Rampant conversion into Christianity is compromising Arunachal’s security – Abhinav Pandya

Tawang Gate at Sela Pass in Arunachal Pradesh.

Abhinav PandyaInfrastructure building in the Arunachal Pradesh border areas is a praiseworthy initiative, however, we need to have a broader and long-term vision. The people and their Buddhist culture constitute the core of India’s strategic strength in AP, but it is being flagrantly undermined by Christian mossionaries and their aggressive proselytising. – Abhinav Pandya

After the Dec. 2022 Chinese incursion, Tawang has once again become prominent in the current strategic themes, concerns, and challenges. Tawang’s historical association with Buddhism has always made it critical to India-China geopolitical calculus.

The birthplace of the Sixth Dalai Lama Tsang Yang Gyatso, Tawang is home to one of the most significant, oldest, and revered monasteries in the Buddhist religious universe.

In 1959, the current Dalai Lama, escaping from China’s Communist persecution, set his first foot in Kenzamane in Tawang, where he was greeted by soldiers of Assam Rifles.

Apparently quiet, remote, and serene hill town popularly known for its yaks, monasteries, Monpa Buddhists, and picturesque beauty is highly volatile when seen from the prism of India-China rivalry, as it is claimed by China as a part of its territory along with the entire Arunachal Pradesh.

In 1962, the Chinese forces marched into the Indian territory and captured Tawang, reaching as far as Tenga near Tezpur (Assam). Tawang’s strategic criticality makes it imperative to study and understand Tawang’s internal dynamics and developments.

In my recent field trip to Tawang, I had the opportunity to interact with a range of stakeholders including civilians, members of the monastery, religious leaders, government officials, intelligence officers, army and police officers, local politicians, and the members of civil society.

In my interactions and field observations, I witnessed alarming social, cultural, and demographic changes in Tawang and the other parts of Arunachal Pradesh.

The most critical concern is the sweeping demographic change in Arunachal Pradesh (AP). The Christian population has increased from less than 1 percent in 1971 to 30 percent in 2011. In gross numbers, the Christian population has increased from 3684 in 1971 to 4,18,732 in 2011.

In 2021, the census could not be organised due to corona spread, however, rough estimates suggest that Christians constitute more than 40 per cent of the total population in Arunachal. The share of the ‘other religions’ category which includes followers of Donyi Polo (sun and moon worshippers) and other tribal faiths has decreased from 64 percent in 1971 to 26 percent of the total population in 2011.

The decadal growth rate of the Christian population has been more than 100 percent all through.

J.K. Bajaj of the Center for Policy Studies, an expert voice on Arunachal Pradesh opines that the unnatural growth of Christianity is the result of “aggressive proselytization undertaken by the Church mainly in the period following Independence.”

Kiren Rejuju, Member of Parliament from AP and former minister of state in the home ministry also suggested that massive conversion is responsible for the meteoric rise in the Christian population. However, there are experts suggesting otherwise. Prof. Amitabh Kundu of the Institute of Human Development blames migration for the rise.

During my field research, several locals including the Monpa community leaders, intelligence operatives, and social activists suggested that religious conversion has emerged as the most significant challenge to Buddhist identity in AP.

In 2015, the Naga pastors of the Christian Revival Church (CRC) of Nagaland laid the foundation stone of a church building in Tawang, on an allegedly illegally acquired piece of land. The CRC is known for its aggressive proselytising and conversion.

Reportedly, they have been making vigorous attempts to find a foothold in Western AP (Tawang and Kameng districts) since 1990, however, unlike the other parts of AP where Christianity has acquired an overwhelming influence, CRC missionaries have not succeeded in Western AP.  It is due to the strong presence of the close-knit Monpa community who are devout Buddhists and ardent followers of the Gelug sect of Buddhism. They worship the Dalai Lama as their religious head.

The local Monpa Buddhists in Tawang strongly protested the alleged illegal construction of a church building in Tawang, vowing to sacrifice their lives to protect Buddhism from the Church onslaught.

