Preaching in India’s Northeast for
By Stephen Knapp
India’s northeast is an area that I had never visited before. So my experience of touring Arunachal Pradesh (in December of 2002) and lecturing about the glories of Vedic culture was not only inspiring, but was also a terrific adventure. Fortunately, I was able to see not only some of its large towns but also some of its smallest villages.
I’ve been a member of Iskcon, the Hare Krishna Movement, since 1975. However, I also have a broad vision of cooperation and, thus, work with a wide number of people and groups in the global Vedic community. As a Krishna bhakta (devotee) and disciple of Srila Prabhupada, it is my intent to work with the extended Hindu society for a common cause. This shows the usefulness that we can be to the larger community as well as the power that comes from an expansive and cooperative effort. I have also written several books that have reached and been appreciated by this broader society of Sanatana-dharma.
It is for this reason that I had originally been invited by Swami Dayanand Sarasvati from Coimbatore, along with several other delegates from the West, to go to Guwahati in Assam to participate in the “North East India Janajati Faith & Culture Protection Forum”. This conference took place on the 14th and 15th of December, 2002. It focused on the increasing threat in India’s northeast regions of the loss of its culture and traditions because of the number of conversions that are taking place, often by questionable tactics. I and the other delegates were there to give lectures and presentations on the benefits of the local and Vedic culture of the region.
The other delegates from the west included Dr. David Frawley, Andrew Foss, Vrindavana Parker, Yvette Rosser, and Surya das Youngwolf, all of whom are members of the Vedic Friends Association, a new organization that I’ve been helping create for expanding Vedic knowledge. Now you might ask why they might want westerners such as us to come and give talks. Surely their own local people would know more about their own culture than we would.
The point is that when they see Westerners talking about the glories of Vedic culture, the Indians take it more seriously. It adds credence to the presentation. This is not the first time that I’ve been touring India and giving lectures, and I have found that this is true. They look at a typical westerner, such as myself, who has been brought up in a country like America, the most materially affluent country in the world, and often grown up in the usual Christian background, who then comes to India and explains how much we have been influenced by the Vedic tradition and knowledge. This is a real novelty to some of them. This is very unusual that we should speak with such approval of what the Vedic culture has had to offer humanity. This is because we often look at India not from an outsider’s viewpoint but from an Indian’s perspective. And it gives them a sense of pride in what they have.
Furthermore, as David Frawley told me, the Prime Minister of India, Vajpayai personally said to him that as westerners, we can say more than Indians can. If an Indian gets up and speaks, or even if a Swami speaks about the glories of Vedic culture, it is to be expected. It’s nothing new. But if a westerner does it, then that is different, and we can say things that the locals cannot always say and be taken seriously. In fact, all of us Western delegates got coverage in the press over the next few days for being there and giving talks at the conference. So in light of this, I felt good that I could come and do my part in encouraging people to value their own culture.
This conference was the first of its kind, and there were almost 300 delegates from the northeast. Many were there to speak and give their concerns with what is happening, and there was hardly enough time for everyone. However, many papers were also presented, and it certainly provided the means for planning for an even more effective conference the following year.
Traveling in Arunachal Pradesh
After the conference, most of us western delegates went our separate ways into the interior of the region. Vridavana and Yvette went into Nagaland, Andrew went to Schillong, Meghalaya for a few days, and Surya das Youngwolf and I went into different parts of Arunachal Pradesh. My own route took me to the eastern part, closer to China and Myanmar. You need special permits to travel into these parts, but the organization I was working with, the Vivekananda Kendra, provided the means for such permits to be granted. So I spent another seven days traveling to many towns and villages, giving from one to three lectures everyday, except on the days that were full of traveling.
I was able to also see much of the area’s wilderness. There are extremely lush forests, beautiful hills and valleys, and lovely flowing rivers. The most prominent river of course is the Brahmaputra. It also has many tributaries that reach much farther into the hills and mountains. The best time to travel is in the winter, which is the dry season here. Once the rainy season starts in March, the Brahmaputra rises much higher and can be up to ten miles wide in some places. Then it must be crossed by ferry, which can take several hours in parts. As it was, in the eastern region, we could sometimes drive right through the shallow portions of the rivers. At areas where we could not see exactly where the road went, we would throw rocks into the shallow parts of the river. If you could hear the rocks bounce off the bottom, that’s where we would drive the jeep. However, there was a time when we miscalculated and we drove into the river and the water started coming up over the front of the jeep. So before we got soaked, the driver stepped on the gas and we simply went through it to the other side without a problem. At other areas, we would have to take the pontoon bridges. However, in the rainy season even these could be washed away.
