The shops were shut, business at a standstill, the cars parked neatly on the side of the road. It was Sunday in Kohima and families were at Church, an institution that defines Nagaland and is part of most of its decisions. Including the conversation on politics.
Nagaland’s population is overwhelmingly Christian, over 90%. There are Catholics, some from the Christian Revival, and Assembly of God, while the most powerful group is the Baptists, with close to 75% percent of the population. According to the Nagaland Baptist Church Council, Nagaland’s most powerful religious body, the state has 1,615 Baptist churches, with services held in different tribal languages apart from English.
In previous elections, the NBCC had made subtle hints about the rise of the BJP in the Northeast and in Nagaland in particular, in coalition with the ruling NPF. This time, the NBCC has raised the pitch.
In a letter addressed to all political parties, which was then reproduced across English language newspapers such as the Morung Express, Nagaland Post and others the next day, NBCC general secretary Reverend Dr Zelhou Keyho wrote against the BJP and the RSS, asking parties to “protect and safeguard your faith and the principles you hold dear”.
“We cannot deny that the Hindutva movement in the country has become unprecedentedly strong and invasive in the last few years with the BJP the political wing of the RSS in power. This fact cannot be denied no matter how hard you try to convince the innocents. You also cannot deny that the party in power at the Centre is working tooth and nail to make its presence known and seen in Nagaland, the frontline of the Christian majority state in the country. Have you ever seriously questioned their intention? If you have not, do not be fooled,” Keyho wrote.
His letter went on to describe how Baptist World Alliance president Reverend Dr Paul Msiza was denied a visa earlier this year as he was scheduled to make an appearance in Meghalaya, in what has become an issue in the neighbouring state as well, as well as controversies around Christmas and Good Friday – the Centre declared them Good Governance Day and Digital India Day respectively.
“India has experienced worst persecution ever in 2015-2017,” the letter continued. “You will be fully aware that persecutions have been tripled in recent years. Pastors, evangelists and missionaries are dragged openly in the streets, harassed and insulted and many made to suffer. Their homes destroyed and children discriminated in schools. Worship places were burnt down and believers are often disturbed and harassed.God must be weeping when Naga politicians are running after those who seek to destroy Christianity in India and our land.”
The letter ends with the sentence “Let us not be deceived:God cannot be mocked” (Galatians 6:7).
Political leaders believe that the letter is a strong indication that the Church might actively engage in canvassing, and is a warning to parties that are always seeking coalition partners. The BJP shared with the NPF in the outgoing government, and is now in alliance with the NDPP led by former chief minister Neiphiu Rio. A senior leader in an Ao church said, “While we have not ever done this directly, there are discussions going whether this letter should be read out by pastors at the next Sunday Mass.”
A senior BJP leader said they were watching the statements issued by the Church but believed that a strategy of non-confrontation, mixed with credible, powerful local candidates would see them eventually win some of the 20 seats that the party is contesting. Visasolie Lhongou, BJP state president, said, “There are political elements here as well. This is election time and in this time many people say many things. We are choosing not to respond and are showing restraint.”
Said a senior BJP strategist camping in Nagaland for the last few weeks, “It is not as if the BJP has Hindu candidates in Nagaland. All our twenty 20 are Nagas and they are Christians. We have ruled in other states in the Northeast as well.”
Political analysts note that the Church’s call could prove influential but there are also two primary factors that the BJP could bank on. “The first is that people in Nagaland are very aware that the state doesn’t have any revenue of its own – 94% of its revenue comes from the Centre and therefore it is good to have an amiable partnership,” said a senior journalist. “Second, in many ways, the BJP has already entrenched itself. Its candidates have had long careers in regional politics. Candidates like former chief minister K L Chishi, TM Lotha, Monlohumo Kikon and Jacob Zhimomi are all powerhouses… These candidates will be judged on their own, and even their local churches will not necessarily go against them. Then there are also questions from some quarters about whether the Church should be involved at all.”
Reverend Keyho, on the other hand, told The Indian Express, “In Nagaland, it is difficult to separate the Church and the state, because both are closely linked. It is the Church that has since the 1980s, when we began to see the dirty aspect, begun the Clean Election Campaign. We have not been very successful but we are now taking our message to the grassroots… It is also the Church that brought together all tribal bodies to discuss the standoff. We didn’t say solution first, or election first, but just that everyone should discuss on one platform. What happened then [breaking of consensus] was unfortunate because it was for the first time so many stakeholders had come together.”
At 11:30 am Sunday, the packed hall at the City Church in Kohima broke out in song. As the hymn ended, and people turned to leave, each carried a four-page booklet that had the schedule for the day, and teachings from the Bible. On the second page, next to the words of Psalm 95, were six bullet points under the heading “Prayer”. The first two were a prayer for the sick, and children about to give examinations.
The last four, titled “Pray for the General Election”, read, “Pray for the Clean Election Campaign, for NBCC and other church organisations, that God will work through these efforts to bring peace and justice to the people. Pray for all the Election candidates that they might do what is good and right before God and men. And pray for all officials who will be on election duty, for wisdom and protection as they prepare to carry out their duties. Pray for the people of Nagaland so that good sense and righteousness may prevail over selfishness and temporary gain as we face another general election. Like in the Psalm, let us pray that God will frustrate and destroy the plans of those who intend evil and destruction, that we may see the power of his righteousness.”