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How A Naga Community Refused To Align With Organized Majoritarian Religion

In the past few years, there has been a lot of discussions and debates over religion in India. However, the focus of these discussions has always been on organised majoritarian religion, leaving aside the resistance movements that Adivasis of India have fought in the past and continue to fight today. The Heraka movement is one such event that encapsulates the resistance to organized religion overtaking local ones.

A Heraka prayer being held. Photo Credit: Babul Roy / Wikipedia Commons

It all began with the colonisation of Nagaland in the nineteenth century. With the arrival of British bureaucrats, the missionary enterprise also followed. Parallel to the institutionalization of state, colonialism introduced another form of government of men in the form of the pastoral or religious.


However, whenever there is an attempt to manage the conduct of people whether religious or otherwise, there is also resistance and counter conduct. The Nagas did not simply accept Western forms of government of men but started a counter movement of reviving their traditional religion.


Religious leader by the name Jadonang started a movement known as Heraka (pure) in the 1920s. This movement eventually led to the formation of an organised religion commonly known as Tingkou Ragwang Chapriak (TRC). It was in this spiritual space that the whole community was envisioned as a nation distinct from the West both politically and spiritually. Jadonang deployed what can be called a spiritual reworking of the community. The spiritual reworking operated in two ways: one, building of worship house, and two, reforms and abolishment of taboos.


Prior to this, the people followed nature worship, but they lacked an organised form of religion. The worship house enabled the indigenous religion to take a monotheistic turn, something which the old way of practice was unable to because people strayed to please many demigods and spirits owing to the certain worldviews. The construction of baths for cleansing before entering the worship house, and the introduction of songs and prayer worship to one Tingkao Ragwang (heavenly God) weighed in the institutionalization of TRC. The monotheistic theology, the dramaturgic purification bath and facing the east while devotion became some of cultrual practices through which the community was imagined as one and distinct.


Jadonang himself built two worship houses, and over the years the movement developed its own network of communication, worship house, history and literature, which ensured the permanence of Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak. However, TRC continues to face challenges from the proliferation of Christianity even today, as people keep converting on the rationale the Gospels complete the understanding of religion.


The movement started by Jadonang also had political underpinning. The political aspiration was to overthrow colonial rule and establish Naga Raj. The technique of resistance against colonial rule can be put under the rubric of civil disobedience. Jadonang urged the people not to pay taxes and provide free porter labour, a practice common in colonial period. Subsequently, he enlisted 500 men and women as his Riphen (army) who were given training in military skills and other skilled jobs. As in the case of spirituality, the movement did not envison to reproduce western form of governance or statecraft. The Naga Raj which meant freedom of Makaams, people with common historical origin and culture, envisaged a traditional form of village government, or to put it modern sense, a decentralized federal structure.


The movement took a more radical turn when Jadonang demanded his people to pay taxes to him as his movement would bring freedom from British rule. The British saw this as a threat to their rule, and eventually tried Jadonang and put him to death. The movement led by Jadonang, although popular among the Zeliangrong Nagas, could not capture the popular political imagination of the rest of the Naga tribes. Parallel to this movement, pan Naga nationalism was also at its nascent stage. The two movements were polarizing. This is particularly evident ideologically. The Heraka movement led by Gaidinlu after the death of Jadonang continued to be grounded in indigenous religion. Whereas, the pan Naga nationalisn envisoned to establish a Christian state.


This article attempted to illustrate that the Zeliangrong tribe did not simply accept Western forms of governance whether spiritually or politically. The community still continues its agonistic relationship and finds a more acceptable form of self-governance.

About the author: Boniface G Kamei belongs to the Rongmei Naga tribe of Manipur, India. He is currently a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad.

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