While traveling in these hilly areas, some of the roads were the worst I’d ever ridden on in India. In other places you could not tell where the road ended and another started. They were like mere paths in the sand. And while driving up to the town of Khonsa during the night after a day of rain, the roads were so bad that without a four-wheel drive jeep there would have been no way we could have gotten through the mud, which was easily six inches deep or more along steep hillsides. I have been on narrow mountain roads of the Himalayas before while going up to Badrinatha or Gangotri, so I know what they can be like. But when the tires start spinning and the jeep begins sliding around in the mud and getting close to the edge of the road, then it gets a little hair-raising. Long drop offs down from the edge of the road were not unusual.
To reach these towns I traveled in a jeep and was accompanied by a driver, along with two members of the Vivekananda Kendra, Rupesh and Ramana, and my own personal security officer for extra safety. This was not because the people are unfriendly, but because of the danger the region has suffered due to the effects of militant Christian insurgents coming from Nagaland. They come in and terrorize the people and force them with threats to pay high taxes to fund their cause, or with death if they do not convert to their religion. This is called “gunpoint conversions”. They have even taken people out to the forests to shoot and kill them when they have refused to convert. Furthermore, when we were traveling from Mergherita to Khonsa we had a truck with four additional armed soldiers follow us into the forest region for a few hours for extra protection. You never know when the insurgents could show up in the middle of a forest, set up road blocks, and threaten your life. Though I never felt in peril, you never knew if something might happen. So while traveling and speaking on the benefits and glories of Vedic culture, this was one of the dangers with which we had to contend.
An example is the town of Khonsa. This is a pleasant hillside town with neighboring villages. Yet, some years ago the town and its shops would often stay open with activity until eight o’clock or later. But after the insurgents started coming and making their demands, the town now closes up shortly after dark, which is around five PM or later. The people became fearful of what could happen. Even though the police and military have increased its numbers to add protection, the people have become extra cautious, and there are certain things that they can no longer do. This is one way in which their freedom to practice their culture is being threatened. The original traditions of this region are parts of the great river of Sanatana-dharma that flows throughout India, or are all tributaries of that great river. Naturally we are respectful toward all religions. But it should not be at the expense of one’s own culture. We must not humble ourselves out of our own existence, or our own values and traditions. We must know when to stand and take counter measures for preserving our own heritage. This is why attention needs to be given to the Northeast region so that the simple and innocent people of this area can be protected from falling as victims of destabilizing forces.
The people in the region are wonderful, for the most part. Extremely hospitable and courteous. They are simple, humble, shy, and incredibly conscientious of others’ feelings and well being. They maintain ecological lifestyles and acquire whatever they need by living off the land. I met many people there who always invited me to their homes for dinner or lunch to try their local vegetarian foods. And they were always giving me gifts that represented their local crafts and traditions. I also met other Indians who were from other parts of the country that upon arriving in Arunachal Pradesh simply loved the people so much that they have stayed there.
In Arunachal Pradesh, the ecologically built houses are made mostly from bamboo and do not even have doors or locks on them. People can come and go as they like with no fear from thieves or dacoits from within their own village. Because of their values, these villages have no beggars, no orphans or destitutes. Everyone takes care of everyone else. For example, when a young, newly married couple wants to build a house, the whole community works together to build it in what’s called “community house building.” If any house gets burned down, the whole village comes together to rebuild it. I was personally shown a part of a village where several houses had burnt down. The houses were all rebuilt in two days because everyone worked together. Then others come to offer the people in need such items as blankets, utensils, or other necessities. In this way, within 24 hours or so a well-furnished house can be ready for a family. When a whole village is burnt, other neighboring villages come together to rebuild and furnish the houses. The society responds to the needs of its members. Therefore, it does not need an orphanage or a destitute home, nor a police force, or government forms of welfare. The society itself is a welfare society. And yet the western or converted missionaries want to “civilize” these people by making them change their ways and religion. Then wherever conversions take place, these traditional values and community cooperation are lost.
