Bethesda-Khankho Foundation

A Second Chance of doing Local Theology

It was in 1910, during which Church of Scotland hosted the World Missionary Conference ‘Edinburgh 1910’, that a private and unrecognized Welsh missionary Watkin Roberts brought the good news of Christ to the Kuki tribes of Manipur in the extreme North-Eastern part of India under his own initiated mission. This mission was called, ‘The Thado-Kuki Pioneer Mission’ better known as, ‘The Kuki Mission 1910.’ While, in some sense, the year 1910 marked the climax of the world missionary movement, it was the beginning of evangelization for the Kukis but it remained unreported to the outside world because of the system called ‘Comity’ – one mission agency for one community/ territory only – that disproved the Kuki mission!

The one and official missionary for Manipur, William Pettigrew, first arrived in the state in 1894, fourteen years ahead of Roberts, but he was unable to pay equal attention to all the communities. Manipur has three main communities – the majority Meitei Hindus, the Nagas and the Kukis – and having failed to secure permission to work among his original targeted group, the Meiteis, Pettigrew concentrated his work among the Tangkhul Naga in the Northern part of Manipur, leaving behind other communities deprived of the benefits of Christian missionary activities including health, education, and modern technologies. To their further disadvantage, the American Baptist Mission in the person of Pettigrew being the official mission agency for Manipur, no other missionary was permitted to work within the territory and the colonial administration endorsed it.

Having felt God’s call at the Keswick Convention in 1908, Roberts decided to go to the tribal people in North-East India, the Kuki tribes in particular, despite the rigid structure put in place. His main arguments were based on the issue of justice and the need for equal opportunity to hear the Christian message, citing the work of William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery in Britain as one example. Despite the challenges from all sides – the local people, the official missionary and the colonial administration - Roberts brought the Christian message to the Kuki tribes in 1910 and spread the Good News of Christ wherever the people lived, including the territories currently parts of Burma and the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. Gradually, Roberts also extended his mission to non-Kuki communities including Hindus and Muslims in the region. He was deported from Manipur within a few years of his work, leaving his young converts like sheep without a shepherd.

Looking at the work of Watkin Roberts from an insider’s viewpoint, without ignoring his limitations as a private and untrained missionary, he was both a missionary and a prophet who stood with and for the poor and the marginalized. This was clear in his fight against the local slavery system (Bawi or Soh) and comity both of which were supported by the colonial administration. He was also against the rigid denominational structure which in some ways limits the work of God. For Roberts, the work of witnessing for Christ and the practice of justice are inseparable and hence he was a man ahead of his time. Sadly, he was not given a fair chance to remain in Manipur to spread this integral message.

An interesting development is the recent connection between some Church of Scotland members and the tribal people of Northeast India wherein the worship of God and the issue of justice are viewed inseparably connected. Renfield St Stephen’s Church, Glasgow and the Ballikinrain School, Crossreach made connection with and became partners of the Bethesda Khankho Foundation, in Manipur, India. They exchange their knowledge and experiences in the fields of education, community development and enrich local resources for sustainable community living.

This partnership provides the people a chance to articulate a fresh understanding of their cultural values, faith and local resources for their holistic development and responsible living in a wider community in a multi-ethnic context of India.

J Lamboi Haokip, 1 Bellgrove Street, Glasgow, UK. 28th January 2013.