However, the CRC pastors and members of the Arunachal Christian Forum warned of a state-wide movement. Notably, the land which the CRC claims, appears to be an illegal possession. In one of the internal Church documents, it is mentioned that the state governments should regularise the Church land which they have occupied since 1999.  After the protests grew intense, the state government issued a stay order on the construction.

However, the stay order came only after the Church authorities commenced the construction of the second floor. As of today, the Church building stands intact, and sooner or later, the Church authorities will get the decision in their favour.

Monpa leaders informed me that Tawang is the last bastion of Buddhism in AP and the Church perceives it as a major stumbling block in its complete take-over of AP. The CRC wanted to construct an imposing church building in Tawang todwarf the influence of the monastery which is India’s largest 340 years old Buddhist monastery holding an overwhelming influence among the Buddhists.

A massive and large church structure is likely to act as a powerful symbol to entice the gullible young Monpas.

In other parts of AP and with the other tribes such as Nyishi, Galo, Tagin, Nocte, and Wancho who follow Donyi-Polo and Rangfrah faiths, which are basically shamanic and animistic, Church has been exceedingly successful in conversions. With these other tribes, the Church has been highly successful because they do not have a spiritual leader like the Dalai Lama and organised religious structures and institutions like the Buddhists.

Westernization and out-migration

Among the youth, one comes across a rapidly rising westernisation, visible in the changing dress patterns, eating habits, and lifestyle. Growing exposure to mainstream India, urbanisation, films, social media, and commercialisation has raised the aspirations of the local youth who are getting disenchanted with the traditional way of life.

Unlike Bhutan, where traditional clothing is mandatory, in Tawang it is not the case. Unemployed young boys and girls flaunting western clothing brands and mobile phones is a common sight. Tawang’s remote location and tough terrain made it difficult in the past to get meat supplies around the year. However, lately, meat shops have mushroomed against Buddhist values and norms.

Groups of five-six youngsters partying on hill sites with alcohol and drugs have become a generally accepted fun time among the youth. The young generation is hardly interested in staying in Tawang and continuing their traditional lifestyle.

They are not enthusiastic about Buddhist education in monasteries. Though Tawang Monastery continues to command paramount influence and reputation, its deepening financial and existential crisis is amply visible in its open drains, shoddy and dilapidated buildings, and poor infrastructure.

The young generation enchanted by the western lifestyle, drinking, and dress patterns are particularly averse to the monastic discipline of the Buddhist monasteries. Also, traditional religious education presents a bleak scenario in the employment generation.

As a result, the youth want to migrate to Delhi, Chandigarh, and Guwahati for better employment prospects and a liberal lifestyle. An important reason for the success of Christian missionaries is their massive financial strength enabling them to offer modern education through a widespread network of modern schools and new employment opportunities.

Strategic fall-outs

Another flipside to this westernisation and resultant out-migration is that the new generation addicted to an easy life is abandoning the traditional livelihood of grazing which involves physical hardships.

Since the number of grazers is going down, there is a smaller number of locals visiting the border areas to graze their animals. Such a scenario is likely to have serious strategic repercussions as with no grazers, India will not be able to prove and justify its claims on the disputed areas in the border region.

On the Chinese side, because of the dictatorial nature of the government, they are settling new villages in the border areas which will eventually make their claims stronger. Hence, there is an urgent requirement to create conditions tomotivate the young generations to stay in Tawang and create lucrative incentives to respect and adhere to the traditional lifestyle.

It will be a smoother ride for China and other foreign adversaries to convince this unemployed, frustrated, alcoholic, westernised, liberal, and gullible young generation with false narratives, employment opportunities, and monetary incentives. Such a crowd deracinated from its cultural and religious roots lacks conviction and commitment to Buddhist values, beliefs, and lifestyles. They are highly vulnerable to being recruited as spies and assets for espionage and narrative war.

Economic fault lines and the way ahead

Gross economic inequalities are also emerging as a major fault line in society creating a class of affluent elites and a massive lot of deprived common citizens. The administrative and political elites have indulged in massive corruption and amassed huge wealth.

