"Live and Let Live" - The Essence of God's Mission from the Perspective of the Indigenous Peoples
Date added: 21/10/2016
“Live and Let Live” - The Essence of God’s Mission from the Perspective of the Indigenous Peoples (Tribals and Adivasis) of India
Dr Chhungi Hrangthan
A paper from the Mission Theology in the Anglican Communion Conference in ECC Bangalore, 16th - 21st October 2016. For the other five papers from this conference click here.
A Bird’s Eye View of the Reality of the Indigenous Peoples of India Today: A background study
Tribals and Adivasis are INDIGENOUS peoples (IPs), with distinct identities and cultures that have territorial identification, a harmonious and symbiotic relationship with the earth as her children, and are internally organized on egalitarian and communitarian basis, with systems of knowledge, self-governance and nationhood.
But due to a history of violence and violation of human rights, in reality they are now a migrant, marginalized and vulnerable community, suffering from extreme poverty, illiteracy, and a loss of their natural and cultural heritage. Apart from this they are subjected to new forms of violence like State repression, where the State, instead of being the protector, monopolizes and perpetrates violence, with scant regard for human lives, livelihood and dignity. They are rendered much more helpless when the Church chooses to remain a silent spectator and even sometimes itself be the instrument of violence.
As per the report of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India there are 622 Tribes living in different parts of the country forming 8.2 % of the Indian population. It is estimated that there are many indigenous groups who have not been included in the Government records to date. Their voices are the most unheard in India as they fall outside the Hindu Caste system and remain at the bottom of the Indian Social Hierarchy, as outcastes.
Common problems encountered by the Indigenous communities in India can be identified as follows – Violence and Atrocities against their Rights and to dignity of life, Right to Land and Forest, extreme Poverty, Poor Health Conditions, Lack of Leadership and integration. Among the 8.2 percent of the IPs population in India, over 90 percent of them are living under conditions of extreme poverty even though 15 percent of our natural resources are in their home lands. About 50 percent of IPs are displaced in the name of development. In terms of education, the dropout rate of children from IPs communities is estimated as 77 percent. The traditional rights of tribals over natural resources still lie with the State and the claim for its rightful use by the IPs is not honored.
Indigenous people in different zones have their own particular socio-political, economic and religious struggles across India.
Apart from the specified zonal problems, Indigenous women in India, irrespective of their geographical location or socio-cultural and religious background, remain the most affected ones, in spite of their being the backbone of the society from ancient days. Their values and sacred spaces in society have been systematically destroyed which demoralized them with frustration and confusion. They are harassed, exploited and forced into the flesh trade or low paid jobs.
“Live and Let Live” Missio Dei from the Perspective of the Indigenous Peoples in India
A. World View of the IPs Community
The IPs community in India believes in a communitarian life-based ethos, which is free from the caste system, and their society is ruled and governed by religious and socio-cultural norms and practices. However, their socio-cultural, political, economic and religious norms and practices are intertwined and strongly bound with the patriarchal structure (which is in no way free from condemnation and critical evaluation from the feminist and humanist thinkers).
There are some distinctive world views of the IPs community that stand out significantly, irrespective of their geographical habitations or their languages, which can broadly be classified under the ethos of their Socio-cultural and religious realms as follows:
1. Communitarian life-style: The whole community is one big family irrespective of their status in the society.
This is beautifully lived out in their day to day life. The social harmony is practically visible in times of festivals as well as calamities. Marriage in a family is a social celebration, as is Death in a family a social mourning. Digging of the burial ground and preparation of the coffin is never a family burden as the society takes whole responsibility. Cultural festivals are celebrated by the whole community and when calamity strikes the society or even a single family, the whole community gives support and lends a helping hand to the affected family or families. For instance, in a Mizo community (where I came from), when a house is destroyed by fire or storm, the whole community will come together and help the family in reconstructing the house without any labour charge. When a person is drowned in a river/pond, the whole community will come together in search of the body, up to seven days if not found before. Then on the 8th day the funeral is arranged by the society/church even without the body. This procedure is followed for any missing body for all the members of the community.
