India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its ‘Hindu – Hindutva’ ideology faces an uphill battle in two of the three Christian-majority states of the country which go to the polls on Tuesday (Feb 27).
The states are Nagaland, bordering Myanmar to the east, and Meghalaya, bordering Bangladesh to the south. They are tiny mountainous states, with populations of 1.9 million and 2.9 million respectively during the last Census of India in 2011. Nagaland’s population was 90 per cent Christian, Meghalaya’s 75 per cent. Nationally, Christians were only 2.3 per cent of India’s 1.25billion people in 2011 – in total 27.8 million.
Of the seven states of India’s north-eastern region – all of which lie “beyond Bangladesh” and are connected to the country’s mainland only by a 27-Km wide strip of land called the “chicken’s neck” – the Hindu Nationalist BJP rules three in alliance with regional political parties.These are Hindu-majority Assam and Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh which has large Buddhist and Animist population groups, though the number of Christians is growing fast.
The BJPis keen to expand its footprint in the north-eastern states ahead of national parliamentary elections due in 2019. The region as a whole has 24 seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, of which the BJP has eight and the Indian National Congress nine. In the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, the region has 14 seats, with the Congress having nine and the BJP just one. All the other seats are with various regional parties.
With political pundits in India already speculating on a reduced majority for the BJP in next year’s parliamentary elections, all the seats in the north-east are important for the ruling party, which is also in power in 21 of India’s 29 states.
The poll battle is literally uphill all the way for the BJP which is regarded with fear and revulsion by the 19 major Mongolian tribes in Nagaland and Meghalaya, converted to Christianity since the 19th century by American Baptist, Welsh Presbyterian and Italian and German Catholic missionaries who also brought writing and education.
The BJP is the political arm of the extreme right wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which calls Christianity and Islam “foreign, Abrahamic religions”, and whose stated goal is to make India a ‘Hindu Rashtr’, or Hindu Nation. Muslims were 14.2 per cent of India’s population in 2011; Hindus were 79.8 per cent.
The BJP, RSS, and their allied organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and Bajrang Dal have been attacking Muslims and Christians in India for decades in a calculated policy to consolidate the Hindu vote nationally. The strategy paid off, taking the BJP from just two seats in parliament in 1984 to 282 in 2014; it formed a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in Delhi which had a combined strength of 336 seats in the Lok Sabha, which has a total of 543 elected members.
On its journey to power, the BJP and its allied organizations have destroyed Mosques to build temples in their place, killed Muslims allegedly for killing cows to eat beef, and burnt alive Christians –including boys aged 6 and 10 – for allegedly converting Hindus to Christianity.
Attacks on Muslims and Christians have surged since the BJP came to power in Delhi in 2014.
All this has been carefully noted by Christians across the North East, not just in Nagaland and Meghalaya, and have become a significant political issue.
“The worst persecution of minority communities has taken place from 2015 to 2017,” the Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC) wrote in an open letter to all political parties contesting the elections, warning against supporting or voting for Hindutva forces.
The NBCCcondemned the central government’s policies and what it called the ‘invasion’ of Hindutva forces in Nagaland. “The Hindutva movement in the country has become strong and invasive in an unprecedented manner over the last few years with the BJP, the political wing of the RSS, in power,” said the NBCC General Secretary, the Reverend Zelhou Keyho, in his letter. He urged the state’s political leaders to rely on the state’s own strengths for development, “We can develop ourselves.” Development is the mantra being peddled by all the political parties in these elections.
As of 2011, the NBCC had 519,964 Baptized members in 1,553-member churches. Unlike some other Christians, the Baptists count as members only adults who make a public declaration of faith in Jesus Christ and undergo the baptism ceremony by full immersion in water after learning the Bible. The other major Christian denomination in Nagaland are the Catholics, who believe in infant baptism by sprinkling water on a baby’s head. Baptists and Catholics in Nagaland have a dog-and-cat relationship and regard each other like Sunnis and Shias regard each other in Islam.
The other issue Rev Keyho referred to was a solution to what is called ‘The Indo-Naga Political Problem’ – the 70-year-old Naga insurgency for freedom from India. “Leave the Naga political problem solution alone and let it take its own course. If it were possible, it would have happened long ago.”
The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), the strongest of seven factions of insurgent groups, had signed an agreement with the BJP government in Delhi in 2015 for a ‘final settlement’ of the insurgency, South Asia’s oldest. But with the details of that agreement still a secret, and no progresson it is seen, the insurgents put pressure on tribalbodies and civil society organizations to force the political parties, including the state wing of the BJP, to issue a declaration on January 29 saying they would not take part in Tuesday’s elections unless the ‘Naga political problem’ was settled first.