During my tour, I visited and lectured at several schools to both students and teachers, as well as several community centers where people gathered to hear me and ask philosophical and spiritual questions. I spoke to local people as well as tribal chiefs or local government officials. Some of the students had never seen an American before.
When I would speak, I was always introduced as being a disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, and having joined the Hare Krishna movement back in 1975. Even though I was working with organizations outside Iskcon, I was surprised at how many Krishna bhaktas I met. And I was also impressed with how many people view Srila Prabhupada with the utmost respect and feel that Iskcon is an organization that is working very nicely for the protection, preservation and expansion of Vedic culture. So for this reason, I’m happy to broaden my participation with whom I work for these preaching efforts. After all, it was the Vivekananda Kendra and other organizations who had arranged for my travel and speaking engagements through this region, and who paid for and arranged for my transportation and the places for me to stay. We were working to achieve the same thing, which is the continuance and expansion of the Vedic principles and culture.
For me personally, I am also working to keep India the homeland of a living and dynamic Vedic civilization, which in many ways is being threatened in particular areas of India. The Northeastern region is another area in which a growing militant view, influenced by western religions, makes people demand succession from India as a separatist country. This is especially in Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram, Assam, Arunachala Pradesh, etc., although a fair number of people still want to follow their own indigenous culture. So this is one reason I have gone on lecture tours throughout India, and was visiting the northeastern region on this trip. When people see a westerner speaking with such dedication to the Vedic path, it gives them more self-confidence.
After all, what other culture in the world has given society such deep and philosophical insights into the reasons for life, and the perception of our spiritual identity? What culture has given more realizations into humanity’s spiritual unity, and our connection with God?
In America there are more people than ever looking toward the East for spiritual knowledge and a heightened understanding in the meaning of life. There are over seven million Americans who practice yoga on a regular basis, and many others are adopting to the Eastern forms of diet and Ayurvedic health care for improving their lives. More magazines than ever before are found at the news stand that deal with Eastern lifestyles and philosophy, such as reincarnation, life after death, diet and exercise, or even the philosophical adaptations for corporate management.
Another thing that is happening in America is the epidemic of depression. The statistics say that as many as 70 million Americans are suffering from depression. This is a lack of motivation, of purpose in life, and feeling lethargic, uninspired, and even suicidal over the way life is going for them. So again, people are looking for more purpose in life. This shows that merely adapting to the Western lifestyle or its religions may not be the way to be perfectly happy or solve all our problems. It may not be all that is required to advance in life. There is something more that is necessary. America is a young country, so it really does not have much culture of its own. That is why when Americans look for culture, they often have to look outside of their own country. And that search often takes people toward the East. So it may surprise many people who live in India and the Eastern countries how the West is looking toward them to add purpose and deeper meaning and understanding to their lives.
Because of this, and also due to the increasing number of Indians and foreign people who practice Vedic culture or forms of Sanatana-dharma who are moving to America, the demographics in the United States is rapidly changing. You find an increasing change in the religious temperament of the population. There is more openness to alternative spiritual paths than only Christianity. There is a decrease in the evangelism that goes on in the West, which is presently so popular in India. It is becoming more of a thing of the past. Churches are also not as full, especially in Europe. People are looking at the more personal ways of practicing spirituality, something that the Vedic system has provided for centuries.
The Vedic culture is also the oldest of any culture in the world, and for thousands of years has provided mankind with standards, ideals and insights for living that have provided for peace, harmony and spiritual development. The world has always looked toward India for spiritual guidance. Therefore, who should tell me that if I expect to advance into the 21st century that I must give up this culture? Or that the Vedic customs are evil and Satanic? Since when did they ever become Satanic, except with the presence of the foreign missionaries? The Vedic tradition and all its tributaries in the region have already existed for thousands of years, so who is to tell me that it is not good enough to last for another several thousand years?
The Vedic customs and philosophy have withstood the test of time because of their universal nature. It has lasted because of the respect given to the individual, as opposed to forcing people into following the dictates of an institution at the expense of individual freedom. Under the Vedic umbrella there is, nonetheless, the freedom for religious diversity. Recognizing our spiritual similarities provides the means for unity in diversity. The Vedic system establishes certain principles by which we can live and grow in peace. As long as those principles are respected and practiced, it does not demand that people drastically change from their indigenous culture.
