Dialogue  January - March, 2006 , Volume 7  No. 3

Understanding Religious Policy of Arunachal Pradesh

Dr. Nani Bath


What constitutes a tribal religion eludes any comprehensive answer. It is more difficult to define religion in the context of Arunachal Pradesh, a tribal state, where religion and culture remain interlinked for all practical purposes. Max Weber in his Sociology of Religion maintains that the essence of religion can hardly be determined by providing definitions. So, the author in this paper attempts to understand the religious policy followed by the then NEFA1 Administration as well as the present Government of Arunachal Pradesh without actually defining the concept of religion.  
    The tribes in Arunachal Pradesh have achieved their heterogeneous character because these people migrated to this land from diverse directions in different groups. As they remained in isolation for several centuries and did not allow outside interference in their way of life, all of them developed their separate and independent cultural identity.  
    According to Verrier Elwin the people in Arunachal Pradesh can be placed under three broad cultural groups on the basis of their socio-religious affinities.
    The first group includes the tribes who follow the Buddhist religion or have been influenced by Buddhism. The Monpas and Sherdukpens of Tawang and West Kameng follow the Lamaistic tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. Culturally similar to them are Membas and Khambas who live in the high mountains along the northern borders. The Khamptis and the Singphos inhabiting the eastern part of the state are Buddhists of Hinayana sect. They are said to have migrated from Thailand and Burma long ago. The Zakhrings
17 of he Lohit Valley are influenced by Buddhism of Hinayana sect. They have migrated from Zeyus in Tibet. These tribes are noted for their religious behaviour being influenced by Buddhist ideals. They are characterized by their expertise of carpet making, weaving, dancing, painting, mask-making and elaborate dresses.
    The second group consists of the Nishis, the Apatanis, the Adis, the Mishmis, the Tagins, the Hill Miris, the Mijis, the Sulungs and the Khowas. The religion of this group can be termed as animistic-naturalistic. They worship natural objects and ancestors. The Tani group of people - the Apatanis, the Adis, the Hill Miris and the Tagins worship Sun (Donyi) and Moon (Polo) as Supreme Being. The religious belief of this group, Donyi-Poloism is being institutionalized. These tribes are excellent in weaving and fine works of cane and bamboo.  
    The third group comprises the Noctes, the Tangses, and the Wanchoos of Tirap and Changlang districts. These tribes are known for their masculine dances, and art of woodcarving. They have been known for their association with the practice of headhunting and their contacts with Burmese tribes.

