ZIRO, India — Arunachal Pradesh state in the northeastern part of India was out of bounds for the Church for years, as Christianity was virtually banned in the mountainous state nestled in the lap of the Himalayas.
The region that was earlier under direct administration of the federal government as the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) had even enacted legislation to curb conversions, primarily to Christianity, in 1978 amid Christians being persecuted and churches being burnt.
Yet the Church has flourished in Arunachal Pradesh — which literally means “land of rising sun” — with Christianity finding deep roots in the sensitive region bordering Bhutan, China and Myanmar.
That was the fruit of the unique evangelization carried out by student apostles and lay catechists. Enthusiastic students brought hundreds of their animist relatives, friends and villagers during the 1960s to 1980s to neighboring Assam state for baptism, trekking through the mountains for days.
Though the latest data from the 2011 census on the number of Christians in the state hasn’t been released, the ratio of Christians is set to go up from the 19% recorded in the 2001 census. Arunachal Pradesh reportedly has more than 200,000 Catholics among its 1.3 million people.
“Since priests were banned and denied entry pass (to NEFA), the students used to help smuggle the Fathers (masquerading them as drivers and carpenters) at the borders before leading them stealthily to our scattered congregations,” Take Tatung, the first Catholic of Arunachal Pradesh, said in an interview in early May at his farmhouse near Ziro.
Tatung embraced Christianity in 1963 at the age of 15 while studying at the Don Bosco School. He had run away from home in 1961 after his irate father burnt his books when he refused to stop his school studies and assist him in farm work. At 12, Tatung walked mountain paths for four days before he reached the Catholic school outside Arunachal.
Enthusiastic about spreading his new faith, the teenager was instrumental in mobilizing fellow student converts from Arunachal. Carrying Bibles, rosaries and medals, these student apostles spread the Good News during their holiday trips.
When Tatung returned to Ziro in 1965 seeking admission in a government school for further studies, the headmaster of the school refused to admit him, saying, “You have a Christian name” — after his baptism, Tatung included the Christian name “William” in his ethnic name.
At the root of the denial of admission was the virtual ban on Christianity at the time.
Federal officials asked Tatung to give up his “foreign faith” if he wanted admission to the government school.
“I told them it was my choice, and the constitution of India gives that freedom,” Tatung recounted. Despite the government officials denying admission to him for six months, Tatung did not budge. “Finally, they sent me to the government school at Shillong (outside) Arunachal and put me in Ram Krishna (Hindu) Mission hostel,” recalled Tatung.
A regular churchgoer, Tatung insisted on joining the Don Bosco School in Shillong.
Tatung kept his faith and completed his schooling. Though he applied for several government jobs, the defiant Christian was never selected, while others, non-Christians who were much less qualified than he was, were chosen for those posts.
“Perhaps they (officials) must have been tracking my activities,” reasoned Tatung.
“Christian students were persecuted and beaten up those days by fellow student leaders. They also confiscated Bibles and burnt them,” recalled Boa Tarin, who became a Baptist secretly in 1969, when he was hospitalized with malaria while studying at the government school in Ziro.
When the Baptists said he had to be a Christian for 15 years before being baptized, Tarin told them: “What is the point of being baptized after death?”
In 1977, Tarin reached the Catholic center of Harmutty and was baptized Catholic. From then on, Tarin served as a catechist.
“Times have changed. We are a strong community now,” said Lowanggcha James Wanglat, a leading Catholic politician and former interior minister of Arunachal Pradesh, on May 28. “We are the first Catholic family to be baptized in Arunachal Pradesh,” said Wanglat, who, along with his wife, Tei, and two children, was baptized Aug. 18, 1978, defying the Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, anti-conversion legislation that had been enacted weeks earlier.
Hailing from a royal tribal household, Wanglat went on to be elected as a state legislator in 1980 — and repeated the feat three times more. In 1995, Wanglat became a minister in the state government and held several posts that culminated in his elevation to the state interior minister in 2003.
Right now, he noted, the Arunachal Pradesh Legislature has more than a dozen Christians among its 60 members, while one of the two members of the national parliament from the state is a Catholic, and Nabam Tuki, also a Catholic, heads the state government as its chief minister.
Behind the virtual ban on Christianity and the persecution of Christians, Wanglat pointed out, was the “strong influence” of Elwin Verrier, an anthropologist and tribal activist. Verrier, who came to India as an Anglican priest from Britain, renounced Christianity and converted to Hinduism in 1935.
“With his deep prejudice against Christianity, Verrier became the agent of disinformation (against Christians) to the government as its advisor,” pointed out Wanglat. Later, the Hindu nationalist lobby also tried to exploit the situation through officials and politicians to keep Arunachal hostile to Christianity.
“I myself was called an anti-national for becoming a Christian and branded as CIA agent,” recalled Wanglat.
But now more than 90% of the 200,000-plus people in the three districts of Tirap, Changlang and Longding in eastern Arunachal are Christian, pointed out Wanglat.
Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.