The AP Freedom of Religion Act, 1978 – Politics behind Pema’s statement

[ Nani Bath ]
Otherwise a redundant law in the absence of framed subsidiary rules, the 1978 Act gets sudden attention after Pema Khandu, the head of state’s BJP government, made a politically significant statement – that “The law could undermine secularism and is probably targeted towards Christians”. Pema promised that the law would be brought before the next Assembly session for repeal.
Since the press statement was released from the Chief Minister’s Office, the chief minister may not be able to deny the statement with “I was misquoted” explanation.
In 2004, then chief minister Gegong Apang agreed to discuss the demand for repeal of the Act at the next meeting of the state cabinet, on receiving a memorandum from the Arunachal Christian Forum (ACF).
In the recent past, the ACF had opposed the decision of the state government to set up a full-fledged Department of Indigenous Faith and Cultural Affairs (DIFCA). Pema Khandu had maintained that “due to globalization, exposure and external influences the indigenous communities of the state are fast getting disconnected with their rich culture and languages that calls for specific steps to preserve and protect them from disappearing into oblivion”.
After the protest from Christian groups, Pema clarified that the decision to create the separate department was “purely to preserve indigenous tribal beliefs and traditions” and that it was not directed against any religion. Later, it was renamed as the “Department of Indigenous Affairs”.
The 1978 Act was driven not just by a motive of anti-conversion but a certain patriotic touch was given to it. A report, quoting then chief minister, PK Thungon, says that “there is political conspiracy, supported by bags of foreign money, to foment anti-national activities in the region”.
The then Lieutenant-governor, KAA Raja did ask the students of Arunachal Pradesh “to guard against some outside elements who had been trying to convert the Union Territory into a Christian state”.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s impression was that the insurgent activities, such as Naga and Mizo movements, get encouraged because of ‘dubious’ role played by some Christian missionaries.
In a speech delivered at a Conference in 1952, he appreciated the humanitarian works of the missionaries but “politically speaking”, he said, “they did not particularly like 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”.
The British, before they left India, had suggested the idea of ‘Crown Colony’ for the tribes of India’s North East and Burma, to be administered directly by the British Crown. CR Pawsey, the deputy commissioner of the Naga Hills district of Assam was the man responsible for the formation of the first political body called Naga Hills District Tribal Council. It was rechristened as the Naga National Council (NNC), which led the Naga separatist movement till the formation of the NSCN in 1980.
Even after the death of Nehru, a magazine writes, “the policy of saving the innocent tribals from designing Christian missionaries continued”. Semi-official patronage to institutions like, Ramakrishna Mission and Vivekananda Kendra, were extended.
It may be noted that the administration did not permit the operation of institutions managed by the Christian missionaries of any denominations. Then chief minister, PK Thungon justified this action of the administration claiming that “unlike Christian missions, the Ramakrishna Mission imparts socialism and patriotism”.
Administrative machineries were geared up to promote the essence of cultural practices and social ethos of different tribal communities. Cultural aspects of various tribal groups were highlighted in school textbooks. Some of the textbooks at primary and secondary standard contained chapters on customs, traditions and other cultural traits.
Bhupen Hazarika, the cultural icon of Assam, anticipated the ‘cultural-dilemma’ that the present-day generation of Arunachal Pradesh is facing, when he directed Mera Dharam Meri Maa in 1976. It would be wrong to maintain that it was not a part of Government of India’s ‘cultural policy’ towards NEFA.
When the 1978 Bill was being presented to the president for his consideration, Christians of North Eastern states protested strongly. 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.
Bakin Pertin, an independent member of the Parliament and then president of the Peoples’ Party of Arunachal (PPA), was one among the strong opponents of the passage of Bill. He managed to obtain the signatures of more than 100 MPs against the Bill.
Bakin’s close associates maintain that he was a ‘secular’ Christian. However, because of his religious inclination, Bakin Partin was not in the good books of KAA Raja. Neutral observers say that Arunachal Pradesh could not have Bakin Pertin as the chief minister because of his un-friendly relations with the ‘Raja’.
What did Pema get by raising a ‘dead’ issue? Did he do it deliberately? Does it have any political undertone?
Some quarters believe that he has only heightened the consciousness of indigenous communities and organisations. A senior BJP leader maintains, “Pema is digging his own pit by touching the core of BJP/RSS ideology”.
Politically speaking, Pema may not be comfortable being in the Sangh parivar, having his roots in the Congress. Alternatively, the party (BJP) may be planning a strategy to replace Pema with a leader having rooted to Sangh ideology, post-2019.
As a political analyst, my attention is also drawn to his second statement wherein he says, “I am not saying that you should vote for the BJP and not for the Congress. But vote for leaders having good intentions and will to perform”.
Since Pema has numbers as of now, he may be least bothered about the strategy of the party or its ideological mentor. My sources have confirmed that he has a plan to curve out a ‘space’ for himself. One of the ways is to put up his own candidates in the coming general elections.
It is also possible that he mentors a political party for two reasons: first, if the BJP does not form government at the Centre (after 2019), he will have the liberty to join that party. Secondly, he will have an alternative political platform, if there is a plan to replace him before or after 2019.
Or, simply he might be eyeing (for political support) on the growing Christian population in the state. There was not a single recorded Christian in Arunachal Pradesh in 1951, their number rose to 1,438 in 1961 and 2,593 in 1971. As per the Census Report of 2001, the Christian population constitutes 18.70 per cent of the total population. It increased to 30 per cent in 2011. The percentage of Christian population stands at around 50 per cent of the total tribal population.
It’s been more than a month since I wrote to the CMO for a ‘Message’ for my upcoming book, Kamal in the Himalayas, sponsored by the state unit of BJP. There is no response. Does it send out any political indication?
Whatever may be the speculations, Pema Khandu is considered as one of the most progressive chief ministers. His attempt to streamline the recruitment process in the state is highly appreciated. All would wish that his statement is a part of his progressive policies sans politics and religion.