Is it possible to turn back the clock?


By Albert Thyrniang

In the late 1970s and early 1980s my village was probably already more than 80 per cent Christian. When the rest of the less than 20 per cent indigenous population had their annual harvest festival it was considered sinful for Christians to witness the festive dances. In the church, preachers would repeat that message. The festival was called “Shad ‘Riew Pyrthei” (Dance of the people of the world) and adherents of indigenous religion were called “Riew Pyrthei” (literally meaning people of the world). This is in confirmation with the observation in articles and letters to the editors in this paper and elsewhere that missionaries forbade their faithful to attend the “Behdien Khlam” festival. Before proceeding further it is stated that the terms “Shad ‘Riew Pyrthei” or “Riew Pyrthei” are offensive and should have never been used.

Reminiscing on the years gone by, the foot-paths in my village were ‘littered’ with pig dung as the domesticated animals were allowed to roam free. Today that has completely changed. Cleanliness is close to top-notch. A census will reveal cent per cent literacy. The LP school has now become a higher secondary school with infrastructure equal to average institutions in Shillong. People have easier access to health care. Of course, the 100 plus households have all converted to Christianity. The monoliths were removed and you won’t find a single ‘Ksing’ (traditional drum) in the entire village. My micro testimony is by and large the story of tribal Meghalaya and beyond. Today the Christian population in the state is estimated at 75%. Followers of traditional religion stand at only 8.70%.

Post the Rev Thomas Jones Day commemoration critics have pointed out the irrevocable ‘damage’ done to the religious, cultural and social life of the tribes of ‘Hynniewtrep’ albeit with the commendable transformation particularly in education, literature and health care. Indisputably foreign missionaries brought education, health-care and invented the Khasi Alphabet. However, equally undeniably, they also converted the indigenous population to Christianity and considered this land ‘heathen’ which needed to be civilized and liberated’. The questions asked are, “Was conversion the primary objective and education and health care secondary ones? Or was it the other way round? Were education and health care tools for conversion? Though education and health are a blessing, are the cultural, social and religious practices of our fore-parents, to a great extent diminished.  

We are witnessing a resurgence of the ‘Black movement’ in USA and in European countries like the UK after the murder of George Floyd an African-American. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is reminding the white race of the 400 year history of slavery, social and economic injustices. Blacks are reminding the world of the horrible things that happened to them due to colonisation, exploration and imperialism carried out by whites (should we say synonymous with Christians?). As historical statues were pulled down, toppled, vandalised and defaced, the movement is telling us to relearn and unlearn much of history.

Contrary to popular knowledge Christopher Columbus never discovered America because at least 100 million aboriginal people were already living there centuries before Columbus set foot there.  Upon his arrival in the Caribbean the Genoa born 15th century explorer seized the Taino natives of the Hispaniola Island to be servants. Later he forced them into slavery in cold mines and plantation, flogged and cut their ears as punishment for ‘unsatisfactory’ work. Columbus and his fellow travellers also brought diseases like small pox and measles devastating the natives to near annihilation. He sent thousands of peaceful Tainos to Spain to be sold. Many perished en route. One estimate says, within 60 years after Columbus landed in the new world, only a few hundred may have survived of the 250,000 Taino natives. As governor and viceroy, Columbus ordered a brutal crackdown in response to natives’ revolt to deter further rebellion. He even ordered mutilated bodies to be paraded in public. Critics say the cruel invader was responsible for a genocide of up to 90% of native population under his rule. Even after such a heinous record he is accorded a federal holiday in October.

As we are in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic it is relevant to recall the American plagues of the 16th century. Brought by the European explorers the illnesses, including the deadly smallpox, killed 90% of the indigenous population in the Western Hemisphere. The diseases helped the Spanish forces to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519 and the Incas in 1532 leading to the eventual collapse of the Inca (South America) and Aztec (Mexico) civilizations. Later British, French, Portuguese and Dutch colonists followed easily defeating the indigenous groups as their size was greatly reduced. 

Colonists of the Americas subdued the natives, robbed them of their land and resources. Wealth was shipped to respective countries in Europe. We have to accept that Christianity and colonialism are closely associated. The Church was seen as a ‘religious arm’ of European colonial powers. Kings and rulers of these powers were Christians and the Church clearly had no objection to the savagery committed. In fact, missionary expeditions followed colonisation to spread Christianity to the Americas, Africa and to a less extent, Asia. While Christianity spread “in some areas, almost all of the colony’s population were removed from their traditional belief systems and were converted to Christianity which the colonizers used as a reason to destroy other faiths, enslave the natives,and exploit the lands and seas” summarises a popular online website.

The issue of slavery in relation to the Church is too complicated to be synthesised here. However, initially the Church might have just gone along with the practice. It was only much later that condemnations poured out against the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and other countries. What is significant to observe here is that the identity, the culture, social and religious expression of the slaves brought from Africa to America and Europe were completely erased. They were even stripped of their surnames. So we see Blacks bearing the names Jones, Brown, Smith, etc. Their roots have been completely cut off. So much so that celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, John Legend and others have to take DNA tests to trace their country of origin.

We in Meghalaya and much of India did not lose our clan names or family names. Most of our first names however, are European. Early missionaries insisted upon names of saints at the time of ‘spiritual birth’. Only lately have local names rightly made a comeback. However, there are genuine grievances against the marginalisation of indigenous religions and the alteration of the cultural and social life of people has as a result Christianisation. Now, what is to be done? For better or worse, human interactions effect changes. Some more, some less!Some parts of Jaintia Hills have been influenced by Hinduism. The tribes in the plains of Assam who came into close contact with Vaishnavism have assimilated themselves in that form of Hinduism and changed their cultural practices. They have even forgotten their languages and Assamese has become their mother tongue. Can they go back to the pre-Ahom era? Can the North and South American natives go back to pre-colonisation or pre-Christian period? Can Black Americans go back to the pre-slavery period? Is turning the clock back an option?Critique of history is beneficial but being caught up with the past is deleterious.

Perhaps there are people with aversion for anything ‘foreign’(Videshi) and who attempt to impose a ‘desi’ ideology. In a vernacular daily there was an article questioning the patriotism of the popular song, “Ri Khasi Ri Khasi” saying the song was composed by Rev. John Roberts and its tune is from the national anthem of Wales titled, “The Land of my Father.” The much revered song has triggered a polarised debate on social media. Why would a song be less patriotic just because the tune is foreign? We have Khasi religious songs whose tunes originate from English, Latin and Hindi hymns. Are they less devotional?

The state has been unsuccessfully making efforts to include the Khasi and Garo languages in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. In 2018 the Meghalaya Assembly passed a resolution to this effect. An official once revealed the secret for the futile attempts so far. Both the languages are in the Roman Script. Had the two major languages of the state been in Bengali or Assamese script (Devangari script) then perhaps the duo would have joined the other 22 official languages by nowTo fulfil our dream of seeing Khasi and Garo languages in the Eight Schedule should we return to the ‘original’ Devanagari script? Should the text books, novels, plays, poems be re-written in an ‘Indian’ script? Should the local press be in that script? In matters of script, culture and religion is a backward journey possible? Can everything be undone?

(The writer can be contacted at [email protected])  

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