Accepted paper:

From millets to rice: missionary evangelism and the politics of the new faith in the Naga Hills


Debojyoti Das (Bristol University)

Paper short abstract:

The paper looks at social change in Naga life worlds through the prism of syncretic religious adaptations that has transformed their belief system as well as their way of life.

Paper long abstract:

This paper contests the commonly held view that missionary influence "modernized" tribal life worlds, with reference to the specific case of Sema and Ao Naga missionary activity amongst the Yimchunger's of Tuensang district, Nagaland. It argues that in this particular case, social change was not propelled by modernization or technological changes brought about by the state or church actors, but by syncretic religious adaptations and control over local land and labour relations by faith based institutions. The government's counter insurgency operation in the 1950s worked hand in hand with the diffusion of wet rice cultivation technologies developed by the agriculture department staffs, known as Village Level Workers or Keku Babu in Yimchunger dialect. Incentives such as subsidies, new seed supplies and loans for building terraces and irrigation work led to the creation of a new elite middle class and land consolidation by people who worked as state agents and go betweens in the village. The emerging elites used customary laws to their advantage to define property rights and land use without any substantial shift to sedentary terrace farming. On the contrary, the diffusion of a new faith, by the Baptist missionaries, since the late 1950s produced a new chain of relationships in which rice was preferred as the crop of civilization by the church missionaries and their converts in predominantly millet and job tears based jhum economy. The church played an instrumental role in bringing about social change in frontier Naga villages by altering crop choices and Yimchunger dietary habits.

panel P46
Global Christianity: remaking social worlds in South and Southeast Asia