FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Tribals, Missionaries and Hindutva

Photo Source Covenant Journey | CC BY 2.0

Although there is no evidence to suggest that John Allen Chau, an American adventure enthusiast and Jesus lover, had achieved any success in converting people to his faith or threatened them into doing so, he is being portrayed as a missionary who deserved to die.

He was reportedly murdered on November 17 by the North Sentinel tribesmen when he approached them for a third time in as many days. The island forms part of the archipelago of 29 islands in the Andaman and Nicobar. It is among the most vulnerable and protected.

His body has not been found, but public debate in India has demonised him as a Christian missionary looking for a kill. This works well for the rightwing. The sudden interest in the preservation of tribal culture is a strategy that justifies their call for a return to Hindu cultural purity as a matter of national urgency.

There has been little attempt to see Chau’s potential as a religious middleman in a reasonable manner. Why would he choose a people who are secluded to spread his message? Besides, he had no background in tribes; he did not know the language of the North Sentinelese. How would he communicate with them about his way? Had he succeeded in making contact and handed them a Bible copy and perhaps even anointed them, they would still not be Christian.

While the zeal of Jesuits cannot be discounted and they have used the poor and needy to spread the faith, the projection of the missionary as predator validates minority bashing that gives rise to violence against them. On a winter night 20 years ago Dara Singh, a Bajrang Dal activist, and his gang set fire to a station wagon in which Australian missionary Graham Staines, who worked among the tribals and lepers in Odisha, and his two young sons were asleep. They were charred to death.

Hindu groups said that he was converting their people. Such a suggestion, that this is the fate you meet for proselytising, is not a tribal but a feudal reaction. The tribesmen have not been rejoicing over their victory against a missionary, but rightwing groups routinely seek vengeance for often-imagined crimes carried out against their culture.

The ‘save the tribes from missionaries’ cry does not take into account that in recent years Hindu groups have been damaging churches and converting Christians in a few tribal belts for a “Christianity-free block”. They call it ‘ghar wapsi’, a return to the original fold.

***

“The tribes have been living on the islands for centuries without any problem. Their troubles started after they came into contact with outsiders. The tribes of the islands do not need outsiders to protect them, what they need is to be left alone.” This is what Madhumala Chattopadhyay, the only woman to have visited the North Sentinel island, said in a recent interview. She was part of the Anthropological Survey of India team that first went there in 1991.

The discussion on making tribes more inclusive at a time when most societies are not geographically restricted is worrying. Inevitably, the mainstream is a majoritarian construct. Diversity and plurality are seen from the perspective of patronage of lesser (numerically or otherwise) societies rather than accepting their inherent right to be different.

Tribal spaces are not unlike urban ghettoes. These are created by members to retain an identity, to be around safe spaces, anddue to fear. Sometimes these ghettoes are formed when the majority pushes people away from the very mainstream they want the groups to belong to, thereby highlighting their otherness.

Societies like the North Sentinelese resist outsiders not to preserve their tradition but their livelihood and personhood from outside interference, be it religious, political or merely curious.

***

John Chau’s journal entries are a cornucopia of myth. His fellow travellers to the island were fishermen, as indeed were Jesus’ in his early preaching years in Galilee. The gift of fish for the tribe is also mythic – in Greek, fish is an anagram for Jesus. As Chau wrote in one entry about his attempt at reaching out, “I hollered, ‘My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you’.” On the second day, a young tribesman aimed an arrow at him; it pierced through a copy of the Bible he was carrying.

However martyrdom, that some Christian groups have accorded him, does not quite fit Chau, for he bartered with god directly: “If you want me to get actually shot, or even killed with an arrow then so be it. I think I could be more useful alive though, but to you, God, I give all the glory of whatever happens. I don’t want to die.”

Although his next appeal for forgiveness for “any of the people on this island who try to kill me, and especially forgive them if they succeed” might suggest intimations of immortality, he probably just had a keen eye and was practical about his religiosity.

This begs the question: why do we have a problem only with religious conversion? India is full of charlatans and savants. We will continue to be victims of social colonialism as long as there is  inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity and the ruling elite offers progress with the promise of a statue of god.

More articles by:

Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

Weekend Edition
July 03, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Peter Linebaugh
Police and the Wealth of Nations: Déjà Vu or Unfinished Business?
Rob Urie
Class, Race and Power
John Davis
A Requiem for George Floyd
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mutiny of the Bounties!
Richard D. Wolff
Revolutionary Possibilities: Could U.S. Capitalism Turn Nationalist?
Richard Falk
When Rogue States Sanction the International Criminal Court
Louis Proyect
Smearing Black Lives Matter…From the Left
Ralph Nader
Trump and Pence – Step Aside for Professional Pandemic Scientists and Managers
Ramzy Baroud
Tearing Down the Idols of Colonialism: Why Tunisia, Africa Must Demand French Apology
Philippe Marlière
Challenging the French Republic’s Color-Blindness
Richard C. Gross
Attack, Deny
Lee Camp
Connecting the Dates – US Media Used To Stop The ‘Threat’ of Peace
Steve Martinot
The Desire to Kill
David Yearsley
The War on Kitsch
Amy Eva Alberts Warren – Rev. William Alberts
Why are Certain Christians Democratic and Others Authoritarian?
Lawrence Davidson
Covid Madness
Brian Cloughley
Britain’s Disorder and Decline
Ellen Taylor
The US Military Has Its Knee on the Throat of the World
David Rosen
White Nationalists on the Attack
Joseph Natoli
Drawn Away from Reality in Plain View
Frank Joyce
Give Me Liberty,  Give You Death
Jonah Raskin
My Adventures in the Matriarchy
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Corruption of the Democratic Party: Talking to Ted Rall about his new book
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
Trump’s Record on Foreign Policy: Lost Wars, New Conflicts and Broken Promises
Paul Edwards
A Bridge Too Far
Arshad Khan
India and China Tussle on the Roof of the World
Jennifer Joan Thompson
How to Do Things With Theses: Chile’s National Police Force Sues the Feminist Artistic Collective, Las Tesis
Shawn Fremstad
Vacations for All!
Thomas Knapp
A Modest Proposal for Compromise on “Confederate” Military Bases
Vijay Prashad, Eduardo Viloria Daboín, Ana Maldonado, and Zoe PC
Venezuela’s Borderlands Have Been Assaulted by COVID-19
Thom Hartmann
COVID Masks: The Latest Faux Conservative Outrage
Jesse Jackson
Mandatory College Football Practices in Time of Pandemic are Nuts
Nicholas Vincenzo Barney
Consensus Politics on the Fringe: The Intellectual Dishonesty of the Intellectual Dark Web
Ted Rall
The Data is Clear: Progressives Should Boycott Biden
Joshua Tartakovsky
Sergei Khrushchev: An Eulogy from His Close Student
Theresa Church
In Reconsidering ‘Normalcy’ Genetically Engineered Trees Do Not Belong
Chelsea Carrick
Let’s Not Lose Momentum
Adam Rissien
Sorry Secretary Perdue, Our National Forests are Not Crops
Paul Gilk
A Few Theoretical Percentages
Thomas S. Harrington
“New Corona Cases”:  A Phrase That’s Tells us Very Little, if Anything,  About the Actual Levels of Danger We  Face
Claire Chadwick
I Got COVID-19 at Work. I Won’t be the Last
George Wuerthner
The Upper Green River Should be a National Park, Not a Feedlot
Julian Vigo
Profiteering in the Era of COVID-19
Ravi Mangla
Policing is Not a Public Good
July 02, 2020
Stan Cox
It’s Not Just Meat: All Farm and Food Workers Are in Peril
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail