Rata Yirang, a young Adi tribesman, comes back from a hunting expedition with a well-filled bamboo bag. He signals his success by clicking his tongue and hooting. In plastic sandals (made in China), he moves easily over the mud and gravel between the houses on stilts of his village. Damro, population 1,000, stands on a hill 800 metres above sea level in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Bordering China, Bhutan and Burma, it’s a region of forests, rivers and mountains largely unexplored except by the locals, mostly “scheduled tribes” (1) who speak Tibeto-Burman languages. Damro is about six hours by jeep from the district capital, Pasighat, a former British army station in the Siang valley.
Life in the valley, largely unchanged until the 2000s, has rapidly caught up withthe global economy, which has brought advertising, private banks and cheap Chinese and Indian consumer goods. The electricity supply is intermittent, but everyone has a mobile phone. People crowd around the few television sets, fascinated by Indian sitcoms. But agricultural festivals and fertility rituals still govern the rhythm of life for the villagers, who depend on subsistence farming and hunting. The Adi religion blends mythology with shamanistic and social practices and has until recently resisted institutionalisation.
According to clan elder Saram Yirang, young people today are “more interested in Bollywood and western fashion than in the wellbeing of the village.They are moving to the city, and clan solidarity is gradually declining.” The latest census (2001) shows the state’s urban population has increased to 21.34%, compared with 3.70% in 1971. Some blame this migration for the adoption since 1980s of the dominant non-tribal — especially Christian — cultural practices, to which they attribute the most significant changes. “Christianity has made significant inroads into all tribes. The converts don’t observe our festivals any more,” said Aini Taloh, chair of an Adi feminist and cultural organisation in Pasighat. A dozen evangelical churches have been established there in under a decade (2).
A young Baptist pastor said: “Our ancestors were like children. People continue to worship nature spirits, but we believe that is shaitan — the work of the devil. We condemn sacrifices and the consumption of alcohol.” These churches with their powerful, well-organised congregations use a modernist message to win over new converts, while incorporating aspects of local culture (folk songs, dances) into their services. They hold regular prayer and healthcare camps. These “healing crusades” (in both the physical and spiritual senses) have been very popular with participants, who are turning away from healers, whom they feel charge too much, and government hospitals, which suffer from staff absenteeism (3).
“The evangelicals started converting masses of people, because they were offering something more attractive, more modern, than our tribal system,” said Kaling Borang, a civil servant in Pasighat who became a militant indigenist in the 1970s. “Conversions threatened our culture. That’s why we created our own religious movement, reforming our practices and beliefs.” A few educated, English-speaking Adi took up the cause, concerned by the extent of conversion to Christianity, which had already spread to most other states in India’s northeast (4).
‘We felt devalued’
“From the time when we first had contact with the rest of India — at school, or when applying for official documents — we always had to identify ourselves by our religion. But we didn’t have one, or at least not one that other Indians knew about. We felt devalued,”said Borang. Local activists decided to blend their religious practices under the name Donyi-Polo (sun-moon), which relates to cosmology and tribal beliefs. In 1986 they established an official committee. Inspired by Christian and Hindu practices, they established places of worship known as ganggin, and a clearly defined pantheon with standardised divinities and symbols. Talom Rukbo, leader of this group, proposed to write down the songs and prayers — a revolution for these tribes, which have a preference for spoken forms of language.
In Arunachal Pradesh today, households that practice Donyi-Polo display a flag with a red sun on a white ground. The place of worship, a big rectangular house, is mostly frequented on Saturday mornings, when services are held. There is an altar, with figures from tribal mythology in the style of Hindu gods.A psychedelic rainbow symbolises the faith. There are candles, incense and little bronze bells. The innovation continues: “We have introduced meditation and yoga, and reciting the word keyum,an Adi concept similar to the Hindu ‘Om’ (5),” said Tajom Tasum, secretary general of the Pasighatganggin. But this is not to everyone’s taste.
“Thirty years ago, none of this existed. The reforms were useful in fighting against conversions, but now, Hindu organisations are interfering with our beliefs,” said Kalin Taloh, a business owner in Pasighat, who refuses to go along with them. The organisations provided strong support to the indigenist movement. According to Borang the support was only logistical at first: “We didn’t know how to get started, how to organise our movement. They gave us practical help, manpower, training, advice…”
But these organisations are part of, or have close links to, the ultra-nationalist Hindu movement Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, National Volunteer Organisation). The RSS’s ideological project, Hindutva (Hindu-ness), is based on a political and supremacist vision of Hinduism. In many Donyi-Polo places of worship today, there are portraits of RSS leaders. Talom Rukbo, co-founder of the indigenist movement, was made an icon of the RSS after his death in 2002.
