By Reverend Lyndan Syiem
On Monday, September 26, The Shillong Times published the following report: “Everyone living in Bharat is a ‘Hindu’: head of the RSS.” This statement by Mr. Mohan Bhagwat won some support and a lot of publicity, but it also produced a lot of opposition on the confusion of religious and ethnic identity, and the superimposition of a religious label on socio-cultural identity. . This is not a new statement from the RSS, and it has been spoken many times and in many places across the country. But when it is spoken by the top leader of the organization in a public ceremony on Meghalaya soil, there will naturally be questions at the local level. On what basis are the Khasi-Pnar and Garo tribes of Meghalaya now called Hindus? More importantly, for what purpose was such labeling done?
The identification of Khasi-Jaiñtias and Garos as Hindus because they are inhabitants of Bharat is historically incorrect. We were never part of the ancient Bharat, nor the Maurya Empire, nor the Gupta Empire, not even the medieval Mughal Empire. It was not until after the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-26 and the ensuing Treaty of Yandaboo that the plateau now known as Meghalaya was conquered and occupied by the British during the years 1826-30 , 1835 and 1866-73. This led to the region’s gradual integration with the British Empire in India and finally, in 1947, joining independent India.
Today, very few in Meghalaya will seriously and consistently challenge the Instrument of Accession signed by our traditional rulers in 1947-48; fewer still will sacrifice the material comforts and security of their children to pursue independence from the Indian Union. Admittedly, the instrument of accession is a hot topic of academic debate and is often used as a rhetorical point in political campaigns. But the reality is that the Khasi-Jaiñtia and Garo tribes are willing citizens of a diverse and democratic India, where most of us don’t need the Hindu label to reinforce our identity.
Yes, it is true that in ancient times the Persians and Greeks used the exonym “Hindu” to refer to people living near and beyond the Indus River. However, by no stretch of history or imagination has the term ever applied to us, the hill tribes living east of the Ganges. In any case, the word “Hindu” at present legally and officially refers to a particular religion, which is numerically the third largest religion in the world and the largest in India. The tribes of Meghalaya do not uniformly follow one religion, so including them in Hinduism is technically incorrect, as shown by decennial census data. There is also a constitutional definition of Scheduled Tribes (which we are), and religious identity is not part of the parameters. So yes, some of the Khasi-Pnar and Garo tribes are Hindus or accept the label, but not all of us do.
By the same reasoning, it would be incorrect to call Meghalaya a “Christian state”, just because 74.59% of the population (2011 census) are affiliated with that particular religion. It would be more appropriate to call it a Christian-majority state, just as India is a Hindu-majority country. Overall, however, it is best to separate religious identity from ethnicity, socio-cultural identity and far, far away from politics. This position has classically been articulated as “separatio ecclesiae et civitatis”, separation of Church and State, or more generally, separation of religion from State. This does not mean prohibiting individual members of various religions from participating in government and politics, but it does mean the responsible distancing of religious organizations from the machinery of government and the political process.
I had written an article in The Shillong Times on June 2, 2022, defending the separation of Church and State, implying a responsible separation of religion from politics. At that time, there had been criticism from the perspective of Christian activists that my position was not valid and that the Church in Meghalaya was afraid to challenge corruption and publicly challenge those who were in power. It has been suggested that the church play Pontius Pilate to safeguard its own interests. However, if you think about it, once it is accepted that higher church bodies regularly and officially criticize government policies, procedures, issues and personalities, you can no longer protest when other religions of the state are following suit. What you would call interference in our delicate social and cultural fabric can be defended as an ideological conviction.
So to my militant friends demanding the intervention of the Church in every administrative and political crisis, this conservative traditionalist would advise individual members, rather than the hierarchy, to respond. It is easy to criticize the Church in the media; it’s an easy target that will rarely retaliate. But it is much more difficult to personally work for the empowerment of people at the local level and to accept the challenge of exposing corruption in high places, and not just short-term banter either, but dedicated and long-term service. term.
And then to those who question the church’s alleged silence on socio-political issues, I would like to inform you that building denomination-wide consensus on every issue is difficult, time-consuming and creates the previous to having to answer each subsequent question again. More ominously, once you sow the seeds of religious groups intervening in political affairs, you will reap the rewards of a disintegrating tribal community. We, the Khasi-Pnar people, are intertwined not by religion or politics, but by the sanctity of clan, community life, marital relations, historical awareness and language.
We all know that we are in a pre-election period and that a statement from any church or religious group can be interpreted as pro-government or anti-government, as support or criticism of a party or a coalition. Individual members of all religions, as citizens of India, are free to praise or criticize government policies and practices. They are free to join and leave political parties, free to make political statements. But that is not the case for the Church, and it is not safe for clergy to speak or be present at events that can be construed as supporting or criticizing a particular party. When we model responsible distancing, we help build a meritocratic democracy and mean that people should not be swayed by appeals to religious identity or denominational affiliation.
It was the insightful GK Chesterton who wrote, “Whenever you remove a fence, always pause long enough to ask why it was put there in the first place.” Some activists would like us to break down the barrier between religion and politics, others between religion and ethnicity, without stopping to count the ultimate cost to society, culture and community. Please realize that this is a constitutional fence that was erected by the great generation of freedom fighters who had in fact fought British imperialism in the streets, on the salt marches and the Satyagrahas, and passed years in prison. They had sacrificed their family and their fortune to obtain our freedom and they had tried to preserve this freedom in the Constitution, in the three branches of government, in the free press and in an educated and enlightened electorate. May we all be faithful to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution.