulandai in Harmutty, and then stayed on to help in the education and social upliftment of the young boys and girls of AP. Kulandai and she soon found that they required more hands.
So Meera contacted our common guru, Fr Deenabandhu ofm cap, in Jyotiniketan Ashram, Bareilly. Prembhai volunteered to go and joined them in Harmutty. Through then MLA Boa Tamo, Meera got a teaching job inside AP, perhaps the first non-Arunachali Christian to enter the forbidden land. Subsequently they asked me to conduct a retreat (spiritual renewal programme) in 1982, for the neo Christians of AP. I recall that the Arunachali men looked very primitive. They were bare bodied, wearing colourful beads; the dao, their all purpose weapon cum tool, a huge tuft of hair above the forehead embellished with the bright yellow beak of the Great Indian Hornbill. It was the same in 1984 when Meera left Arunachal to be my life companion.
We were now returning to AP after 34 years. Change is inevitable. But Meera couldn’t believe what she was now seeing. Both men and women were smartly dressed, mostly in western attire. The men’s traditional headgear had been replaced by an artificial one. Even the women’s traditional gale was now limited to the ceremonial dancers.
Hopping off the train we refreshed ourselves at the home of our hostess Tadar Yame, who was a young girl when Meera was there earlier. She very kindly gave us her vehicle to make the arduous 176 kms trip to Boa Simla, where Meera was first posted. The journey took all of 7½ hours, because the roads were non-existent. When the British built roads in the hills, they always had storm water drains at the side. Not so our desi ones. So the “roads” were reduced to rivulets, with the first monsoon rains. What really astounded me was the plethora of churches along the way – Catholic, Christian Revival Church, Baptists, Pentecostals et al. My heart bled. AP was virgin territory for Christianity. Was there need to bring all our divisions to this beautiful land? Not unexpectedly, the Catholic structures were the biggest; grotesque concrete, straight out of Kerala, with no sensitivity for the local tribal culture.
Catholic church at Harmutty, Arunachal Pradesh
For those who don’t know, AP is a miracle story, for the Catholic Church in particular. This is because, though animated from outside, by zealous missionaries like Kulandai in neighbouring Harmutty, it was almost entirely a lay initiative. There were no church buildings or institutions, nor roads nor vehicles. The Arunachalis would march from far flung villages to the Harmutty mission begun by Kulandai in 1976. They were seeing visions of Jesus. Miracles were happening, lives were changing. The power of the Holy Spirit, as at Pentecost, was more than evident.
The first six baptisms at Harmutty were in June 1978. When I first visited in 1982, I recall seeing catechists taking Holy Communion wrapped in newspaper, to be distributed to the villagers back home. Meera, who was sceptical of anything remotely charismatic, could hardly believe what she saw happening around her at that time.
It was the time of blatant persecution of Christians. Their thatched churches were burnt down. But the tongues of fire of the Holy Spirit were upon them. In 1978 the “AP Freedom of Religion Bill” was passed, that effectively banned Christianity. It was a crime to be Christian. This territory was earlier known as the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), under the control of the Ministry of External Affairs. After the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made it a Union Territory named Arunachal Pradesh. It attained Statehood much later. Immense powers were now vested in the MLAs, while the funds became their personal investment!
Arunachal Pradesh roads
I now come to the ugly side of AP, other than the non-existent roads and church rivalry. I saw the houses of some of the ministers, MLAs and lay leaders. They were opulently palatial. I could not help feeling that the huge grants from the Centre, for the development of this pristine land were being siphoned off for personal gain. In recent elections in Tamilnadu and Karnataka we heard of candidates offering voters Rs 5000/- each. In AP it is 10 times that figure. Voters allegedly demand scooters and motorcycles from the candidates, so much so that vehicle dealers stock up before the elections!
Arunachal Pradesh CM Pema Khandu at Prembhai's Commemoration
This is not a wild allegation. When Pema Khandu, the Chief Minister of AP came for Prembhai’s commemoration he clearly said that whether one voted for the BJP or Congress was immaterial; but one should ensure voting is not on the basis of the notes received. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The same may be said of easy money that seems to flow in AP. One has just to look at the car and bike showrooms near Itanagar, the capital, and the others with the latest brands, to realise that money is flowing like the monsoon rains. Could the Catholic Church remain unscathed from this affluence and opulence? The answer is easily found in the grandiose buildings and fancy SUVs.