These organisations have had a strong presence in Arunachal Pradesh since the Sino-Indian war of 1962, and operate through a social and educational network designed to strengthen the sense of national identity. The small Donyi-Polo Vidya Niketan primary school in Pasighat, and 14 others like it in the RSS Vidya Bharati (6) network in Arunachal Pradesh, offer activities over and above the official Indian curriculum: patriotic songs glorifying Bharat Mata (Mother India) and religious songs in Sanskrit. Yet most pupils are from tribes like the Adi, who are unfamiliar with Sanskrit and the Hindu pantheon. “As far as we are concerned, they are Hindu,” said educational coordinator K V Ashokan. “Donyi-Polo is part of Hindu pluralism. If local people think otherwise, we won’t try to stop them from saying so. But this religion is as indigenous as Hinduism: we have the same beliefs. Hindus have Surya, the Sun, and our god Ram was himself a descendant of the Sun; Hindus venerate nature, as do followers of Donyi-Polo. So what’s the difference?” Ashokan, a senior figure in the organisation, believes education should raise young people’s awareness of their culture as promoted by the RSS, which seeks to demonise conversion to Christianity. Schools also foster a Hindutva view of history.
A Hindutva view of history
Ashokan said: “We need to be sure of the loyalty of the local populations. Muslims and Christians cannot be loyal. How can they, when their allegiance is to the Pope of Rome or Mecca? When people do not feel they are Hindus, then they are foreigners. It’s a threat to our national identity and integrity.”At the little school, the teachers use Hindi on a day-to-day basis. “Post the 1962 war, the Indian government let missionary schools such as the Ram Krishna mission or Vidya Niketan run freely in Arunachal to ensure that Hindi was also taught. The idea was to get and maintain a grip in the region, especially since in the other northeastern states such as Manipur or Nagaland, the insurgent movements were gaining popularity,” said Mirza Zulfiqur Raman of the social sciences department at the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati. “This allows the government to assert its authority in the region.”
One RSS organisation, Arun Jyoti, asserts in an English-language pamphlet that there is a “need to protect nationalist sentiment against foreign agents”, especially through its personal development and counselling camps for teenagers. This implies that social and economic ills are due to “backward” tribal culture, a view shared by RSS organisations and by India’s education system, according to anthropologist Nandini Sundar (7).
Omer Tatin, assistant secretary of Arunachal Vikas Parishad, another local RSS organisation, said: “The ministry of tribal affairs is useless. When we wanted to establish our religion formally, only the RSS supported us. That’s why we turned to them.” Like other Adi, he believes the tribal populations need to be developed.The Adi have internalised the rhetoric of a branch of Indian sociology led by Govind Sadashiv Ghurye in the 1940s: the tribes are “backward Hindus”, who must be assimilated through (Hindu) cultural and economic development. This view, reflected at the highest levels of government, helps to get massive industrialisation projects accepted. Between 2005 and 2014, public-private partnerships signed 162 pre-project agreements for dams on the Brahmaputra, without properly consulting the people who would be affected and with no transparency about the use of the funds.
Translated by Charles Goulden.
(1) “Scheduled tribes” are an administrative category of the Indian population. In 2015 there were 411 of them.
(2) Christians are 30% of the population in Arunachal Pradesh, 2.3% in India as a whole.
(3) See Vibha Joshi, A Matter of Belief: Christian Conversion and Healing in North-East India,Berghahn Books, New Delhi, 2012.
(4) Nagaland, Meghalaya and Manipur are 70% Christian; Mizoram is 99% Christian.
(5) Om or Aumis a sacred sound in Hinduism and Buddhism.
(6) The Vidya Bharati school network was envisioned in 1952 by Madhav SadashivGolwalkar, an RSS ideologue who claimed inspiration from Hitler.
(7) Nandini Sundar, “Educating for inequality: the experiences of India’s “indigenous’ citizens”, Asian Anthropology,Hong Kong, September 2010.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.