Rise of religious bigotry in Meghalaya

By H H Mohrmen

Incidents in certain areas, in the recent past have brought to light the fact that religious intolerance is beginning to raise its ugly head again amongst a section of the people in the state. The government will do itself and the state more harm than good if it ignores this problem and chooses not to address the issue immediately.

When Christianity first arrived in Jaiñtia Hills conversion of people from Niamtre to Christianity was not acceptable. Perhaps it is not wrong to say that this has created a division amongst the people of the area then. At least in certain parts of Jaiñtia hills in the early part of Christianity, the conversion was not welcome but was repulsed by the people. This has created many problems in some of the clans then. But this can be compared to the people of Nartiang adapting certain aspects of Hinduism without any hindrance, as there was no animosity amongst the people and they blended the aspect of Hinduism with their own religion.

A case in point is Jowai where the missionaries arrived and lived in a certain areas. New converts were separated from their families and brought to areas which later came to be known as Mission Compound. Stories of the first convert in Jowai is well documented by Nigel Jenkins in his book Gwalia in Khasia. Perhaps this ill-feeling amongst the Niamtre people then about members of the family converting to another religion, can be understood from the fact that it is a form of animism with no church, mosque or temple but where the family is bonded by the ‘Ïungblai or kmai-ïung’. This also indicated that in the Niamtre belief system it is the family which is the centre or the core of their religious life and separating one from the family is like cutting off one’s relationship from the family or the clan.

It may also be mentioned that in the past those members of the family who converted to Christianity were ostracised by the family/clan. The reason is because once a person converts to another religion, the first thing that separates them are the rites and passages; the most important aspect of this being in how the mortal remains of a person are treated. In the Niamtre the mortal remains of all those who are of the same clan which means the charred bones of the deceased person are deposited in the same ‘mootymmoh mootylleiñ’ or the clans ossuary as opposed to being buried in the cemetery.

Now this has created a schism where none existed before and till today Jowai town is broadly divided into Pohskur bad Pohchnong because the non-Christians called the Christian ‘ki skur’ and the Christians of all hues called those who are not Christians as ‘ki chnong’. As time passed the acrimony also died down and people lived in harmony with each other. In fact, Jowai is now one of the most peaceful towns in the state, the town was also largely not affected even by the militancy problem that had rocked state in the past.

But if one is to look at the current scenario in the state, and if we are to take the media reports into consideration, then there appears to be a growing ill-feeling amongst the people of different religions in the state. It begin with a student organisation protesting against the installation of the Ganesh idol at the entrance to the National Institute of Technology, Shillong which also demanded that that the idol be replaced with the image of Aryabhatta, Albert Einstein or even APJ Abdul Kalam. Well, the students’ organisation is within their right to protest against the installation of any idol or for that matter installation of anything that has to do with religion in any government institute, but what is amusing is the fact that the objection was raised by a student body from Jaiñtia hills, which I will elaborate later.

The Jaiñtias had had a long history of not less than three hundred years with Hinduism because although their rulers remained Pnars and kept their tribal culture they have willy-nilly adopted certain aspects of Hinduism in their religious lives. From approximately the 1500 AD when we have records about the kingdom, till the late 1800s when the Jaiñtia kingdom was defeated and was annexed to be part of the British Empire, though the kingdom had its capital in the plains, it was ruled by the descendants of the erstwhile Sutnga kingdom. The Jaiñtia kingdom as it was known later ruled over a part of the country which included large parts of the plain and over the hills too. It is indeed ironic that while the protest is against the installation of a small idol of the Hindu god with an elephant-head, the biggest Ganesh idol carved on a single rock can be found in Syndai village along with many elephant sculptures.

As history would tell us, the Pnars seemed to be more tolerant in the past than they are today. Few days after the protest against the idol was reported another organisation protested against keeping the Bible in the rooms of government hospitals, on the basis that it is against the Constitution. The Organisation which goes by the name of Legal Rights Observatory (LRO) also protested against some government health centres using texts from the Christian scriptures in a public platform which was displayed for public view.

Taking the protests at face value, if both the protests are genuine and are for the right cause which is to maintain the secular aspect of the country, and if both the incidents were really made to ensure that the Constitution is above everything else, then the efforts are praise-worthy. But the pertinent question is whether these protests were really made to uphold the secular  spirit of the Constitution.

What do these protests have to tell us? What are the messages that it has for the Government of the day? What lesson is the Government learning from these incidents? The point is it does not matter if the protests were genuine or were made with the right spirit; what is obvious is that there is acrimony within the society because what used to be accepted as normal like having holy books in the hospital rooms where people recuperate and get healed is now not accepted and taken as an offence against the Constitution. It is also obvious that intolerance is raising its ugly head in the society now.

The Government will therefore do itself and the people of the state a favour if it continues to maintain the secular fabric of the country and it will also be wise on its part if it ensures that all its institutions are kept free of any religious influences. Of course placing idols of different religions will be an impractical task because there are too many idols to fit in any space, but the issue of keeping Holy Scriptures of different religions in the hospital rooms can be looked at afresh. In fact if we are to look at the issue from a different angle, maybe if at all we have to keep the Holy Scriptures in the hospital rooms then to be true to the spirit of the Constitution, the Government can keep the holy books of all religions and let people choose which scripture they want to read.

In this way the government can maintain the secular aspect of the Constitution in the true sense of the term.

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