But the BJP national leaders at Delhi suspended its state members who had signed the declaration and announced that it would go ahead and participate in the polls. This forced the other political parties to follow suit.
A solution to the political problem, development and ending corruption in public life and government are the three planks on which the BJP is fighting the elections, in alliance with a new party, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), formed by defectors from other parties in May 2017. Its founder-president Niephiu Rio, a former Chief minister, has already been elected unopposed, leaving contests in 59 of the 60 assembly constituencies. Rio is projected to be the Chief minister of an NDPP-BJP alliance government.
Apart from Rio, the NDPP has 38 candidates left in the fray – one of them, Alemtemshi Jamir, a former bureaucrat and a graduate of India’s prestigious and elitist St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, is contesting in two constituencies. The BJP is contesting 20 seats.
The BJP had won seven seats in the 2003 legislative assembly elections, two in 2008 and one seat in 2013. But Niephiu Rio had got the BJP legislators to merge with the Naga People’s Front (NPF) in 2004 and did the same again in 2008.
The major party in terms of candidates fielded in the polls is the ruling Naga Peoples Front (NPF), contesting 58 of the 59 constituencies left, which has been in power since 2003 leading a coalition Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) government.
Electoral politics in Nagaland resembles nothing more than a merry-go-round, with the riders hopping on and off horses with bewildering frequency.
The BJP could win seven seats in 2003 only because it was friends with the NPF, and both had the Congress as a common enemy; but Rio took away all of them the next year, doing the same in 2008. The NPF also took away all the 13 Congress legislators who had won in 2013.
With no opposition left in the assembly, the NPF turned on itself. Since 2013, Nagaland has had five Chief ministers. First, Niephiu Rio, who quit in 2014 to become a member of the LokSabha in the hope that the BJP-led NDA ruling alliance in Delhi would give him a ministerial job. He was followed by T.R. Zeliang, then Shurhozelei Liezietsu and then Zeliang again, the current Chief minister.
Division within the NPF began when Rio, disappointed that the BJP government at Delhi wouldn’t make him a minister, tried to return to state politics in 2015 by overthrowing Zeliang, who not only survived but sidelined Rio.
Zeliang had to resign in February 2017 after violent protests by Naga men who were opposed to a nationally-mandated 33 per cent reservation for women candidates in elections to urban civic bodies. Nagas, once a society of warring, head-hunting tribes and clansliving in independent village republics, are strongly patriarchal and oppose women’s participation in public life. “Children, Kitchen and Church” is the role assigned to women in Nagaland. “This is because the men don’t want women toget their hands on the money that can be looted from public office,” says the editor of a local newspaper.
Liezietsu replaced Zeliang, who kissed and made up with Rio a few months later to oust Liezietsu and occupy the Chief minister’s chairagain. But they quarreled, and Rio joined the NDPP formed by his faction in the NPF. Then, after the political parties decided todefy the poll boycott called at the behest of the insurgent groups, the BJP and NDPP announced an electoral alliance leaving the NPF in the wilderness.
Greed for the power and pelf of office, accentuated by traditional tribal and clan rivalries, are the cause of these bewildering, chameleon-like changes by Naga politicians. “This is a Christian state only in name,” said an American Pastor married toa Naga woman who has lived for long in Nagaland. “There are no Christian values, no Christian ethics in Nagaland politics”, said this outspoken Pastor who has his own independent Church. “There is Christianity, but no Christ.”
Money is the name of the game in Nagaland politics. The NDPP has accused the NPF of using “excessive money power.” NDPP candidates are short of money compared to the NPF candidates, “who have been in power for long and made money to be ploughed back into elections,” said the newspaper editor. “The BJP, India’s richest political party, has sent some money to helpits candidates and those of the NDPP, but it is a case of“too little, too late.”
There are 227 candidates in these elections — Nagaland’s 13th since 1964. Of them, more than half are “Crorepatis” – multi-millionaires or billionaires (1 crore = 10 million). Stories abound of candidates distributing One Quintal (100 Kg) of rice per household and Rs 1,000 per vote. Also pigs and cattle to be slaughtered for community and village feasts.
In Nagaland, the selection of candidates and voting is determined by village councils and chiefs on the basis of tribaland clan affiliations. This means that a candidate from a bigger clan within a tribe will defeat a candidate from a smaller clan: a member ofone tribe cannot even file his nomination in the area of another tribe; this means the bigger tribes dominate politics inNagaland; the smallerone gang up in marriages of convenience. The 16 tribes of Nagaland are plagued by Tribalism – loyalty to one’s own tribe or clan above all else. Thus, each clan or tribe wants its own man in the corridors of power in Kohima, the state capital.