The people of Bharat are rooted in religious culture. In fact, as I have traveled around most of India, I can see that many of the social problems that have developed are not because of the culture itself, but because of the distancing or even disconnection from the true teachings of Vedic culture. Or it is because of following a perversion of what the culture once was.
This doesn’t mean that people must give up on technological advancement. No. As my own spiritual master Srila Prabhuapda has said, along with others like Vivekananda, the need is to combine the advancements of the West with the spiritual knowledge of the East. This is what provides for a decent and progressive society. The only need is to keep the basis of Vedic culture, but merely add to it the modern technological developments of the West. You simply broaden your education to include the modern technologies that are helpful and applicable to the region. Include what is necessary to improve the roads and methods of transportation, the medical systems and hospitals, the communication systems, the agricultural techniques, and so on. You don’t have to give up your culture or religion to do this. Keep what you have and simply add to it. Or modify the customs according to what is most appropriate to the times, but do so with proper respect for the tradition.
The point to consider is that the farther a people go from their original indigenous culture and the values and principals it contained, often the worse life becomes for them. They become but slaves to a new establishment that cares little for their genuine welfare or original traditions. Forgetting their own ethics and values is often what happens at the demands of the foreign institution or religion, thus, often furthering interest in shallow or false aims of life.
The lectures and presentation that I gave went so well that they want me to return next year and spend more time in that area cultivating the values and focusing on the glories of Vedic culture and the original traditions of the region. So I want to do this. As I get to know the people on an increasingly personal level, then the more effective I can be in working to retain the natural culture of the area and delivering genuine spiritual knowledge.
The Dangers in the Northeast
In personally interviewing the local people about the situation, this is what I learned: The northeast region has become so infected by Christian militants and conversions that they want to secede from the rest of India and become their own Christian country, against the wishes of those who want to remain a part of the Vedic or indigenous cultures.
Assam, for example, has an economy based on agriculture and oil. Assam produces a significant part of the total tea production of the world, and produces more than half of India’s petroleum. Assam has 30 major tribes of people while the nearby state of Arunachal Pradesh has 24 major tribes. However, the current political situation in Assam is unstable with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) fighting a low-intensity but widespread guerrilla warfare for independence from India. Although the Indian military has tried to quell the insurgents with a large presence for more than ten years, they have not been very successful. Plus, there are other militant groups that are seeking independence or autonomy in Assam.
Mizoram is another state that is now mostly converted to Christianity, but whose people have shunned the path of violence and are peace loving. They are, nonetheless, reviving their age old culture, traditions and festivals after feeling the dread impact of westernization which invaded their land with the alien religion.
Manipur, south of Nagaland and north of Mizoram, still remains attached to its old Vedic culture, especially through its song and dances, many of which tell the stories of Lord Krishna. However, many changes have also been felt here as well.
Christians entered Nagaland and Mizoram in 1860-70, and Arunachal in 1952. Because of the influence of western evangelists, the local traditions are now in the process of being transformed beyond recognition or wiped out totally. Taking advantage of the poverty, lack of employment and education, these foreign missionaries have lured away a large part of the people from their traditional moorings. Types of food, drink, dress, songs, dances and festivals are all being lost or forgotten because of recently being regarded as unrighteous, and being replaced by modern western pop songs and dances. However, the people have not completely snapped the bond with the culture of their forefathers. Conversion tears the individual away from his or her family, and from the rest of the community. Acts of conversion, therefore, create social unrest and clashes in an area that has until recently been a place of community peace and cooperation. What is now appearing is the typical form of competition found in western society, and a class struggle emerging in the once classless society. In this way, we can understand that the work of religious conversion in the guise of social service by calling the indigenous cultures and the forefathers as satanic or worshipers of Satan, or people of darkness and damned to hell, is a form of violence of the worst sort. It is, therefore, all the more necessary to think of ways and means to stem the tide of this so-called modernism which is producing the loss of the Vedic indigenous cultures in the area.
One of the methods of the missionary schools to make Christian converts is that they offer free education to the local children. They educate them freely for one or two years and then begin charging them for books and clothes. However, if the parents cannot pay the costs, the schools tell them that if they make four or five boys into Christians, then they do not have to pay the school tuition. Thus, the education narrows their views of their own culture to the point where they willingly give it up and help perpetuate that limited notion.
The people are also told that they are not Indian, and should not think they need to be loyal to India or the Indian traditions. They are told by the schools that they are actually “austro-mongoloid” (by anthropologists) to inspire a feeling that the people do not belong here since they do not look like other Indians. Or since there is a difference in food habits, as some people eat beef in Arunachal Pradesh, they should not identify with other Indians. The missionary schools then focus on differences, and people become influenced because they do not have a deeper understanding of the unifying principles.
The idea is given that unless the people become Christian, they will not become qualified to develop themselves like America has done. They are told that becoming Christian is the way to become more materially successful.
Another method is that when the Church comes in, the missionaries say that the people and their ancestors have been practicing evil. Sometimes they are even told that they and their customs are Satanic. Thus, all traditions, worship, festivals, etc., must stop since it is equal to devil worship. However, when people listen and adopt the ways of Christianity, the harmonious community living ends and the people become divided. The new Christians no longer participate in community activities, such as festivals, town meetings, or in respecting the land when a section is cleared for farming for a few years and later replanted with trees for future balance. Nor do they help with community house-building. All this stops among the Christian converts.
For example, in the villages people are so united that, as previously explained, when a house burns down, everyone helps to build a new house for the people who had been living there. Some people will also give utensils, others give blankets, and so on so that in a few days the people whose house burned down will have a new place and everything they need to go on as normal. So when this cooperation ends because some of the townspeople have become Christian, people become selfish and alienated from age-old traditions and from each other.
A simple example of this is the regional custom of making rice beer. The Christian missionaries have come in and told people they must give up their traditions because they are evil, including the making of rice beer, which anyone can do. It’s not an industry. Rice beer is made from rice and is actually a nutritious drink. Yet, it must stay contained and ferment for a long period of time before it becomes a strong brew. You have to drink a lot of it if you expect to become inebriated. Otherwise, it is like a fruit drink with very little strength. So, with the incentive of the foreign missionaries they give up making the rice beer and instead they are encouraged to simply buy wine. Now there are so many wine and liquor shops in some areas like Assam that alcoholism is becoming a real concern. And there are far more health problems with liquor than there is with rice beer. So, in the name of progress, the situation has become more detrimental to the people than helpful or improved.
The missionaries, as part of their campaign for conversion, have also called the gods and goddesses of the communities “spirits.” The people were told, “You do not have God, You only worship spirits. What you have is only primitive ideas of religion and a bundle of superstitions. If you want to be saved, you must follow our One True God.” Thus, they took away the people’s confidence in their culture, but by using the word “spirit” they also philosophically separated the local Vanavasi people from their Hindu or Vedic connection.
At many times the church has not made any attempt to hide what they are doing. Actually, they have to include the number of converts they are making because that helps increase the funding they receive from the West. Thus, local people have been hearing and reading in the Christian propaganda that third world countries like India are the prime missionary fields. They declare their intention through radios, literature, or in church services, of turning India into a land of Christ by hook or crook.
A few other things that the church uses as techniques for conversion is explained by Naga Rani Gaidinliu. In 1978 the people of Lungkao village in Manipur had been approaching the state government for establishing a medical dispensary. As it could not happen for a long time, the men from the Christian church began visiting the people and would tell them that God could fulfill their desire for a dispensary only if they all stopped pursuing their age-old indigenous faiths and accepted Jesus Christ only as their personal savior. They began to repeatedly tell the simple and innocent villagers that as long as they were on the side of “Satan” (meaning the indigenous faith) they would not have their desired dispensary but worse, they would also be burnt in hell fire before long. They were about to begin succeeding in this process when the State Government of Manipur gave approval to allow for the medical dispensary and saved the situation.
Failing to convert adult Hindus, the economically powerful American Baptist Church, which had been working in the Kiriba town, as well as the Roman Catholic Church elsewhere, entice the minor children to join their school. Thereafter, they work to convert them by baptizing them without the knowledge of the parents. As soon as a tribal child is converted, his or her indigenous name is changed in the school register the next day to something like that of John, Joseph, Mary or Margaret. Such conversions of minor children invariably lead to disharmony, unhappiness and eventual shattering of the families, along with their age-old traditions and culture. This could be compared more closely to psychological warfare against the people and communities in which such churches have been allowed to exist, rather than social service, welfare and upliftment.
The northeast region of India, especially around and in Nagaland, has 40 different missionary groups, all quarreling and competing for converts to Christianity. But it also has 18 major Christian militant groups, which are extremely dangerous. The Nagaland militants get church money and then buy guns, such as AK47s and AK57s from Burma or Bangladesh. They will also go into villages and threaten people to pay a tax to them. Then they use the money to buy guns and weapons. The Indian Army is helping to stop such activities, but the secular press writes against the Army activities, making them appear to be villains working against the freedom of the people.
These militant groups travel throughout the area and kidnap people for ransom money. They patrol Arunachal towns to make them Christian. They tell the people that their lives are in danger if they do not build a church or pay a tax to them. Some people may argue that these are not real Christians, but “Nagaland for Christ” is the name they use, which is stamped on the notes that demand tax. These groups may also say that they are servants of the government, and thus collect a tax which they use for their purpose. Of course, some people may say that these are not real Christians, so we should not take them seriously. Yet, if that’s the case, then why don’t you try telling them that and see what happens? They may not be convinced of your point of view and may end up turning their guns toward you. They are completely convinced that they are doing the right thing for their religion. It is similar to the days of the witch hunts in Europe several hundred years ago when thousands of innocent women were tortured and burned at the stake. If anyone said something against it, that person would also be accused of being sympathetic to the witches, and maybe of being one of them, and then subjected to the same treatment.
What the militants do is that groups of 20 to 30 men will come from places like Nagaland and then travel through the forest into towns of Arunachal Pradesh. They take food and rest, and then demand that the people should become Christian and threaten them with guns. Due to fear, people then convert in “gunpoint conversions”. There are both Catholic and Baptist militant groups. Though these groups are all Christian, they still have no respect for each other and often fight amongst themselves. One such group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland has two factions. One is the Kaplan group, and the other is the Isak Muria group. On December 14 of 2002, The Kaplan group attacked the latter group when they were at church during a Sunday gathering. Four people were killed and others injured. So we have to ask ourselves; how can social harmony come from such disharmony? How can unity come from such disunity? So how can we combat this chaos and clean up this dilemma?
Working to Restore Cultural Balance
To summarize the situation in the words of Talom Rukbo the Father of the Donyipolo Movement in Arunachala Pradesh from a talk he gave called “The Truth Every Bharatiya Should Know”:
“The church–Christian missionaries–quickly capitalized on the innocence of our forefathers. They fraudulently convinced our people that we were barbarians and converted some into Christianity. Having put into them the fear of God, the temptation of Paradise, they put the Bible into their hands and employed the local youth to translate it and hymns in their local dialect. The books were made for free distribution in the local areas. Those brainwashed youths became their tools and handmade for propagation of their religion and erected churches to attract the innocent Arunachalee people, thus converting them into missionaries. The so called “Service” they offered–medicines and school–were thin disguises for their crooked purpose of conversion. They declared that the converted persons must discard (1) the “animist” practices, (2) our festivals and that our Gods and Godesses were Saitan (evil spirits–Satan). Christians must depend only on the CROSS for their safety and security. Slowly this created frequent disturbances and social disharmony. The Christian missionaries were stooping to the lowest, most uncivilized means to tear social fabric of our society apart.
“Our traditions, customs, rituals, faith, festivals, dress, etc., have deep roots and profound meaning. We should remember that our forefathers have lived it with peace and happiness. We should take supreme pride in them, preserve then and guard them from the attack of any force–whichever it might be. Yes, it may have to be modified as per the social needs but without destroying its essentials. Seeing and worshiping the sun, moon, tress, earth… all these natural things, are reflections of our culture. We are seeing in them the expressions of ultimate divinity! Being the inheritors of such a lofty philosophy, why should we feel inferior to anyone or accept foreign faith? Raise your heads and proclaim that we are proud Arunachalees!!! Let us stop using the word tribal, henceforth as a cancerous legacy from the ‘colonialists’. It was in keeping with their ‘divide and rule policy’. Never be under the impression that modernization means westernization, it is not. Let us not imitate but adapt and accept whatever is constructive and in tune with our moral aptitude. Let this be our yardstick.”
To help in this way, the Vivekananda Kendra has been establishing schools since 1977 with 60-70% support from the local people. Now they do not convert to Western religions so easily anymore in those areas. The quality of work of the Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalayas (VHVs) can be judged by the fact that starting in 1977 with only 7 schools, 23 teachers and 220 students, the VKVs have grown to 20 schools, 267 teachers and 6278 students in 25 years. Three more schools are scheduled to start in 2003, and the Kendra is still not able to meet the demand for more schools.
Graduates are becoming doctors, engineers, lawyers, administrators, but are also taking active roles and important positions in local government to work for the preservation of the cultures. Many also come back to Arunachal to work toward the development of the state and its people. The education provided in the VKVs is based on the principle of “Man Making and Nation Building,” which encompasses a full curriculum of subjects and activities for mental, intellectual, physical and spiritual development.
Vivekananda Kendra also started the Vivekananda Kendra Aruna Jyoti in 1993, a multi-dimensional service project for everyone. It includes five separate wings for education, health care, youth, women, and culture.
The goal is the development of the local culture through the arts and crafts for economic progress and freedom from the schemes of the Church to bride people with money to become Christian. Also, the Northeast regions have lush forests with many medicinal and Ayurvedic plants that are useful on the international markets. So these are also being harvested and marketed by local people. The people in these areas are also naturally very creative, so the emphasis is on getting the local economy more organized through sustainable development with local culture and traditions, along with crafts of bamboo and cane work, woodcarving, textiles, and other handmade crafts. By encouraging everyone to have strong roots in their own way of life and traditions, their culture can be protected in time.
Arun Jyoti is the organization that promotes culture in education and personality development and nation-building work in Arunachala. In the area of the Itanagar belt of Arunachal Pradesh, 172 study centers have been established, while in the eastern area there are not as many.
The Changalang district of Arunachala Pradesh is primarily Buddhist but as we travel south it becomes mostly Christian. At least 60% of the people, however, support the Vivekananda Kendra because they now want to continue their own traditions. To further cultural awareness, the Vivekananda Kendra has one or two large seminars in the tribal areas each year, along with smaller symposiums in each town one or two times a year. This helps provide the venues in which people can discuss issues, ideas, and the means of protecting the practice of their own traditions that they have known for many hundreds of years. However, from the article that follows, there is much work that needs to be done, and quickly.
HINDUSTAN TIMES, DECEMBER 31, 2002
NOW A CHRISTIAN-HINDU DIVIDE IN TRIPURA VILLAGES
Agence France-Presse, Guwahati, December 31
Tribal Hindu villagers in Tripura on Tuesday pledged to fight alleged extortion demands by a Christian separatist group, community leaders said. Militants of the outlawed National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) have served extortion notices to hundreds of Hindu tribals and threatened them with death if they do not pay up.
“The demand notes were served only to tribal Hindu villagers with warnings of capital punishment to those who violated their diktat,” Aswathama Jamatia, head priest of the Jamatia Hoda, an influential tribal Hindu group, told AFP by telephone.
Police have confirmed the extortion demands by the NLFT, which is a predominantly Christian group fighting for an independent tribal homeland. Community leaders say the NLFT has demanded three per cent of the annual earnings of all government employees as tax, besides charging anything between Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000 from farmers and businessmen.
Villagers in remote areas have formed vigilante groups to foil the NLFT’s drive. “People armed with sticks and other crude weapons, including bows and arrows, patrol vulnerable villages to scare away militants who come for extorting money,” Rampada Jamatia, secretary of the Jamatia Hoda, said. “At no cost are we going to pay the militants.”
Tribal Hindus account for about 22 per cent of Tripura’s 3.2 million people. Christians are just about eight per cent of the state’s population. Tribal Hindus also accuse the NLFT of converting people to Christianity at gunpoint. Insurgency in the state took root after a massive influx of Bengali-speaking refugees when East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, was created during India’s partition in 1947.
The indigenous tribal people, who accounted for 95 per cent of the Tripura population in the 1931 census, are now just 30 per cent. More than 10,000 people have lost their lives to insurgency in Tripura during the past two decades.
[You can also read my paper Save Your Culture for further insights into this matter. Another article that can give some deep revelations into this issue is Organized Religion by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saravati Thakur. ]