2. Symbiotic Relationship with Nature - Spirituality of the Indigenous Peoples:
Let me quote from one of our tribal theologians L.H. Rawsea as he rightly says, “The tribals have a certain amount of distinctive ways of insights – practically significant, theological relevant, socially and economically liberative, ethically just – to enrich their spiritual life as well as to further enhance tribal theology.” However, by saying this he puts forward his regret that the tribal community are now in a confused state due to the influence of beliefs and ways of life which are so alien to their spiritual understanding.
a. Land: Land is considered as the most precious gift of God. They value land as much as they value their lives, as land is their identity.
b. Earth: Earth is considered as a ‘Mother’ who gives birth to all that dwell on Earth. Respect for the Mother Earth is the intrinsic quality that they have in their understanding of Nature.
c. Hills, Valleys, Mountains and Rivers: All these have played significant roles in the life of the Indigenous Peoples. As the hills, valleys, mountains and rivers supply fresh air, vegetation, food, fodder, fuel and raw materials for their livelihoods, they are respected and revered as sources of life.
d. Flora and Fauna: All the living things on earth and seas, such as insects, reptiles, fish, animals and the birds, are considered as life support. All have played a major role in understanding the signs of time. For instance, the behaviour of the insects, birds, animals, trees, etc. give signals to human beings to understand any impending calamity or danger that is to come, such as earthquakes, storms, tsunamis, droughts, etc.
3. Intrinsic Wisdom:
With this symbiotic relationship that they share with nature, the IPs have intrinsic wisdom, which book knowledge could never provide. With their Wisdom of reading the movement of the heavenly bodies, such as the shadow and the position of the Sun, the shape and position of the moon and the position of the stars, they understand the season of rich harvest as well as famine. With the blossoming of the trees they understand the good and the ugly year for the society. With the chirping and dancing of insects they understand when the rain will come and stop. With the crow of a jungle fowl they understand their lives could be in danger with the wild animals roaming close by.
4. Belief in the World of Spirits:
With all their understanding of nature and their movements and signs, the IPs also believe in the existence of the world of spirits. The spirits that dwell with nature also protect nature. With this belief, they learn how to respect the boundaries of the human and of the spirits. This in turn helps the IPs to maintain their own boundaries, not to transgress and offend the nature. This helps in their peaceful co-existence with all that dwell on Earth, all enjoying their freedom of life while allowing others to live and enjoy too. The IPs live without breaking the rules of nature or the world of the spirits that dwell, and this helps them lead an Eco-friendly life style.
5. Gods and Goddesses:
In Primal Religious beliefs there are many gods and goddesses whom the people call upon for blessing and protection. Different gods and goddesses have different roles to play in the human world. There are gods and goddesses of weather, agriculture, health and fertility. Their names differ according to the language of the tribes. Each god and goddess is given due importance, as each one’s role is significant for human existence. For instance, the Khuanu, the Mizo Mother-God in whose protective care lies the welfare and wellbeing of the whole community, and Lasi, the goddess of all animals and birds, who protects them and at the same time blesses the Mizo men for their hunting skill in order to enter Pialral, the paradise for the death souls, are both deemed as significant
B. CONCEPT OF HOSPITALITY in the Indigenous World View:
Due to the patterns of their world view, the IPs understand the essence of life is all about having Harmonious Relationships with all human beings and nature, which is lived out by showing ‘Hospitality’ to all. This hospitality is the life-tagged that the IPs believes and practices.
In IPs communities, hospitality is considered as a social obligation. The best example is what we called “Tlawmngaihna” in Mizo, which can be translated as “selfless attitude/service”. In this Tlawmngaihna, people offer the best of what they can do for others and no one in the society is allowed to die with hunger, to die alone, to be homeless, to beg on the street. ‘Live and Let Live’ is the essence of life that is found in the IPs understanding of hospitality, which is quite biblical and in line with the ancient Greco-Roman and Mediterranean world view. Hospitality is embracing strangers, the unloved, the rejected and sheltering the homeless.
