Ethnicity and Tribal Theology

Problems and Prospects for Peaceful Co-existence in Northeast India

by Songram Basumatary (Author)
©2014 Monographs XXII, 374 Pages


The Church and wider society in Northeast India have witnessed a number of shifts in ethnic identity and the resultant inter-ethnic conflicts since the 1980s are threatening the peaceful co-existence of various ethnic groups. Caught up in the throes of such ethnic turmoil, people of the region are confronted with two options. On the one hand, there is a need to safeguard their respective ethnic identities against the dominant hegemony; on the other, there is a need to promote a peaceful co-existence amongst diverse ethnic groups. These twin challenges, in their turn, confront the Northeast Indian tribal theologies by posing a series of questions with serious implications: how is one to maintain a balance between these two conflicting identities? What should the priority be: preserved ethnic identity or ethnic blending? In all this, what is the role of tribal theology? Notwithstanding the importance of safeguarding ethnic identity, this book focuses on the urgent necessity of promoting a peaceful co-existence among diverse ethnic groups by exploring their various tribal theologies and cultural standpoints and finding a common base.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Richard Bonney – General Editor’s Introduction
  • Introduction
  • The Problem and the Thesis
  • Clarification of the Key Terms Used
  • Identity
  • Tribe/tribal
  • Ethnicity/ethnic group
  • Methodological Considerations
  • Chapter I – A Bird’s-Eye View of Northeast India
  • The Land and People
  • Land
  • People
  • Critical Review of the Political History
  • Socio-Economic Life
  • Religio-Cultural Life
  • Christianity and its Impact
  • Arrival of the modern mission in Northeast India
  • The Serampore Mission
  • The American Baptist Mission
  • Welsh Presbyterians
  • Roman Catholics
  • Anglicans
  • Lutherans
  • Resistance
  • The Impact of Christianity
  • Chapter II – Ethnic Identity Movements in Northeast India
  • The Process of Identity Movements
  • Ethno-Cultural Movements
  • Ethno-Political Movements
  • Factors Leading to Rising Inter-Ethnic Conflict
  • British colonialism and Christianity
  • Geo-political isolation
  • Racial and ethnic distinctiveness
  • The issue of land
  • Illegal migration
  • The reorganisation of states and demographic change
  • Elitist politics
  • Poor economic conditions and competition for limited resources
  • The role of the state
  • The underground–above-ground nexus
  • Modernisation
  • The perception of ‘self’ and ‘other’
  • Psychological fragmentation
  • Religious influence
  • Chapter III – Major Inter-Ethnic Conflicts in Northeast India Since the 1990s: Three Test Cases
  • The Naga–Kuki Conflict in Manipur
  • Causes of the conflict
  • Historical roots
  • Immediate causes
  • The role of the state
  • Observations
  • The Boro–Santhal Riot in Assam
  • Hidden factors behind the clash
  • Impacts
  • Observations
  • The Hmar–Dimasa Clash in Assam
  • Factors behind the clash
  • Observations
  • Chapter IV – The Origin and Development of Tribal Theologies in Northeast India
  • Origin and Development
  • Three stages of evolution
  • The Dormant Phase
  • The Phase of Deliberations
  • The Phase of Documentation
  • Methodological Hurdles
  • Theological methods
  • Current Trends
  • Whether Tribal Theologies are Liberation Theology
  • Theology of culture
  • Sources of Tribal Theologies
  • Traditional worldviews as resources for tribal theologies
  • The Concept of Cosmic Oneness
  • The Concept of God
  • Tribal Religiosity
  • Tribal Ecology
  • Tribals and Land
  • Community-Centredness
  • Tribal Economy
  • Moral Values
  • Risk Factors in Tribal Theologies
  • Hermeneutical Challenges
  • Chapter V – Tribal Theologies as Resources to Counter Inter-Ethnic Conflict
  • Impact of Inter-Ethnic Conflicts
  • Measures Adopted to Solve the Inter-Ethnic Conflicts
  • Political/administrative measures
  • The role of the Churches in conflict resolution
  • The role of women in conflict resolution
  • Results of the measures
  • The Way Forward
  • Social measures
  • Radical civil forum
  • Tribal Theologies as Resources to Counter Inter-Ethnic Conflict
  • Theology of community
  • Theology of cosmic harmony
  • Theology of land
  • Inter-Cultural Dialogue
  • Bibliography
  • A. Books
  • B. Articles
  • Index
  • Series Index

| ix →


This book is the fruit of bitter experience of the ethnic conflicts facing my people, myself and my region – Northeast India. Many individuals and institutions have helped me in many ways. Since this book is a revised portion of my doctoral dissertation, it would have been a mere dream without the support of those individuals and institutions during my research.

I cannot mention everyone, but I must acknowledge the following who have been real sources of inspiration and support in completing the research. First and foremost, my God, the source of good health, wisdom and discernment. Secondly, I express my gratitude to the United Theological College (Bangalore, India) and the faculties for giving me a platform to do the research so as to fulfil the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Theology under the Senate of Serampore College (University). Heartfelt gratitude to my master-guide and source of inspiration, Professor Fr Dominic Veliath, Professor of Systematic Theology at Kristu Jyoti College, Bangalore. His dedication and systematic and concrete guidance helped me to complete the research within a short time and to go smoothly through all the processes necessary for earning the degree. I also acknowledge the help of the heads of the Senate of Serampore College (University) and Reseach Committee members, especially, Professor Ravi Tiwari, the Registrar, Lt Dr Samson Prabhakar, the former Director of the South Asia Theological Research Institute (SATHRI), Dr Wati Longchar for critical comments and also the examiners – Bishop Nirmal Minz, the pioneer of tribal theology, and Dr H. Vanlalauva, the Dean of the Research Division for their questions and suggestions during the viva. Credit is also due to my widowed mother Mrs Jagyaswari Basumatary, my spiritual parents Bishop N. Borgoary and Mrs Nokhishri Borgoary, my wife Ranjita, son Elruach and daughter Eldrina for their prayers and warm moral support. Heartfelt gratitude too to the Northern Evangelical Lutheran Church (NELC), the United Evangelical Lutheran Churches in India (UELCI), the Lutheran World Federation, ← ix | x → Danmission, Normisjon and their officials, in particular Bishop Siblal Soren, Revd Dr Augustine Jeyakumar, Oddvar Holmedal and Henrik Sonne Petersen for moral and financial support during my research period.

My appreciation goes to the libraries, librarians and staffs of the United Theological College, Kristu Jyoti and St. Peter’s Seminary of Bangalore, Northeastern Hill University and the North Eastern Regional Council – Indian Council of Social Science Research, Shillong, Meghalaya.

Last but not the least, I am thankful to the Academic Council of the Senate of Serampore College (University) for granting permission for publication. A special word of appreciation goes to Lucy Melville, the publishing director, and Richard Bonney, the series editor of Peter Lang for making my research alive by enabling me to bring it to the eyes of likeminded readers in book format.


Gurukul Lutheran Theological College & Research Institute

Chennai, India

31 January 2013

Revised 1 May 2014

| xi →


| xv →


General Editor’s Introduction Inculturation and the Dilemmas in Establishing an Authentic Indian Christianity

‘Tribal theologies are the product of discernment from the Christian past’, writes Songram Basumatary in his study Ethnicity and Tribal Theology. Problems and Prospects for Peaceful Co-existence in Northeast India, ‘but much more than this, they are a sensitive listening to the speaking of God in the present in a concrete life situation and translating the past into present reality.’ In this introduction, the emphasis is on the dilemmas faced by Indian Catholics in dealing with the inconsistent treatment of tribal cultures and theologies by the hierarchy at Rome.

Do not act with zeal, do not put forward any arguments to convince these peoples to change their rites, their customs or their usages, except if they are evidently contrary to the religion [i.e. Catholic Christianity] and morality. What would be more absurd than to bring France, Spain, Italy or any other European country to the Chinese? Do not bring to them our countries, but instead bring to them the Faith, a Faith that does not reject or hurt the rites, nor the usages of any people, provided that these are not distasteful, but that instead keeps and protects them.

Thus wrote the (Roman Catholic) Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (known as the Propaganda Fide) to its new missionaries to Asia in 1659.1 It was one of the high points in the Church’s emphasis that adapting to local customs and respecting the habits of the countries to be evangelised ← xv | xvi → was paramount. The Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) had attempted to communicate the Christian gospel in China by establishing common ground with the Chinese, by mastering their language and absorbing their customs.2 Today, Ricci’s legacy of ‘inculturation’ is strong. ‘The importance of respecting the unique ways in which diverse cultures understand and express their spiritual experience, even while preaching a common core belief, is no longer disputed.’3 Nothing could have been further from the truth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, when the Jesuits’ enemies, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, sought at every turn to reject this approach and achieved success under Pope Clement XI in 1704 and 1715. The matter was not finally settled until a decree of Pope Pius XII in December 1939.4 As recently as December 2013, Pope Francis cited the example of Matteo Ricci and called upon the Catholic Church to ‘ask forgiveness for, and look with much shame upon’ apostolic failures properly to inculturate the faith in non-European lands such as China.5

For Pedro Arrupe, writing to the Society of Jesus in 1978, the analogy for understanding inculturation was nothing short of the Incarnation of Christ.6 He wrote:

← xvi | xvii →

Inculturation is the incarnation of Christian life and of the Christian message in a particular cultural context, in such a way that this experience not only finds expression through elements proper to the culture in question (this alone would be no more than a superficial adaptation), but becomes a principle that animates, directs and unifies the culture, transforming and remaking it so as to bring about ‘a new creation’.

Arrupe revealed the theological depth of inculturation, which is observed in the phenomenon of encounter between the Christian message and culture.7 A decade later, Aylward Shorter presented inculturation as ‘the ongoing dialogue between faith and culture or cultures’ and ‘the creative and dynamic relationship between the Christian message and a culture or cultures’.8

The Indian Jesuit Fr. Michael Amaladoss, a former assistant to the superior general of the Society of Jesus and one of Asia’s most respected theologians, was invited to be a keynote speaker the 2001 gathering of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Speaking before the society, Amaladoss echoed the thinking of the Asian Catholic leadership. He embraced mission theology and the building of inculturated churches in dialogue with other Asians. ‘Our starting point is that salvation is now understood not merely in terms of individuals being saved but in cosmic terms made familiar to us by Paul,’ he said.

← xvii | xviii →

Amaladoss upheld the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, but rejected the notion that other religions must be seen as simply leading up to the fulfilment of Catholicism. This idea does not match the Asian experience, he contended. Rather, Amaladoss argued that the divine–human dialogue has led to the emergence of many religions. It is the task of believers, he said, to work for reconciliation, finally leaving it to God to gather up all things. Again echoing ideas widely held by the Asian Catholic bishops, Amaladoss argued that the Spirit and Word have been present throughout history in all religions. Asian evangelisation begins, he said, with contemplating this reality and then attempting to learn from other religions. This approach opens the church to true dialogue.

While other religions have the Word, the Christian gift is to know the Incarnate Word. Sharing our knowledge of Jesus’ message becomes the Christian task. ‘We do not proclaim and prove Jesus is the Son of God. We do not preach a creed. We announce the good news that the kingdom of God is here’, Amaladoss contended. Through dialogue Christians can finally live in harmony in Asia with the other religions. Asian bishops continue to form a vision of life based on harmony, a value deeply treasured in Asia, he said.9

Successive Popes from Paul VI10 onwards have waxed and waned in their support for ‘inculturation’, with Benedict XVI being the least favourable11 and Pope Francis the most zealous. Two documents released by the Vatican in 1993 are particularly worthy of note. The first emanated ← xviii | xix → from Pontifical Biblical Commission and was entitled ‘The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church’.12 This argued:

The theological foundation of inculturation is the conviction of faith that the Word of God transcends the cultures in which it has found expression and has the capability of being spread in other cultures, in such a way as to be able to reach all human beings in the context in which they live. This conviction springs from the Bible itself, which, right from the book of Genesis, adopts a universalist stance (Gn. 1:27–8), maintains it subsequently in the blessing promised to all peoples through Abraham and his offspring (Gn. 12:3; 18:18) and confirms it definitively in extending to ‘all nations’ the proclamation of the Christian Gospel (Mt. 28:18–20; Rom. 4:16–17; Eph. 3:6).

The gospel translation is only the first stage of the process. From interpretation, one passes then to other stages of inculturation, which lead to the formation of a local Christian culture, extending to all aspects of life (prayer, work, social life, customs, legislation, arts and sciences, philosophical and theological reflection). Where the Pontifical Biblical Commission made an important contribution was in its recognition that the process was a two-way, and not a one-way process:

This is not, as is clear, a one-way process; it involves ‘mutual enrichment’. On the one hand, the treasures contained in diverse cultures allow the Word of God to produce new fruits and, on the other hand, the light of the Word allows for a certain selectivity with respect to what cultures have to offer: harmful elements can be left aside and the development of valuable ones be encouraged. Total fidelity to the person of Christ, to the dynamic of his paschal mystery and to his love for the Church make it possible to avoid two false solutions: a superficial ‘adaptation’ of the message, on the one hand, and a syncretistic confusion, on the other …

In countries of more recent evangelisation, the problem arises in somewhat different terms. Missionaries, in fact, cannot help bring the Word of God in the form in which it has been inculturated in their own country of origin. New local Churches ← xix | xx → have to make every effort to convert this foreign form of biblical inculturation into another form more closely corresponding to the culture of their own land …

The second important document from 1993 was the Letter of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue to the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences in Asia, the Americas and Oceania, calling attention to the need for Pastoral Attention to the Traditional Religions.13 There was no single terminology for the phenomenon described:

The word ‘traditional’ does not refer to something static or unchangeable, but rather denotes [their] localised matrix. There is no agreement on a single name to be used when referring to these religions. Some names (e.g. paganism, fetishism) convey a negative meaning and, in addition, do not really describe the contents of these religions. Nowadays, even a term such as animism is no longer commonly acceptable. Whereas in Africa these religions are ordinarily referred to as ‘African Traditional Religions’; in Asia they are called ‘Tribal Religions and Folk Religions’, in America ‘Native Religions and Afro-American Religions’, and in Oceania ‘Indigenous Religions’.

The authors of the document, Cardinal Francis Arinze and Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, respectively President and Secretary of the Commission, argued the case for a positive moral code in the traditional religions:

The moral code is regarded as that which has been handed down by past generations and sanctioned by the spirits and the ancestors, and occasionally by God. Traditional Religions do not generally lay claim to revealed books. Nor are they articulated in theoretical statements of a theological or philosophical nature. The riches of their contents, and their many values, are more often found in their celebrations, stories and proverbs, and conveyed through attitudes, customs and codes of conduct. It is rare that a traditional religion traces itself back to a founder …

In many traditional societies there is a strong sense of the sacred. Religion permeates life to such an extent that it is often difficult to distinguish between strictly religious elements and local custom. Authority is not seen as something secular but is regarded as a sacred trust. People of Traditional Religions show great attention to the earth. They respect life and celebrate its important stages: birth, entrance into adulthood, marriage, death. There is a strong sense of the family, which includes love of children, respect for the elders, a community link with the ancestors. Symbolism ← xx | xxi → is important for interpreting the invisible world and the human being’s relationship with it. There is an obvious love of ritual …

However, the statement made it clear that ‘traditional religions also have their negative elements. Examples can be given: inadequate ideas about God, superstition, fear of the spirits, objectionable moral practices, the rejection of twins (in some places), even occasional human sacrifice.’ Many converts to Christianity ‘live in cultures and contexts influenced by these religions. This is proved by the fact that at some important moments in their lives (such as sickness, danger, marriage, birth of a child, funeral of a relative) they tend to have recourse to practices of their traditional religions or to prayer houses, healing homes, witch-craft, “prophets” or fortune-tellers.’ The Church respects the religions and cultures of peoples, the 1993 statement affirmed, and ‘in its encounter with them, wishes to preserve everything that is noble, true and good in their religions and cultures’.

This is quite a long way from the idea of genuine interaction between tribal cultures and the faith wished for by people in Northeast India in the analysis given in this book by Songram Basumatary. There are continuing signs that the Catholic hierarchy is ill at ease with some of the Indian Jesuits specialising in mission, dialogue and inculturation. In April 2014, Michael Amaladoss was scheduled to lecture at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Advising people that the lecture was cancelled, the seminary’s website noted, ‘The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Vatican has forbidden Dr. Amaladoss from speaking and publishing until a process of examining his thought has been successfully completed.’14 The unique and essential role of Christ in salvation and approaches to interreligious dialogue are at the centre of the congregation’s discussions with Michael Amaladoss, it is thought.15

← xxi | xxii →


XXII, 374
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (August)
identity theology hegemony
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. XXII, 374 pp., 1 map

Biographical notes

Songram Basumatary (Author)

Songram Basumatary is a native of Bodoland (Assam), India. He was born and brought up in a Christian family and completed both secular and theological studies amidst considerable ethnic turmoil. He earned his Bachelor of Divinity degree from Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India (1998); Master of Theology from Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, Chennai, India (2002); and Doctor of Theology from United Theological College, Bangalore, India (2010). He has been teaching at Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute since 2010 and presently serves as Dean of Post Graduate Studies. He has published widely on the topic of ethnicity and tribal theology.


Title: Ethnicity and Tribal Theology
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398 pages