In Nagaland electoral politics, the party — BJP, NDPP, NPF — is of noaccount. What matters is the individual, his money, his clan and his tribe. The Church and its homilies do not matter.
The state is awash in liquor during the election, though Nagaland is a ‘dry’ state where prohibition has been in force for more than 20 years, made government policy due to pressure from women and the Baptist Church. But the police and security forces have already seized 38,970,000 bottles of liquor smuggled in from neighbouring Assam and Arunachal Pradesh for distribution tovoters, according tofigures released by the state Police on Saturday.
But the real partying in Nagaland elections begins only after the official close of campaigning and lasts till well after polling is over. The hangover lingers for days.
The legal limit for expenditure bycandidates is Rs 2 million. “But peopleare coming to us and demanding money and more money. Voters are demanding Rs30,000, Rs 40,000 for each vote,” said NDPP President Chingwang Konyak. “How is that possible for us?”
The NBCC and other Christian organizations have appealed for “Clean Elections,” as always, but they are like the proverbial prophets crying in the wilderness. There is nobody to listen. Voters are too busy having a good time.
Political bigwigs from Delhi are irrelevant in the context of Nagaland elections, unless they come in helicopters with chests of cash. Rahul Gandhi, President of the Congress, did not even try to make an appearance, as he did in Meghalaya. His party, which once ruled Nagaland under the veteran S.C. Jamir, now the Governor of Odisha state, couldmuster a mere 18 candidates — who are all non-entities.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi only made a fleeting helicopter visit — to distant Tuensang town on the Myanmar border — which had a population of 36,744in 2011. Here, he announced gifts – Rs 18,000 million (Rs 1,800 crore) to make state capital Kohima a ‘Smart City’ (making India’s cities ‘smart’ is one of Modi’s pet ideas) and Rs 100,000 million (Rs 10,000 crore) to improve the roads of Nagaland, which has only one airport and one railhead, both at Dimapur, the commercial capital. Tuensang is the largest and easternmost district of Nagaland, but it had a population of only 196,801 (2011) – 590th in ranking out of 640 districts in India. Ithas six assembly constituencies, and the BJP has candidates in four, its ally the NDPP in two.
It would have made more sense for Modi to have addressed election rallies in Kohima or Dimapur, which is Nagaland’s largest city with a population of 379,769. It also has a large non-Naga population, mainly immigrant Muslims, Biharis, Marwaris, Nepalis, and others. Dimapur has the only constituency in Nagaland which is not reserved for the Nagas or any other tribe under India’s constitution, and it would have made more sense for Modi to have campaigned here. But Dimapur also has a large and aggressive media presence, and the Prime Minister perhaps wanted to avoid questions on his party’s Hindi — Hindu-Hindutva agenda. And the ban on eating beef in many of thestates where the BJP is in power.
To counter the propaganda about a “Hindutva Invasion of Nagaland”, which seems tohave evoked a response among Naga voters, the BJP made a promise to send Christians on free trips to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, if elected to power. This immediately led toa wave of jokes on social media – “BJP in Nagaland stands for Bharatiya Jesus Party.” The Congress made its own offer – senior citizens (above 60) selected by lot, would be sent to Jerusalem in groups of 50.
Jokes apart, many devout ordinary Christians went on social media and pointed out that the free or subsidized Pilgrimage to Jerusalem offer was against Scripture –and thus anti-Christian. The central tenet of Protestant Christianity, of which the Baptists are a major part,is that Salvation comes freelyby the Grace of God, and only through Faith in Jesus Christ, not by donating money to priests or churches, or by going on pilgrimages. It was on this point that Martin Luther broke from the Roman Catholic Church and founded the Protestant Reformation.
In Meghalaya, Christians immediately objected: Why was the Jerusalem offer made only to Nagaland Christians?Here too, Christians are angry with the BJP, as reported in South Asian Monitor on February 21. Narendra Modi addressed only one election rally in Meghalaya, at Phulbari in the West Garo Hills district, on the banks of the Jinjiram and Brahmaputra rivers. Immigrant Bengali Muslims form the majority population here, and they stayed away from Modi’s rally, as did the Christian Garos. Those whoattended the rally were from the Hindu Koch, Hajong and Rabha tribes.
The writer is a journalist based in Assam, India. He may be contacted at email@example.com