C. SHIFTING EPICENTRE TO PERIPHERY
Hospitality – understanding ‘Host’ and ‘Guest’ within intra-Christian Community:
The question about the “Guest” and “Host” is an important issue when we talk about hospitality from the world view of the IPs. In our mutual understanding a ‘Host’ is the one who plays the role of the owner at home or the key player at the event and who gives hospitality to the Guest, whereas a ‘Guest’ is the invitee at the event and who is at the mercy of the ‘Host’ with a limited access to the event or the household of the ‘Host’.
The Church Community often becomes a gated community, walled by our status, identity, tradition, customs and practices. The faith we defend and the tradition we are boasting about often become the stumbling blocks to our communion with others; in this context, with the IPs community. Making the Western Monotheistic Theological understanding as the yardstick to dictate what is right and what is wrong and how we interpret the Bible means we interpret the spirituality and life style of the IPs as uncivilized, often negated as pagan, thus, not worthy to even consider in the world of Christian Spirituality today, but rather to conserve them as a sort of ‘Human Encyclopedia.’ With the negation of the value of their Spirituality, of their beliefs and culture, the Christian Mission thus treats the IPs community as a mere field for doing evangelism in the big banquette of the Christian community. Thus, always playing the role of a big brother as the “Host’ and as the owner of the right interpretation of whatever we believe as the true spirituality and treating the IPs community as a mere target to be only invited as a “Guest”. This attitude continues to keep the IPs community as a mere “guest” in the community of Church.
However, the gated Church community has a lot to learn from the Spirituality of the IPs community, from their practice of hospitality, their understanding of nature and their ecological life style, especially as the world is struggling to cope with Global Warming! The IPs understanding of the Earth as a ‘Mother’ teaches us how to respect the soil, the flora and the fauna that take refuge with the Mother Earth, who nurtures, protects and provides their needs. The symbiotic relationship that they share with Nature is the greatest value that the world, especially the Christian world, can learn from them. In this respect, the IPs community can be understood as a better ‘Host,’ from whom the Church needs to learn the theology of life – ‘Live and Let Live.’
Thus, shifting the epicentre of our world view from the gated Church community to the periphery, may help us to have a better understanding of Missio Dei: A Mission from the world view of the Indigenous Peoples.
Today, in spite of the many threats that endangere the very existence of the IPs in various parts of the world, not only in India, the IPs community continues to hold on to their intrinsic and harmonious relationship with nature and with their patterns of understanding of life. For those people living in a highly competitive world, where our human lives are corrupted with money and power politics, where everyone else is trying to live out the other, it can be difficult to comprehend the lifestyle of the IPs. However, the life style of the IPs community seems to be the life style of Jesus of Nazareth during his earthly ministry, when he imparted simple lessons from the trees, birds, seeds, mud, water, etc. Jesus did incomprehensible miracles – of healing, liberation and salvation in obedience to God who had sent Jesus to this world – but only to those people who understood the depth of his simple life style. Today, for the followers of Christ who are sincere in our called of doing Missio Dei, there is nothing called an easy task, lest we humble ourselves in listening to the small voice of our fellow human beings and the nature around us. This is indeed a call to an expensive task, that demands moving away from our comfort zones in order to Live and Let others Live (Luke 4:18-19).
 Paper presented during the Mission Studies consultation in Ecumenical Christian Centre, Bangalore, jointly organized by the Mission Theology, Lambeth Mission Fellowship and ECC, October 19-21, 2016.
 The usage of ‘Indigenous People’ and ‘adivasi’ (which is a Sanskrit word meaning the ‘original inhabitant” ) is not accepted as an official language of the Govt of India while referring to the tribal communities in India. The term ‘Tribal’ is an official term.
 a. The Central Zone (46% IPs presence) is reeling under State oppression due to the combination of factors that go against them. Being resource rich, (minerals, forests and potential hydro electric power), and legally weak in terms of control, the local communities are under a constant threat. There are multiple interests that are keen to exploit the resources of their homelands. And thus there is a constant pressure from the strong nexus between the bureaucracies, the corporate and the elected representatives to get maximize exploitation and grab profits. With local insurgent groups and the military forces dominating the landscape there is steady increase in violence and displacement in the region, migration for employment, exploitation and abject poverty that has resulted in human trafficking and flesh trade, eroding of - basis of harmony, local self sufficiency and sustainable living has been the hallmark of tribal communities.
