Christians in Meghalaya are angry with the BJP and are likely to vote against it in the elections to the 60-member state legislative assembly on February 27.
Meghalaya had a population of 2.9 million in 2011, 75 per cent Christian. Presbyterians, Baptists and Catholics are the main denominations. There are many smaller groups like the Pentecostal Church, the Salvation Army, Seventh-Day Adventists and breakaway “ revival ” churches which tend to be aggressively evangelical.
The Garo Baptist Church celebrated its Sesquicentennial ( 150 ) years at Rajasimla in the East Garo Hills district with a four-day festival from February 8 to 11, attended by lakhs of people, including from neighbouring Assam. But the celebrations were marred by the BJP-led NDA government in Delhi, which apparently feared the occasion would be used to make conversions.
The Garo Baptist Convention had invited a top international Christian leader, The Reverend Dr Ngwedla Paul Msiza, a Zulu (tribe) from South Africa who is the current President of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), to deliver the message and pray at the valedictory worship service on February 11, attended by an estimated 250,000 people .
But the Indian Consulate in Johannesburg denied Dr Msiza a visa on instructions from the External Affairs ministry in New Delhi “ The order came from ( external affairs minister ) Sushma Swaraj. She was perhaps pressured by the RSS, ” a senior official in the ministry said. He asked not to be named, for obvious reasons.
‘ Conversions ’ is the excuse used by the BJP, RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal for attacks on Christians, which have surged since the BJP came to power in 2014. Christians in mainland India have been attacked for singing Christmas Carols, for holding prayers in private residences, or taking out processions in the locality of their churches on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter celebrating Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem before his crucifixion, death and resurrection. This is celebrated by Christians by taking out processions waving branches of Palm trees. Couples seen in public were harassed and terrorised by VHP and Bajrang Dal workers in many cities across India on Valentine’s Day.
All these are cited as attempts at ‘ conversion ‘ by the Hindu Nationalist organizations, despite the fact that India’s Christian population actually declined between the Census of 2001 and that of 2011.
Christians in India in general and the north east in particular have not forgotten that Bajrang Dal workers burnt alive Dr. Graham Staines, an Australian Missionary doctor treating leprosy patients, and his two small sons Philip and Timothy, aged 10 and 6, in Odisha in 1999.
Every incident of harassment or attacks on Christians anywhere in India is widely circulated on social media, tarnishing India’s image. Such posts on social media are highly damaging to the BJP’s election prospects in Meghalaya, where the literacy rate is 76 per cent. The Congress, on the other hand, has wooed the Christian Church for decades, and Pastors, Priests and Presbyters form part of their core constituency.
But it was the denial of a visa to Dr Paul Msiza for the Baptist Sesquicentennial that has become an emotive issue for the Garos, one of the first tribal groups to accept Jesus Christ in North East India. “ The government should have realized that it was just a celebration and had nothing to do with conversions. They should not have denied a visa for such a historic occasion, ” said the Reverend Janang Sangma, General Secretary of the Garo Baptist Convention.
There are few Garos left to convert. Those left are animists.
The first Garo to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Saviour was Omed Watre, a soldier of the Bengal Presidency Army of the British East India company. He was told to guard an empty house in what is now the Baptist compound in Guwahati’s Panbazar ( opposite the Police Station and quarters ) and ordered to “ touch nothing inside the house ”. But he found a discarded Christian tract – written in Bengali and titled “ Aapotti Nashok ” , which countered arguments against the Christian faith -and read the message of Jesus Christ for the first time. This was before the Mutiny of 1857, and it would be years before Omed committed himself to Jesus Christ.
In those years Ramkhe Watre, Omed’s nephew, who was studying in a government school in Goalpara district, had picked up the same tract, Aapotti Nashok, separately and elsewhere. Uncle and nephew discussed the tract with each other and with Kandura Rollin Smith, the first Assamese Pastor of the Guwahati Baptist Church in Panbazar, which is the second oldest Church in North East India, established in 1845, and a contemporary of Miles Bronson ; they also discussed Christ and his message with Samuel Loveday, a British overseer employed by the East India Company, and with Ramjibon, a Bengali preacher and evangelist from Dacca ( now Dhaka ).
