Bethesda-Khankho Foundation

Christianity and 'Tribal' Identity in NE India (English)

Identity is a mark, which differentiates a person/community from others - I am not a Scottish because I am Kuki from India. So, I am different from the Scots as they are from me!

Identities such as Indian, Scottish, Kuki and so forth were often regarded as ready-made categories into which we were born. This is untrue! In fact, Socio-cultural identities were not part of God's creation in Genesis chapter one; they were created afterward. In other words, these identities are human made and therefore they can be dehumanizing unless carefully used.

The reason being that there are identities which are constructed by the people themselves while others by those outside the community, often with negative connotations. A 'Brahmin' is an identity of the so-called high caste people in India which gives a sense of value and pride to a person in Indian context. In contrary, a panchamas/harijan or a tribal is an identity given by those outside the community with contempt. The name means uncivilized, backward, low, and untouchable and so forth. In that context, the identity of a person determines both his/her status and role in the society, raising a fundamental question about a person's dignity and equality with others as a human.

This is exactly the situation with the tribal people of North East India. There are two issues with regard to identity problems in NEI. First is the geographical location. NEI is a separate piece of land which is connected to the rest of India by a 12-mile width small piece of land. The region was first brought under the administration of India by the colonial rule in 1826 as frontier of Bengal. The result of merger was the influx of immigrants from other parts of India leading the local people became the oppressed minority in their own land. The state of Tripura is a clear example of this. Related to this is the change of the centre of power and administration from local to outside of the region, the New Delhi, alienating the people from their own culture and administration. Second is the social identity 'tribal'. In the process of nation building against the colonial administration, India created a hierarchical social structure making the tribal people remained at the bottom of the ladder. In 1950, India legally adopted 'Scheduled Tribe' as a name for the people of NEI. The problems related to it are; one, it was a foreign term imposed on the people without they being aware of its meaning and context; two, it was outside of Varna system categorizing the people at the same level of Dalits; three, there was no clear criteria for scheduling people as to who should or should not be scheduled as a tribe; four, related to this is the fact that tribal identity was more like a 'waste box' into which the left over are put and fifth and finally, its basis Hindutva ideology isolates the people. For these reasons, it can be said that tribal identity is a wounded identity.

Right from the beginning of the Independence, the tribal people of North East India resisted the imposed identity and treatment of the Indic India. In fact, each decade saw the emergence of new movement for identity in the region. Both the Kukis and Nagas have started their movement in the 1940s while the Mizo started in the 1980s.

In the process, new problems were added. One, in their attempt to achieve what is vital as human groups the movements also claimed many infrastructures and lives, including those of innocent women and children risking the Christian message of love. Two, they also Invented a new culture of gun and violence which is not part of their traditional culture. This indicates the urgent need to re-look the approach to the issue of human identity. The need is to construct a theology that enhances one's own identity and at the same time enriches the Christian theology. For this reason, a Christian theology in Kuki context needs to be rooted in the people's cultural soil while it seeks to transform the same.

A Talk at Ecumenical Friends Edinburgh Meeting October 8, 2009 By Dr J Lamboi Haokip.