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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.

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Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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