Prembhai had started a small ashram in Banderdewa, where he was based, at the gateway of AP and a stone’s throw from Harmutty. Ten years after his death another grotesque concrete structure is coming up there.
Tao Tabin, the President of the AP Catholic Association, said that Prembhai lived a very simple life. His pillow was a piece of wood. He never used a blanket, even in harsh winter, and his sandals were made of pieces of rubber tyres nailed together. I told the gathering that these sandals had their origin in Jyotiniketan Ashram, Bareilly.
Prembhai is now being put on a pedestal. There is even a call for canonization. Adulation is so much easier than emulation. The greatest testimony for Prembhai, other than the thousands that he brought to the Lord, was his impact on the lives of the tribals. Kulandai, in his book on the history of the AP church says “Among the Nyishis (the predominant tribe) there had been the highest number of killings and cuttings (sic) before the Christian missionaries arrived”. Road rage is endemic. A non-Arunachali lives in dread of touching a tribal’s vehicle. Yet a former MLA testified that when his son died in a bike accident he sought neither revenge nor compensation, something that his kinsmen could not stomach.
On a social level I would say that the Arunachalis have made a quantum jump from a primitive society to an ultra modern one, without a buffer medieval period. In like manner the Catholic Church has morphed from being an apostolic, charismatic, evangelical church, to an established institution. As with Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century AD, Christianity has become Christendom. Is this the march of time, progress, or lack of vision?
After AP we made a brief stopover in Imphal, the capital of Manipur State, to visit my twin sister, Dr Salam Irene, who had retired as the head of department of History of Manipur University. She gave me a wealth of information about the State.
Meithi Procession in Manipur
My first impression of Manipur was that it was clean and uncongested, with good roads, unlike AP. There is a ban on plastic bags, so there wasn’t much garbage, again in contrast to AP. Though there were rivulets of water on the AP roads it was shocking to see the number of plastic water bottles littered everywhere.
I was surprised to learn that of the three major religions in Manipur, the first to come was Islam, in the early 17h century, via Bengali settlers, who are called Pangal. Hinduism (actually Vaishnavism) came a century later, again via Bengal, when the local Meiteis of the Valley were converted. Christianity came in the late 19th century, but was restricted to the hill areas inhabited by tribals like the Tangkhul Nagas, Kukis, and the Zelingkong.
An interesting spin off of the Christian presence was education. Dr Irene says, “Education was a successful element of evangelization”. As a result, the tribal Christians grabbed all the jobs and professions, while the Meiteis of the Valley lagged behind. Ironically, the hill tribes can buy land or do business in the Imphal Valley, but the Meiteis cannot do the same in the hills. Rather unfair.
Another startling revelation for me was this statement from a research paper, that the “Top brass in the military and para-military forces were abetting drug trafficking”. Was this to make the local populace subservient? Frightening.
Not unlike AP, here too Christians are starkly divided by “denomination”, an obnoxious word. I prefer the term “sister churches”. There is a further sub-division along tribal lines. So you will find a Tangkhul Naga Baptist church that does not accept Baptists from other tribes. One really wonders how deep Christianity is? Lest we start pointing derogatory fingers, let us not forget how “ancient” Christian communities in Kerala and Goa are also divided on caste lines. Shame.
Another interesting observation on the distinction between Baptists and Catholics is that Baptists are not supposed to touch alcohol. When they come to church they are expected to wear their traditional tribal dress. There are no such restrictions on Catholics. Those who were once considered the most orthodox are today considered the most liberal!
As for political corruption, I was told that one candidate’s father spent 27 crore rupees to get him elected as an MLA in Manipur. In neighbouring Nagaland it was alleged that the person who became Deputy Chief Minister paid 10 crore rupees to the BJP to get the post. Did somebody say “Na khaoonga, na khane doonga” (I will not eat, nor let others enjoy the treat)?
This short trip to two sisters of the NE was a learning experience. My readers may feel the same. Jesus said “Seek and you will find”. There is so much for us to seek and find in the NE, especially for us from “mainland” India.
All the photos sent by Chhotebhai
This report has been posted by Isaac Gomes