The Past Policy

    The NEFA Administration designed its administrative policies based on Pt. Nehru’s famous Panchsheel, the five principles for tribal development. One of the principles envisaged was that the tribals should be allowed to “develop along the lines of their own genius.”4 The policy makers understood that the tribal religion has its own beauty, which needed to be guarded zealously and promoted, if necessary. The Administration, Dr. Elwin believed, observed a policy of strict religious neutrality and would not impose even tribal religion on those who do not want it. He was critical of those who accused the Administration of being anti-Christian as the missionaries were not allowed to cross the Inner Line. According to him, “the Administration takes exactly the same attitude to Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim missionaries as it does to Christian missionaries”.5 In order to ensure neutrality among the officials and social workers serving in NEFA, Dr. Verrier Elwin had suggested four mantras:  
(i)   He should study and try to understand the religion of the areas where he lives. This is not only a 
                fascinating pastime but, if it is done with tact and sincerity, will in itself help to encourage the 
                tribal people in their faith.
(ii)   He should extend to tribal religion that attitude of sincere respect which we are trying to give to 
                tribal life and institutions generally. He should never on any account criticize or laugh at any tribal 
                ceremony or belief.
(iii)   He should be careful how he talks and about the words he uses. We should not speak of ‘animism’ 
                but of ‘Wancho religion’ or the ‘Adi religion’, which will suggest that the tribal faith has for its 
                adherents just as much authority and dignity as the faith of the outside world.
(iv)    Whenever we refer to the Supreme Being, or administer oaths, we should use the local name
Some simple prayers might be composed in the local languages.6
In November 1963 the Adviser to the Governor wrote to all Political Officers, outlining the general policy of the Administration with regard to religion. The main points emphasized are:7  
    India being a secular democratic State the officers of the Government are expected to be strictly neutral in their approach to religious questions concerning the people within their jurisdiction. 
    The letter indicated that the activities of propagandists of any religion are undesirable in NEFA for various reasons. Firstly, they are contrary to “our fundamental policy of not imposing our ways of thought and action on the people”. In the second place, he quotes Prime Minister Pt Nehru, ‘When evangelical work gets associated with some form of condemnation of Indian culture, then it creates conflict and difficulties and is resented by many people. Precautions taken on the frontier, in fact, have nothing to do with what might be called religious tolerance’. The letter further writes that communal religious proselytization goes against the Administration’s policy of uniting our people with one another and with rest of India.
    All the Political Officers were directed that the land for building religious institution should be given only with previous sanction of the Local Administration. It also directed that no new centre of religious activity should be allowed to be started or such activity allowed into fresh villages without specific permission of the Administration.  
    Pt. Nehru was unhappy over the insurgent activities in some of the North Eastern States, particularly Naga and Mizo movements. His impression was that such activities get fillip because of dubious role played by some Christian missionaries. He expressed such apprehensions in many of his speeches. In a speech delivered at the opening session of the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Areas Conference, 1952, the first Prime Minister of India appreciated the humanitarian works of the missionaries but “politically speaking”, he said, “ they did not particularly liked the change in India. In fact, just when a new political awareness dawned on India, there was a movement in North-Eastern India to encourage the people of North-East to form separate and independent states. Many foreigners resident in the area supported this movement. I do not understand how it could be considered practical or feasible from any point of view. My point is that the people of the North-East frontier had been conditioned differently during the past generation and even in more recent years”.
    An understanding of the policy followed by the NEFA Administration with regard to religion suggests that it had been actively influenced by Nehru-Elwin’s ‘Philosophy for NEFA’. The policy was intended to restrict the missionary activities of Christianity as no other missionaries were practically interested to cross the Inner Line. This was necessary as the administrators then were genuinely concerned about the future of the tribes of this frontier territory. It was a question of survival of the cultures of the people here that they intended to address. The administrators during those days, who were greatly influenced by Pt. Nehru’s thoughts and ideas, were determined to protect the tribal culture from outside influences. It was thought that any external influence would corrupt the minds of innocent tribals.
    The Administration initiated several steps to promote the essence of tribal religion and culture. Cultural aspects of various tribal groups were highlighted in school textbooks. The textbooks at primary and secondary standards contained chapters on customs, traditions and other cultural traits. Perhaps it was on the encouragement of the Administration that a veteran Assamese film maker Shri Bhupen Hazarika directed a socially relevant documentary film- Meri Maa Mera Dharm in 1976. Maa (mother) in the film is equated with one’s Dharm (religion).  
    The second hero in the film refuses to attend the religious ceremonies of Nyokum festival because of influence of an alien culture. He is socially boycotted as refusing to accept community’s culture was considered tantamount to discarding one’s own mother. The author is of the opinion that Bhupen Hazarika’s message was loud and clear- “Loss of Culture is Loss of Identity”. What needs to be appreciated about the documentary is the film maker’s farsightedness. He could visualize the dilemma that the present generation Arunachalee is facing when the idea of the film was being framed.

The Present Policy

    The missionary activities were restricted to the foot hills areas of the state because of Inner Line restrictions. Lohit and Subansiri districts came under the active influence of the missionaries as early as in early 1950s and a sizeable number of tribals were brought into the fold of Christianity. The proselytization activities increased greatly thereafter which alerted the indigenous representatives of Agency Council99 The Agency Council was an Advisory Body of the Governor, consisted of the following members:  
    The Councilors felt the urgency of the situation and urged upon the Government of India to take suitable steps to protect and promote the indigenous faiths of various tribes of the areas.  
    A resolution to this effect was passed in 1969. In October 1972, the then Pradesh Council
10 passed another resolution, which reads: “a person belonging to any indigenous tribal community of Arunachal Pradesh who renounces the traditional belief and or faiths should be deemed to have deserted the community or tribe and to have forfeited all facilities, benefits, advantages, considerations deriving from his/her being a member of that tribe/community”. The Arunachal Pradesh Development cum Cultural Convention held at Pasighat in 1976 passed a similar resolution requesting the Government of Arunachal Pradesh to take immediate steps to safeguard the indigenous faith and culture of various tribes.
    The first elected Legislative Assembly of Arunachal Pradesh in 1978 unanimously adopted a Private Member’s resolution urging upon the Government to take immediate legislative measures on the basis on the resolution passed by the then Pradesh Council in 1972. The Assembly passed the Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill on the 19
th May 1978. It was presented to the then Lt. Governor of Arunachal Pradesh, Shri K.A.A Raja for his assent.
    The Bill was reserved for the consideration of the President of India because of protests from some quarters. Christians resented the passage of this bill in some of the states of North-East India. Mr. Bakin Pertin, Peoples Party of Arunachal (PPA) leader and Member of Parliament, assisted by some of his Christian friends actively voiced against the Bill and serious campaign was launched to persuade the President of India not to give his assent to it. A resolution was passed by some legislators in Meghalaya pleading the President to turn down the Bill. The Legislative Assembly of Nagaland went to the extent of adopting a formal resolution appealing the President to withhold the affixing of his signature on the Bill.
Prem Khandu Thungon, the then Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh reacted strongly to those leaders who were attempting to scuttle the passage of the Bill. He took very strong exception to a step taken by the Nagaland Legislative Assembly, considering it as interference in the internal affairs of Arunachal. Thungon reminded that the Bill was not an infringement upon the fundamental rights of a person to propagate one’s own religious beliefs nor did it debar voluntary acceptance by individuals of any faith. It simply sought to prohibit conversion by “force, fraud and inducement”. 
The Government of India after considering both positive and negative aspects of the Bill and its fallouts decided to return it with suggestions for incorporating certain minor modifications. The Bill in its amended form was passed again on 6
th October 1978. Finally, the Bill received presidential assent on October 25th, 1978 and became the law of the State which extends to whole of the territory. The Act seeks to prohibit conversion from one religion to any other religious faith forcefully or by inducement or through deceitful means is a cognizable offence. The Government of Arunachal Pradesh may make rules for the purpose of carrying out the provision s of this Act. Section 2(c) defines “Indigenous Faith” as “such religions, beliefs and faiths and practices including rites, rituals, festivals, observances, performances, abstinence, customs as have been found sanctioned, approved, performed by the indigenous communities of Arunachal Pradesh from the time these communities have been known and includes Buddhism as prevalent among the Monpas, Membas, Sherdukpens, Khambas, Khamtis and Singpohs, Vaishnavism as practiced by Noctes, Akas and Nature worships of Donyi-Polo, as prevalent among indigenous communities of Arunachal Pradesh”. 11
    The persons responsible for conversion of any person from one religious faith to other religious faith shall have to bring to the knowledge of the Deputy Commissioner of the District (to which the new convert belongs), of the act of such conversion. An offence under this Act is cognizable that shall be investigated by an officer below the rank of an Inspector General.

The Present position

    As per the latest Census Report of 2001, the Christian population constitutes 18.70 per cent of the total population in the state. The percentage of Christian population stands at 29.12 per cent of the total tribal population. There was not a single recorded Christian in Arunachal Pradesh in 1951, their number rose to 1438 in 1961 and 2593 in 1971. Tirap district has the highest percentage of Christian population with 49.93 per cent (56.32 Rural and 14.14 Urban) followed by Papum Pare with 29.88 per cent.12 As per 1981 Census those who profess “other religion” constituted 51.60 per cent of the population, which came down to 36.22 and 30.70 per cent respectively in 1991 and 2001. Therefore, the data reveal that the Christian population gained its strength mostly by converting those who professed “other religion”, including Donyi-Polo.
    The rapid growth of Christian population within a short period of time reflects that the Freedom of Religion Act remains an obsolete ornamental piece of legislation. At present no provision of the Act is seriously followed or implemented. I doubt if any act of conversion is reported to the Deputy Commissioner, as required under the Act. 
    Being alarmed at the phenomenal growth of Christian population, the believers of indigenous faiths, vigorously launched Donyi-Polo Movement giving it a new direction. They feel that sudden growth of Christian population was because of non-implementation of Freedom of Religion Act, 1978 and strongly urged upon the government of Arunachal Pradesh to implement it with utmost sincerity. It is believed that the seriousness of the government about this Act got lessened after Mr. Nelam Taram assumed as the State Home Minister in 1991. The pro-Christian tiltation of the policy of the government of Arunachal Pradesh became prominent after 1991.
    The Christian fraternity countered the moves of those who favored the Act by giving the issue a political touch. The Arunachal Christian Forum termed the Act as “useless anti-conversion Act” and appealed the Chief Minister, Gegong Apang to scrap it by calling a special session of the assembly. Mr. Apang instantly referred the matter for urgent consideration by his cabinet. The ACF President, Tana Hali had gone to the extent of calling all Christians leaders in the state to resign from BJP if the state government failed to repeal the Act immediately.
13 A year later the ACF repeated its demand for scrapping of the Act.


    About two lakhs Christians in the state remains a force to reckon with. It is very unlikely that some ambitious politicians would not politicize the issue for their political benefits. This may complicate the delicate relationships between the Christians and the non-Christians, particularly the indigenous believers in future. So the government of Arunachal Pradesh can no longer remain passive by appeasing both the parties. It has to act in a manner that does not hurt the sentiment of any religious community. India being a secular country and Arunachal Pradesh as a political unit of India cannot shed its secular credential. However, it is the primary responsibility of a welfare state to save its citizens from exploitation. The government must see to it that the tribals do not change their faith because of their innocent nature, lack of education, poor economic status and like reasons. For some, freedom of conscience has no meaning when they are concerned about the basic necessities of life.  
    The Act to the author’s understanding is not biased against any particular religion. It only seeks to prohibit those acts of conversions through unconstitutional means. Right to freedom of religion is guaranteed under Articles 25-28 of our constitution. Article 18 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees everybody the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. However, guaranteed freedom of religion does not offer licence to convert any religion by any means. “It is amazing that some Christian leaders assert that the word ‘propagate’ in Art. 25(1) gives them a fundamental right to convert people of other Faiths into Christianity, by any means”, writes D.D. Basu.
14 The Supreme Court of India upheld the constitutional validity of similar Acts passed by Madhya Pradesh and Orissa Legislative Assemblies, after rejecting the pleas raised on behalf of the Christians parties in Stainislaus’s case.15 The Court laid down the following propositions of law: 16 
(i)   The right to ‘propagate’, in Article 25(1), gives to each member of every religion the right to spread 
                or disseminate the tenets of his religion, but it would not include the right to convert another, 
                because each man has the same freedom of ‘conscience’ guaranteed by that very provision [Art. 
                25(1)], on which the Christians relied.
(ii)   The equal freedom of conscience, belonging to each man, under Article 25(1), means that he has 
                the freedom to choose and hold any faith of his choice and not to be converted into another religion 
                by means of force, fraud, inducement or allurement. He can, of course, voluntarily adopt another 
                religion but force, fraud, inducement or allurement takes away the consent from the would-be 
(iii)   Even assuming that a particular religion had the right to propagate its tenets by any means, including 
                conversion, - the state has the right and duty to intervene if such activity of conversion offended 
                against ‘public order, morality or health’, because the guarantee of freedom of religion in Art. 25(1) 
                is subject to the limitations of ‘public order, morality or health’.
It is strongly felt that the religious conversions should be gradual and the missionary activities need certain degree of regulation. In the midst of tribal beliefs and practices, Christianity or any other outside religion is a foreign to the tribals. Anything that is incompatible with its surroundings may prove counter productive. The author, therefore, is in favour of retention of the Freedom of Religion Act, 1978 with certain modifications. The Act has to be in tune with time and changing circumstances.
In the first place, the section 5, sub-section 1 of the Act regarding intimation of conversion to the Deputy Commissioner needs revision. Conversion as such need not be reported to the Deputy Commissioner. However, when a minor (below 18 years of age) is to be converted, prior approval of the District/ Village authorities should be sought. In such case parental approval should also be made mandatory.  
    Secondly, all educational institutions run by the missionaries should be permitted only on the condition that there should be no compulsory religious teaching in such institutions.  
    Thirdly, Arunachal Pradesh being a tribal state, no reservation on religious considerations should be permitted in the minority educational institutions. A converted tribal Christian/Muslim cannot reap the twin benefits of being a tribal and at the same time as a member of minority community. This counters very objective of the policy of ‘protective discrimination’ followed by the government of India and relevant provisions of the constitution.  
    Lastly, no religious structure should be allowed to be constructed near educational institutions and the places considered sacred by the followers of a particular religious community.

Notes and References (Endnotes)

    1.   Arunachal Pradesh was known as North East Frontier Agency till 1972.
2.   Elwin, Verrier, The Art of the North-East Frontier of India, Shillong, 1959, p. 16.
3.   Raja, K.A.A., “Arunachal - The Evolution of Personality”, Arunachal News, Vol. 4, No. 4, June 1975. 
The Govt. should judge results, not by statistics or the amount of money spent, but by the quality of 
           human character that is evolved”.
5.   Elwin, Verrier, A Philosophy for NEFA, Shillong, 1969, p. 218.
6.   Ibid., p. 216.