Omed and Ramkhe Watre were baptized into the Christian faith shortly after the Mutiny of 1857, at the Sukleshwar ghat on the Brahmaputra river in Guwahati. On February 8, 1863, they founded the first Garo Church at their native village of Watrepara, now called Rajasimla. Omed, whose gift was preaching, became the first missionary to the Garos, walking through tiger-infested jungles and braving hostility from the rest of his then head-hunting tribe ; on several occasions, warriors lay in ambush to kill him on his missionary journeys, but he was saved each time by divine intervention. Ramkhe’s gift was teaching, and he became a teacher in a government school, where he too preached Christ.
There are now 304,812 Baptised Garo Christians in 2,074 churches under the Garo Baptist Convention. There are more Garo Christians in the Catholic Church, which famously raised the late Purno Sangma , Lok Sabha Speaker and Union minister, after he lost his father when he was aged 10, from his early education in Don Bosco Tura, till his Master’s degree and LL.B., after which he went into politics. The Catholic Church was a strong supporter of Mr Sangma, one reason why he never lost an election.
Garos were the earliest people to settle in India’s north-east ( they are of the Tibeto-Burman group which includes the Bodos , and their origins have been traced to the plateau of Tibet). Their villages are found all over Assam, including Kamrup, Kamrup Metropolitan, Goalpara, Dhubri, Bongaigaon , Karbi Anglong, and Sivasagar districts, as also Dimapur district of Nagaland. [ The BJP MLA from Bokajan in Karbi Anglong district, Assam, is Dr Numol Momin, MD, a former Assistant Professor of Guwahati Medical College : he is a Garo from Delaojan village and is nominally a Baptist Christian. He has campaigned for his party in Meghalaya ].
Baptist churches are each autonomous and do not come under central authorities like Bishops and Popes. They are organized in voluntary groupings like associations, conventions and councils .Dr Paul Msiza is the head of an alliance of Baptist churches and organizations world-wide. “ For us he is the Pastoral Head of the Baptists, and we regard him just like the Catholics regard their Pope, ” said Reverend Bijoy Sangma, Vice President of the Asia-Pacific Baptist Federation.
This is why the visa denial has become an emotional issue for the Garos. “ 150 years does not come again, ” said Dr. Angela Watre Ingty, a retired Professor of English of the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU). “ It is a memory to cherish. But now they (BJP) have soiled it, “ said Dr. Ingty. One of her five brothers is Peter Watre Ingty, IAS, Additional Chief Secretary of Meghalaya. It was their grandfather in the fourth generation ( four greats ), Omed Watre, who founded the Garo Church.
Christians in the other parts of Meghalaya, the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, fear that if a BJP or BJP supported government comes to power, they would be deprived of a staple item in their diet – beef. They have noted the ban on eating beef in many of the BJP-ruled states, and the attacks on and killing of Muslims on mere suspicion of taking cows for slaughter to be eaten as beef. The central government’s notification last year banning the sale of cattle for slaughter has been looked at askance in Meghalaya – India’s biggest market where cattle are sold for slaughter is located at 9 Mile on the Guwahati-Shillong road, and cattle drives to Shillong are a common sight on the highway.
“ The BJP’s ‘ beef bandh ’ is a key issue for the Congress, said Vincent H Pala, a Catholic who represents Shillong in the Lok Sabha, and is President of the Meghalaya State Congress Working Committee.
The BJP’s “ Christian Face ” for the Meghalaya polls is Union minister for Culture and Tourism Alphons Joseph Kannanthanam, in charge of the party’s election campaign in the state. Unfortunately, he is held in contempt by his fellow Catholics. Twice an apostate, the Malayali Christian from Kerala was once a seminarian aspiring to be a Catholic priest – he studied at Christ The King College in Shillong and sang in the NEHU Choir – but deserted to join the IAS. After a successful career as a bureaucrat, he resigned from the IAS and was elected to the Kerala Legislative Assembly as an independent, ‘ Leftist ’ candidate. Later, he betrayed both the Catholic Church and his ‘ leftist ’ pretensions, joined the Hindu Nationalist BJP and was made a minister in 2017 by Narendra Modi.
“ Hundreds of visas are denied every day. Why make a political issue out of one? ” says Alphons Joseph.
And his views on beef are well known. After becoming Union Tourism minister, Kannanthanam became a laughing stock for his advice to foreign tourists : “ Don’t eat beef before coming to India. ”
The writer is a retired journalist. He can be contacted at [email protected]