They have purchased huge tracts of land for themselves and their relatives. Also, they are running parallel businesses such as gymnasiums, hotels, etc. The youth which is modernising and getting detached from the traditional culture and livelihood as discussed in the previous section, is facing a huge employment crisis.

Working on construction sites and as porters with the army appears as the only employment avenue for ordinary people. The widening economic rift is leading to out-migration and most critically, intensifying frustration and anger among the youth against the government institutions and social elites. Such a scenario in a border state does not bode well for the larger national security interests of India.

India’s strategic experts and the government need to focus on the transforming internal dynamics of Arunachal Pradesh. Currently, the official approach seems to be highly military-centric and intelligence-based. The underlying motive behind the massive infrastructure building in border areas also appears to be heavily dominated by military-centric thinking.

Undoubtedly, the infrastructure building in the border areas is a praiseworthy initiative, however, we need to have a broader and long-term vision. Not roads, but the people and their traditional Buddhist culture constitute the core of India’s strategic strength in Arunachal Pradesh.

Hence, efforts need to be taken to retain the local youth in Arunachal, particularly the Tawang area, and prevent their out-migration. It can be done by creating gainful employment opportunities in hospitality, medicine, cultural tourism, and mountain sports tourism.

The grazers need to be protected, patronised, and incentivized to pursue their traditional livelihoods and continue their grazing activity in the border areas. The planned and systematic efforts to create meditation centres, spas and retreats, and sports tourism such as paragliding, rock climbing, skiing, and mountaineering can work wonders in the region. Monastery students can be employed in meditation centres and spiritual retreats.

There is also an urgent need to protect and promote Buddhism, its institutions, and its structures. It is also essential to do this because several reactionary and anti-India elements with ulterior political motives, dubious loyalties, and financial ties with enemy state and non-state actors are hijacking Buddhism in the Indian mainland and projecting it as a politically sensitive ideology premised on anti-Hindu and anti-Brahmin ideals. If the trend continues Buddhism will be captured by narrative saboteurs who will use it to target India’s Sanatan civilisational legacy and use it to accentuate caste fault lines in the Hindu society.

Lastly, we also need to make massive efforts to increase the footfall of foreign tourists in Arunachal Pradesh. With tremendous tourism potential, in addition to bringing substantial foreign exchange, a rise in foreign tourism will further integrate Tawang with mainland India.

More openness to foreigners will strengthen India’s claims and expose China’s subterfuge, expansionism, and salami-slicing, majorly denting its false narratives and lies to strengthen and justify its claims on Arunachal Pradesh.

A caveat that is often presented against this argument is that allowing foreigners in Arunachal Pradesh will make the border state vulnerable to human spies working for China and other adversaries.

This argument had relevance in the past because human intelligence (HUMINT) was the main source of intelligence gathering and intelligence-based operations. In the present times, China mostly relies on technical intelligence and surveillance, satellite imagery, and AI-based technologies.

In these fields, with their advanced Pan-Tilt-Zoom (PTZ) cameras and other sophisticated equipment, they are far ahead of India as a result of which they tend to dominate the borders in intelligence-related matters.

As a result, their dependence on HUMINT is minimal. Secondly, even in the current Inner-Line Permit system, the rules are quite relaxed and one can witness many outsiders visiting Tawang from Guwahati, Calcutta, and other far-flung areas. Having said that, I would not discount the possibility of the arrival of an increased number of human spies in the garb of foreign tourists; however, the benefits, as mentioned above, will outweigh the costs.

Lastly, Arunachal needs better internet connectivity, phone connectivity, and heating infrastructure, and electricity. During the winters, the rivers freeze, hence one needs to find solutions beyond hydroelectricity. Better phone connectivity, roads, and electricity will make lives comfortable and easier for the locals, armed forces, and intelligence operatives. Particularly, the intelligence operatives suffer from low morale and lack of enthusiasm in the Arunachal border areas because of the hostile climate, poor electricity, and internet connectivity. – Firstpost, 21 January 2023

›  Abhinav Pandya is a policy analyst specialising in counterterrorism, Indian foreign policy and Afghanistan-Pakistan geopolitics. 

Catholic Church in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh.