Nagaland: A Tribal Church

Interview With a Bishop From Most Catholic Spot in India

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KOHIMA, India, MAY 2, 2010 ( Nagaland is one of the so-called seven sister states in the northeastern part of India, bordered to the east by Burma and to the north by the Himalayan Mountains. Nagaland, up until about 100 years ago, was home to a culture of pagans and headhunters. Today, Nagaland is the only state in India where over 90% of its population is Christian.

In this interview given to the television program «Where God Weeps» of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Jose Mukala of Kohima speaks of the history of Christianity in the area, and what the Church owes to Baptist missionaries.

Q: What was your first impression when you first came to Nagaland? 

Bishop Mukala: Although it was after my ordination that I came to Nagaland to work, I was there first during my seminary studies. In fact it was in 1967 that I visited Nagaland for the first time; it was my second year of seminary life and I was surprised to find churches in every village that we passed through, and that gave us a kind of joy saying that there are Christians all over and we could see the churches in the top of the village, in every village. After my ordination I worked for two years in Manipur, which is close to Nagaland and then I was transferred to Nagaland as staff in the seminary. 

Q: The village is the center of tribal life. What is so symbolic or so significant about the village still for tribes in Nagaland?

Bishop Mukala: The village still holds an important place in their life because they’re born there and they learn the tribal values in the village. The village council, the village elders will communicate to them the tribal values and all about the tribe and their history and so the village is still the most important place for them. They are still the authority. 

Q: More than the government?

Bishop Mukala: Much more than the government because they give more importance to the customary laws that are in the villages and among the tribes. So first they take a case to the village courts and there it is discussed, thrashed out and if that is not possible only then it goes to the higher authorities. 

Q: Naga culture up to 130 years ago was a pagan culture. How difficult then was it for the first missionaries to evangelize the Naga people? 

Bishop Mukala: I don’t think that it was difficult because the Christian Baptist missionaries say that they were welcomed by the groups. While coming in contact with the rest of the people in Assam, they [Nagas] found progress and development and they believed that Christianity would bring development in their lives. 

Q: So the tribals came down from the hills, they saw the Christian settlements and they saw something more attractive, in fact, more interesting than the Hindu culture? 

Bishop Mukala: More interesting than the Hindu culture; somehow they didn’t want to adopt the Hindu culture. I do not know the reasons, but perhaps the multitude of gods and other things about Hinduism was unattractive to them. The Christian missionaries however found a very welcoming atmosphere and attitude from the Naga people. The other attraction perhaps was education. They spoke of education often and that must have been the other reason for them to welcome the Christians and even now I’m always made welcome in all the villages and they often ask about schools. But I can not always say, OK I will start a school, unless we have the communities [religious]. We look after the communities first and foremost then, if for the benefit of everybody we will start a school. 

Q: In fact the Catholic missionaries were not the first to mission in Nagaland. They say that Nagaland is the most Baptist country in this corner of the world. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Bishop Mukala: Yes, yes, it is true, they say, although I have not seen it in writing; the World Council of Churches divided the area and gave it to different denominations and Catholics where not given a place. 

Q: And this was after independence? 

Bishop Mukala: This was much before independence and so certain areas in the northeast were given to the Lutherans while certain areas were given to the Presbyterians, while Nagaland, Manipur and upper Mizoram were given to the Baptists. 

Q: The Catholics were not allowed? 

Bishop Mukala: The Catholics were not given a place because Catholics were already in Shiolong and Assam but in these hill areas, they were not given a place. 

Q: Where did these Baptist missionary come from? 

Bishop Mukala: They came from America but they first settled in Jorhat (Northeastern Assam State, India) and then they came up to our area and contacted the first village. 

Q: And according to you they did a good job? 

Bishop Mukala: They did a good job. They went to all the villages and translated the Bible into the different tribal languages. How perfect this translation is, is questionable but even now we are using the same translation today. 

Q: I want to come to the question of schooling because this was really the foundation. How is it and why was schooling so important to the missionaries and to the reception of the Catholic Church in these villages? 

Bishop Mukala: We found that without schools we will not be able to educate our youngsters and I should be very grateful to the first bishop of Nagaland, Bishop Abraham, a Salesian who as soon as he took up his position said: “We should have a college.»

Q: I think that it is important to give a background that education, or the lack thereof, is an enormous problem in these areas. 

Bishop Mukala: It is a problem and let me say this; there are government schools in every village but very few of them function properly. The teachers are either not present or they just show up without taking their job seriously and there is no supervision. That is what was happening and now things have changed, the communities are now taking matters into their own hands and are taking the responsibilities for their own schools but even then they find the quality of our schools and our school system better and much preferred because we are serious, and we mean business. Management and staff are very serious and very sincere in their work that contributes to the quality of our school system and they see this. As a result there is a tremendous desire to enroll in our schools rather than their own schools. There is, however an increase in school expenses because they [parents] have to pay their children’s tuition to come to our schools. In this sense their school expenses are doubled; their own schools and our schools. 

Q: The Catholic schools are much more open to the less fortunate, that is, the fees that are requested are much less than the other private schools.

Bishop Mukala: Less than other private school; that is true and we also give a lot of concession to the poor especially to our own Catholic children because we want to make sure that they are all educated. 

Q: Poverty is still an issue in Nagaland, not so much malnutrition — or is hunger still an issue? 

Bishop Mukala: I wouldn’t say that hunger is a big issue in Nagaland because the people work very hard. They work in the field. They have something to eat. The forest is rich with food and animals and all that. So around the forest they practice «jhum» or what we call “shifting cultivation” and so they always have something to eat. None of them starve; maybe when the fields are destroyed due to rain or landslide, those villages may not have enough but then the other villages will assist and we, ourselves will help but this is rare. As such nobody goes hungry but regarding money it is difficult for them to have. There is nothing that would bring in cash even if they have a surplus of produce because they are unable to transport it to a market. Transporting prod
uce costs money. The Church has taken some initiative in helping them to market their surplus produce through our social service center in Dimapur and we have branches in all the parishes and taken some steps but we have not done very much in this regard. 

Q: So it is still very much a hand to mouth existence? 

Bishop Mukala: It is still a hand to mouth existence, yes and that is another major problem with regard to sending their children to school for instance. They need money for fees, uniform and books which makes it very difficult for them. Another problem is the cost of infrastructures but they work very hard, they are very cooperative and give us what they can, in fact, comparing the collection that we have in our churches with the rest of India; I found our people are much more generous and whatever they have they will share it with you. 

Q: Your Excellency, what is the greatest challenge and threat that your mission faces in Nagaland among the tribal peoples? 

Bishop Mukala: My constant concern is educating them in our faith. They come from a Baptist background and as such they have no idea of the sacraments and our catechism, or our doctrine therefore we are giving more emphasis on catechizing our people in various ways and we do it with our children, youngsters, even our adults. This is one of our main challenge and concern. 

Q: Your Excellency, what will be your appeal to the Universal Church?

Bishop Mukala: I would ask the members of the Church all over the world to please remember us in their prayers that our Church will become an active missionary Church and that we will be able to send our own missionaries to other places. In fact we have some Nagas already in the missions, e.g. in Germany, we have an assistant priest in the Hamburg Diocese. We hope that many more from Nagaland, and the Nagaland Diocese will go to the other parts of the world. Secondly to help us educate our children and our elders in faith. 

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for «Where God Weeps,» a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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