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Indigenous Religions In Northeast Pushed Into Flowering Via Hindutva To Battle Christianity

Tribes, which used to practice indigenous animist religions of Heraka, and Zeliangrong in states like Nagaland and those, who used to practice Dony-Polo, Amik Matai, and Rangfrah in Arunachal Pradesh, became minority religions with the advent of Christianity along with the British rule.

Inside Vidya Bharati's Donyi Polo Vidya Niketan, the Donyi Polo symbol of sun.
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Tribes in states like Nagaland which used to practice indigenous animist religions of Heraka, Zeliangrong and Arunachal Pradesh, who used to practice religions like Dony-Polo, Amik Matai, Rangfrah found these pushed underground with the advent of Christianity which came with the advent of all stripes of the missionary from the West. 

Today, Nagaland is the largest Baptist state in the world with over 90 per cent population practising Christianity. Similarly, with 30.26 per cent of the population practising one or other types of Christianity, Christianity became the dominant religion even in the farthest east state of Arunachal Pradesh. 

However, with the increasing presence of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a new religious push is being seen in these states --- that of Hindutva. The interesting fact is that this is not being done as directly as expected, as the connecting religion between NE India and the rest of India. It is being done by incorporating elements of Hinduism into the indigenous religions of these states and by popularising a narrative that all indigenous religions fall under the Sanatani dharma.

After becoming the Prime Minister in 2014, in his first visit to Nagaland, in a move with significant geo-political implications, Narendra Modi met with the leaders of an indigenous religious movement, the Zeliangrong Heraka Association. The leaders demanded from the Prime Minister that their leader, Rani Gaidinliu, who was against Christian proselytisation must be honoured by imprinting her image on coins, setting up a central university in her name in Nagaland with a department dedicated to the promulgation of the “eternal religion and eternal culture of Nagas”. Notably, Rani Gaidinliu was a freedom fighter and also opposed the Naga National Council, an organization of Christian Naga leaders who led a movement for a ‘separate Nagalim’, (separate Naga nation) out of India.

A year later, in 2015, Gaidinliu’s birth centenary was celebrated all over the country, where in many parts her name was unheard of before.  A special event held in New Delhi with the Prime Minister, and the Finance and Home Ministers in attendance too. This development is seen as an attempt to sideline the Christian narrative of nationalism by promoting a non-Christian leader who fought for India’s independence which goes well with the concept of Akhand Bharat.

According to Aroktong Longkumer, senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, and author of  The Greater India Experiment: Hindutva and the Northeast, unlike the different Naga nationalist groups, the RSS position has always been that Nagaland is an integral part of India, both politically and culturally. “Many RSS workers involved with organisations like the Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (ABVKA) have worked to support non-Christian movements to gain strength and to question the dominance of the Christian narrative. In this context, Modi’s reception by the leaders of an indigenous religious movement is not surprising but hugely controversial for its geo-religious implications in the region,” he said. 

Supporting Longkumar’s statement, K. Elu Ndang, General Secretary of Naga Hoho, Nagaland’s apex tribal body set up in the 1940s said, “Elements of the Hindu religion are being incorporated among practitioners of indigenous religions like Heraka in Nagaland. It is an undeniable fact that Hindutva is penetrating villages wherever there are Haraka followers. With the RSS playing an active part in this, things are moving far from the original practices. According to Ndang, they are taking out many students and then educating them in Maharashtra, Ahmedabad and in other places in central India. Also, VHP schools are coming up in many such villages. “The original practices are diluted because the Heraka followers are made to understand that they belong to the Hindu community. Though most Haraka followers have not accepted this version, it is true that they are moving towards Hinduisation,” he notes.

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In Nagaland, the RSS works through an affiliate organization known as Kalyan Ashram (welfare centre), registered officially in Nagaland as Janjati Vikas Samiti (tribal development society). The BJP government has established a Department of Indigenous Faiths and Cultural Affairs in Arunachal Pradesh. The state, home to 26 tribes and over 100 subtribes has 30.26 per cent Christian population. Hindus constitute 29.04%. A major chunk of the remaining population practice animistic religions like Donyi-Polo, Amik Matai, Nani-Intaya and Rangfrah. 

It is interesting to note that while codifying these religions as a front against Christian dominance in the state, idols emerge which are Hindu deity lookalikes. For example, Rangfraism is practised by the Tangsas, a small ethnic community who have migrated to Arunachal Pradesh from Myanmar over the last couple of centuries. While many of the Tangsa tribes have embraced religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, some still practice their old indigenous religion.

An initiative among the Tansgas to formalise their old religion to build houses of worship in which idols (or images) of Rangfrah have been installed is afoot. Rangfra, a spirit did not have a form till a few years ago, now it has a Shiva-like appearance, albeit with a Mongoloid face.

According to some leaders of indigenous faiths, all indigenous faiths come under the Sanatana Dharma and that’s why a lot of similarities are being found while codifying these religions into a formal one. Talking to Outlook, Tajom Tasung, president of the Indigenous Faith and Culture Society of Arunachal Pradesh, “While we codify these faiths, it looks like we are inserting Hindu rituals but this is not true. Offering prayers by lighting a candle might look like a Hindu tradition, but traditionally we have been praying by lighting a fire. We have lots of similarities with the Hindu religion since we all belong to the Sanatani Dharma.” 

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Stephen Knapp, an American interlocutor of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad who has extensively travelled to the Northeastern states including Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, has written that tribes like Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak in Manipur worship the sun and the moon as their primary deities. ‘They are a tributary of the great river, Sana-tana-dharma, that flows through the universe’, Knapp mentioned in his blog. Santana dharma is used by the RSS and its affiliates as the discourse of national identity of Hindu discourse, a way of life, and nature worship to connect the different tribes of the Northeast who practice animism. 

The indigeneity narrative of Hindutva is a response to Christianity in the tribal regions of Northeast India by drawing textual sources to legitimate claims of Akhand Bharat through the use of different characters and geographical references in Hindu epics to existing places to illustrate their links with these indigenous groups and to emphasize the territorial integrity of Akhand Bharat since time immemorial.

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