TODAY -

The Cross and the Flag: Christianity at Risk

Dr Jangkholam Haokip *



In recent years, there has been increasing interest among colonial and mission historians in the West on the question of collaboration between colonial imperialism and Christian mission during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This has resulted in a number of consultations and publications on the issue including The Imperial Horizons of British Protestant Missions (2003), The Bible and the Flag (1990), British Protestant missionaries and overseas expansion (2004).

Some of these works argued that Christianity, that is, Western form of Christianity did not support colonial administration. Not withstanding this argument on a global scale, I would like to highlight a slightly different story in Manipur during what is now called Anglo-Kuki War 1917-1919 wherein ‘Christianity’ was identical with the European colonial imperialism which not only distorted the image of Christianity as a cross-cultural faith movement but also left a trend that runs the risk of domesticating the message of Christ in a multi-ethnic context like Northeast India.

Except Christian missions like the Thado-Kuki Pioneer Mission (better known as ‘The Kuki Mission 1910’) founded by a Welsh independent missionary Watkin Roberts in 1910, the coming and success of Christianity in North-East India owed much to her cooperation with the government officials as much as the success of the colonial administration owed to the work of the missionaries.

Lieutenant-Colonel Shakespear, for example, showed great interest in the work of the missionaries. He even wrote to the American Baptist mission urging that assistance be afforded to Mr. William Pettigrew, the only official missionary in Manipur who worked mostly in Ukhrul. At the end of his repeated attempts, the colonial government provided the mission with a Bengali teacher and published for the school primer, catechism, and grammar.

Similarly, in Mizoram, while the government carried out what was known as ‘disarmament policy’, that is, collecting of guns from the chiefs, the missionaries did their philanthropic works like taking charge of distribution of salt which benefited both the administration and the missionaries. Shakespear also speaks of the way in which the work of the missionaries assisted in the pacification of the Lushais.

In Manipur, Pettigrew was appointed by the government as Superintendent of the first real census of the hill tribes (1910-11) because the missionary was the only one who knew the language of the people. During the World War I and the subsequent Anglo-Kuki War referred to above, the main reason for Christian participation in the wars was both political and missional.

The Colonial administration in the person of J. Higgins, the president of the Manipur state durbar issued an order and recruited local people for Labour Corps in France. Like others, the Kuki people strongly resisted his demand because for them, besides many other reasons, supporting the war against the Germans was against their international war ethics, saying ‘How can we harm someone who had never harm us in a war in our history?’

In their mind, the war was not theirs; it belongs to the British and hence the idea of the so-called ‘World War’ was questionable besides protecting their ancestral land and administration as stated by another officer, Shakespear. In such a situation of helplessness, the official missionary Pettigrew was used by the colonial administration to persuade the local people.

To his great advantage before the colonial administration, Pettigrew was successful in recruiting the local people for the Labour Force. He recruited two thousand local people out of whom one thousand and two hundred were Tangkhul Christian converts as he worked among them eleven years already by that time.

Whereas in the case of the Kukis who were well established in their own religious systems and administration, both the colonial administration and the missionaries found it hard to win them except a few Christian converts like Ngulhao Thomsong and a local missionary Dala. With all those efforts, they were able to recruit hardly 500 men from all Kuki clans put together.

On their return from France, in the subsequent Anglo-Kuki War 1917-1919, the colonial administration and missionaries continued to collaborate. Both Pettigrew and another missionary Doctor G.G. Crozer supported the colonial administration. Crozier worked in the Army as medical officer during the Anglo-Kuki War and in many occasions he protected and save the British Forces from the attack of the Kukis.

Angom Porom Singh, an orphan Meitei, converted and brought up by Pettigrew was also a dedicated native missionary to support the Colonial administration during that period. Pettigrew in his report ‘Twenty-Five Years: 1897-1922’ clearly mentioned about Porom Singh’s involvement in the Anglo-Kuki War and how it was received by the missionaries.

Apart from Porom Singh, the colonial administration also employed other local converts on their return home from France. Prof. Lal Dena of Manipur University accounts, “[o]n return from the war, the Tangkhul Nagas were again enlisted in the coolie sections of the Kuki Punitive Measures which was unleashed for the sole purpose of suppressing the Kuki uprising.” [Dena, 2008].

It should be noted that the colonial administration also recruited some Kuki converts to suppress their own people during this period. To acknowledge the wholehearted supports during the wars against the Germans in France and the Kukis in Manipur, the Government rewarded the missionaries and their converts with different gifts.

Apart from individual recognitions for Pettigrew, Crozer and Prom Singh, what is now known as the Kangpokpi Mission (Kangpokpi) and the Manipur Baptist Compound (Imphal) were given as the recognition of their services during the two wars.

What can be observed here is that during those two wars, the true and transcending message of Christ was put to risk in the uncritical marriage between ‘Christianity’ and colonial administration. Christianity was not only tamed by some but also becomes an agent that works for the advantages of one at the expense of others.

In the context of North East, particularly in Manipur, there is an urgent need to critically look at the way in which we connect Christianity and one’s own national or ethnic movement. One cannot afford to domesticate Christianity for his or her own community interest.

It was a colonial way of doing Christianity which they could not nurture even for a century. Colonial form of Christianity no longer exist today. True Christianity transcends all boundaries and includes every people and culture. Ethnic engineers in Northeast will do well if they can carry the Cross and their flags peacefully in a multi-ethnic context.


* Dr Jangkholam Haokip wrote this article for Imphal Times
This article was posted on November 10, 2019 .


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