Between Faith and Politics: NSA discussion on G. Kanato Chophy’s Christianity and Politics in Tribal India: Baptist Missionaries and Naga Nationalism

The book sets out to narrate what he calls the history of Nagas spanning from 1839 when the first encounter of the Baptist with the Nagas took place through Miles Bronson to the 21st century Naga context. In unpacking this gamut of history, the book traverses from locating Naga Baptist within the framework of a global Christian network that has had been particularly inspired by the discourse of the 19th century Evangelical and 20th century Pentecostal Movements to an analysis of the impact of Baptist faith within various Naga communities.

The just-published book Christianity and Politics in Tribal India: Baptist Missionaries and Naga Nationalism (Permanent Black, 2021), authored by G. Kanato Chophy, has created a wave across the academic circles in India and abroad. Coinciding with the book’s publication, Chophy also wrote an article titled, ‘For Nagas, the idea of India is not defined by the Brahmanical notion of a timeless civilization’, in a web portal Scroll where he made an interesting argument about the idea of “Constitutional Indians,” which the emerging class of educated Nagas would more probably want to identify with in comparison to the Brahmanical notion of India.

Given the enormous interest garnered by/around the book, it was only apt that Naga Scholars’ Association (NSA) organize a discussion on it to provide a platform for the author to converse and interact with the fellow Naga scholars and intellectuals on a theme that has had remained central to the imagination/articulation of the Naga identity. For the book discussion session held via an online platform on 25th September 2021, NSA roped in Eyingbeni Humtsoe-Neinu and John Thomas as the chairperson and the discussant, respectively. Humtsoe-Neinu is the Principal of Baptist Theological College Pfutsero, Nagaland. As a seasoned theologian with a commanding grasp of the nature of the interaction between Christian theology and the Naga society, she provided an enriching anchor in the engagement with the presentation and the arguments proffered by the author. Currently teaching history at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in IIT Guwahati, Thomas made insightful and critical intervention to the discussion. A native of Kerala, he did his Ph.D. on the Nagas, later published as a book (Evangelising the Nation: Religion and the Formation of Naga Political Identity, Routledge, 2016).

Chophy wrote his book, Christianity and Politics in Tribal India: Baptist Missionaries and Naga Nationalism while being a recipient of the coveted New India Foundation Fellowship (2017). As he puts it, the book is essentially about how the evangelical Protestant movement that started in the United States had deeply permeated into the Naga highland and changed the culture, politics and identity of the Nagas, not to mention their self-perception. Taking this certain global connection of events as a point of departure, the book sets out to narrate what he calls the history of Nagas spanning from 1839 when the first encounter of the Baptist with the Nagas took place through Miles Bronson to the 21st century Naga context. In unpacking this gamut of history, the book traverses from locating Naga Baptist within the framework of a global Christian network that has had been particularly inspired by the discourse of the 19th century Evangelical and 20th century Pentecostal Movements to an analysis of the impact of Baptist faith within various Naga communities. The book further dwells on how the insertion into the global Christian network opened up the Nagas to education, modernity, and certain kinds of political articulation whose implications continue to reverberate in their society even in the 21st century. The book is also deemed by the author as a quasi-biography since the lives of important persons who have shaped the course of Naga history form a part of the discussion.  And given the intricate history between the Naga people and the Indian state/polity, the author also found it necessary to offer a broad commentary about Post-independent India and Indian democracy and the democratic process that has taken place for the past 70 years or so.   

Apart from highlighting the larger content of the book, Chophy also stressed on the significance of the methodological aspects which he had employed in his research and writing for the book.  While archival records and disciplinary methods such as ethnography are popular sources which he had made use of or employed, what was particularly interesting was his notion of vantage point in approaching his object of study. The fact he was brought up within the Baptist faith and community imbued him an ‘insider perspective’ while, at the same time, ensuring to engage in observing the phenomena through reflexivity. And this distinct vantage point, as he puts it, allowed him to understand Naga history, political movements and lives of important personalities through the lens of Baptist faith.       

In his response, Thomas appreciated the author for showing that, far from being an isolated group of people, Nagas have been engaging with various historical changes that came their way. This, according to Thomas, is a welcome departure from those essentialized colonial and post-colonial writings on Nagas that work with the binary of tradition and modernity. And he further underscored the strength of the book for acknowledging the heterogeneity within the larger Naga community and the diversity within the Naga Baptist tradition. At the same time, Thomas wondered whether the category ‘Naga Baptist’ employed in the book is being invoked as a universal impulse to define who Nagas are. If so, the privileging of the Naga Baptist vantage point or frame to make sense of the Naga identity and reality would inevitably contravene the very diversity existing among the Nagas.  Much of the ensuing critical discussion on the book among the participants revolved around this centrality attached to the Baptist faith/ideology and its relation with the Naga social and political reality. And a question on the tenability of Chophy’s phrase “Constitutional Indians” in his article in Scroll was also posed against the context where the Constitution has rather imbued varied ethnic identities on the Nagas determined by political administrative boundaries.

In her closing remarks, Humtsoe-Neinu stressed that Chophy’s “Constitutional Indians” is something that Nagas can reflect upon in the light of the statement of A. Z. Phizo: “I am a Naga first, a Naga second and a Naga last”. Nevertheless, she maintained that Chophy’s book has enabled the Nagas to pose a question on how to think about Naga identity amidst all the other identities it is mired in. Thus, in the words of Elvina S. Amongla, the Finance Secretary of NSA who delivered the words of thanks for the session, “the book is here to stay to draw more perspectives, insights and conversations”.

By Shimreisa Chahongnao & Ngoru Nixon

(Ngoru Nixon is the President of NSA and Shimreisa Chahongnao is an Executive Secretary of NSA)

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