b. In the Western zone(27.6% IPs presence) the IPs suffered mass displacement and denial of lands and livelihood due to Dams and Economic liberalization.
c. As both the North Eastern zone (12.4% IPs presence) and the North Western zone (2%) are situated along the international borders of China, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh in the North-East, and Pakistan and China on the north west, these zones experience internal and external terrorism, the hub of State atrocities due to Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) and political unrest, ethnic conflicts, human trafficking for tourism & hospitality industry with extreme poverty and extreme lack of health care.
d. Southern zone (11.3% IPs presence) is heavily affected by the dominant cultural hegemony and misplaced concern for animals at the expense of and indifference towards human beings living in the forest areas by environmentalists and animal lovers.
e. Ever since the Tsunami calamity in 2004, the Islands of Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep (0.1% IPs presence) and even the mainland eastern coastal areas are continuously facing threat in various forms, to be precise, from the tourism industry. Indigenous identity and rights are threatened by many rules and regulations that deny them their right to enjoy their common space, their identity, and traditional & customary practices. Hrangthan Chhungi, “NCCI National Policy Guidelines on Indigenous Peoples in India”, Hearing the Voices of Tribals and Adivasis in India, Hrangthan Chhungi, ed. NCCI Centenary Publication, Appendix 15, NCCI & ISPCK, 2014
 Some missionaries and British administrator in Mizoram and writers branded the tribal spirituality as “animism”. (A.C. McCall, Lushai Chrysalis (Aizawl: Tribal Research Institutes, 1949. McCall was the then Superintendent of Aizawl, Mizoram), 67; D.S. Amalorpavadass, “Traditional Spirituality within Our Present Chrsitan World Vision,” in Indian Christian Spirituality, edited by D.S. Amalorpavadass (Bangalore: National Catechetical and Liturgical Centre, 1982), 47.), E. Chapman and M. Clark, Mizo Miracle, (Madras; CLS, 1968), p.11, John Meirion Lloyd, History of the Church in Mizoram (Harvest in the Hills) (Aizawl, Mizoram: Synod Publication Board), 1991, p.9.which I strongly opposed as animism is also understood as worshipping spirits. The Indigenous peoples in India do not necessarily worship the spirits that dwells in nature, but they do give reverence and respect their space and boundaries.
 L.H. Rawsea, “Indigenous Spirituality and Modernity: A Theological Response” in Hearing the Voices of Tribals and Adivasis in India, Hrangthan Chhungi, ed. NCCI Centenary Publication, NCCI & ISPCK, 2014, p.
 Hrangthan Chhungi, “Heritage of the Tribal Religious Practices in India: An Ecological Concern” in Theologizing Tribal Heritage: A Critical Re-Look, Hrangthan Chhungi, ed. CWM/ISET-ECC/PCI/ISPCK, 2008, pp.157 - 170
 With the coming of the Christian Monotheistic Male God to our Mizo society, this Mater-Dei, ‘ Khuanu’ is pushed away only to long for in our literature and poetic world, though never to disappear from our spiritual thirst.
 Here I would like to narrate one story, which the women fellowship of my home church had shown the true hospitality to one lady by name Thangi (nickname Thangmihuri). She was mentally retarded. She lived with what the society understood as her partner by name Mr. Lianthuama at Luangmual in Aizawl West. They lived in a small hut like cave, without much ventilation and they were dirty and stinking. Her partner used to play violin for their livelihood. After her partner passed away she was left all alone. In this time of her life, the Church women took initiative to takecare of this woman. They took turns in taking care of her. They bathe her, gave her change of clothes, gave her the food and shelter till she breathe her last and died with dignity. As children, we used to wonder how the church women could do such a service to a person who had no name, no family, a vagabond who wandered at the streets and at times a bit violent too. But now I understood that this is what we called the true hospitality in its true sense of our Mizo culture and Christianity.