William Pettigrew's contribution to the reformation of social practices of Tribals
- Part 2-

Prof. (Dr) M. Horam *

Traditional rules governing the sexual life of the Tribals are strict and generally observed. Breaches of the rules are sufficiently gave to be talked of and to be severely punished. Sexual relationship must be conducted in proper manner, for instance, rape is very rare and if raped, culprit is severely dealt with.

But after the conversion, the missionaries become/became soft to a convert who commits such a crime and can be forgiven through confession and eventually he is restored to Christian community. Sexual derivatives are almost unknown, beatiality, homosexuality, lesbianism, sodomy, prostitution and masturation are unheard of in a tribal society.

It is true that there are cases of pre-marital relationships but under strict disciplines and restraints and eventually lead up to marrying. But now such practices are taken lightly and look away as though they are symptoms of westernisation/modernisation. This concept is devastating to a healthy tribal society, for, westernisation is not a modernisation.

Too often, tribals mistake westernisation as modernisation and they ape blindly western ways of life and habits. To sum up, tribal ethics and morality combine a firm belief in taboos and restraints coupled with the fear of endangering the age-old communities if they are flouted. The erstwhile tribal culture and 'gos' have limitless faith in the value of certain social values and niceties which make up in the village amicable and happy.

The status of women is remarkably high among the tribals, and they are honoured for their role in the family and their accomplishments. They have the same status as the men in many ways and suffer no discrimination on account of sex-widows are remarried without any stigma.

When Christian Missionaries arrived many 'dos' and 'don't' were imposed on women, and made women a distinct entity. Writing about the Naga women for examples, Prof. Haimendorf said : 'Many women in more civilised parts of India may well envy the women of Naga Hills their high status and their free and happy life ; and if you measure/measures the cultural level of a people by the social position and personal tradition of its women, you will think twice before looking down on the Nagas as 'Savages'."

Tribals are excellent builders of arts and crafts. To cite a few, the Nagas, specially the Kabuis (Zelaingrongs) have an impeccable taste for design and colour ; their women weave prettyclothes, make splendid head-dresses, armslets and neckless of bone and ivory. They also make splendid houses, gates and drums with various designs full of meanings.

But when the missionaries arrived, and after the conversions, all these excellent arts and crafts were destroyed on the plea that these were full of "Pagan-nonsense". Every type of race, society, of belies or institution, every way of life, constitute a ready made experiment whose preparation has taken thousand of years, and as such it is irreplaceable. When a community disappears, a door closes forever, locking away knowledge that is unique.

The tribals have no written history ; therefore, if they want to record their history in written form they have to rely heavily on arts and culture, songs and dances, legends and stories. Tribals by nature are fond of music, song and dances. Each song had dance is pregnant with meanings.

Let us take songs, for instance ; singing comes as naturally to the tribals as breathing. They sing in mirth and in sorrow, when alone or in groups, in sunshine and in rain. The wisdom of tribals seem to tell, "Laugh and be merry, remember, better the world with song". Then there are dances graceful and slow or energetic and quick, depicting various moods and used on different occasions.

All literature must have begun as an oral tradition handed down from one generation to the next. For the Tribals much of their writing, and still later painting. For the Tribals much of their literacy heritage is still oral and every villages has certain families or a group of venerable old men who are usually the custodians of the legacy.

With their country having been the scene of turmoil for several decades and the onslaught or Missionaries over-zealous pursuit for conversion of Christianity, much of the cultural heritage is in danger of being submerged or forgotten.

Some powerful villagers, however, realised the influence of the missionaries as dangerous game, so the introduction of Christianity in certain part of the tribals were eager avenge the presence of the new creed.

We were told that missionaries stopped the tribals to follow their customs, such as singing, dancing, drinking and festivals and forced them to take a new mode of life. As stated earlier, the Christian Missionaries had been only persuasive, but after getting power from the British administrators ; missionaries method became even more co-ercive and compulsory.

A reaction against it wa immense ; many tribals invaded the mission campuses, some missionaries were man-handled, converts were driven out from the villages and boycotted from their communities.

But Christian Missionaries, including Rev. William Pettigrew, despite such opposition, did not leave the tribal areas, instead of leaving they scattered through the country, placing themselves under the protection of the British administrators.

The tribals, perhaps, thought it impolite to chase the Missionaries ; they did not push matter further beyond their villages ; the missionaries kept on preaching, showed 'love' to the tribals and preaching openly to the public ; and their patience, tolerance and tenacity served them all.

The success achieved by the Christian Missionaries is a matter of much sociological interest for investigation. It is difficult to say what factors exactly made the Missionaries work successful ; because, the information we get from loose records are scanty. Anyway, whatever method were followed, the early success of the missionary work was astonishing.

But I presume, the greatest weapon they used was 'love' and 'patience'. They identified themselves (e.g. William Pettigrew) with the local people and showedintense human interest ; co-ercion might partly explain of their success, but force exercisedby by the administrators upon the subjects wielded tremendous influence on the local people.

Another important factor which helped the missionary work was "concessions" given to the converts ; for example, free education, gifts and presents, this method was a powerful bribe in religious negotiation with the staunch trival religious worshippers.

The tribals converts to new creed could have easier access to the administrators and the missionaries and this could necessarily give some advantage over the ir tribals rivals who did not have such opportunity and this trick could increase their power at the expenses of their neighbours.

But these concessions were actually offered for the privilege of preaching, and sometimes much more than the privilege was demanded and obtained. Once the objective was achieved, the missionaries would asked for land as a gift for their missionaries work, at times threatening, in case of refusal.

Soon after that the missionaries began to prove the character of their creed by furious attacks upon the traditional religion. They (missionaries) condemned the tribal religion, attacked their culture, stopped, even though, their cultural activities such as singing, dancing and festivals which did not have any direct link with religion and did not have religious flavour ; but attributed such acts as the "wrath of God" and after which act, by the zeal of their converts, many tribals ceremonial custom were destroyed ; festivals, local mild rice beer drinking were banned and abandoned ; traditional songs and dances were replaced by alien songs and dances, religious rites were forbidden and replaced byChristian faith.

Despite the tremendous damages inflicted on the tribal social milieus by the Christian missionaries, one must admit that Christian missionaries, specially Rev. William Pettigrew brought to the tribals a wider harmonizing influence ; a new gospel of love and tenderness, together with various mundane new benefits like schools, dispensaries, idea of cleanliness, dignity of men and above all, opened vistas to the modern world.


* Prof. (Dr) M. Horam wrote this article which was published at Imphal Times
This article was webcasted on June 20 2019.

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