CONTRIBUTION OF CHRISTIAN INSTITUTIONS TO EDUCATION IN THE NORTHEAST REGION OF INDIA
The Northeast accounts for 7.7 % of the total geographical area, and 3.88% of the population of India. It is a home to over 400 scheduled tribes. There are few places in the world where such a variety of peoples live in close proximity to each other as in Northeast India. The tribals constitute 80% of the population of Northeast India.
The earliest known Christian presence in Northeast India goes back to 17th century. We have the three Tibet bound Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, Stephen Cacella and John Cabral, and Fontabona from Italy who reached Hajo and Pandu near Guwahati, Asom, on September 26, 1626. They visited parts of Goalpara and Kamrup districts on their way to Tibet.
The Chronicles of the Augustinian monks at Bandel, near Hoogly, in West Bengal provide detailed information about the visit of Francis Laynez, the Jesuit bishop of Mylapore, to Rangamati, in the kingdom of Cooch Behar in 1714, a large Christian Community of 7000 people live there. A small Portuguese Catholic community at Bondashil in the Cachar district of Assam, the remnants of another Mughal Army, and a similar community at Mariamnagar in Agartala which was in existence since the eighteenth century goes to show the significant presence of Christians.
The earliest nineteenth century missionary interest in the Northeast was shown by the Baptists of Serampore from 1816-1837. In 1811 an Assamese pundit, Atmaram Sarma of Kaliabari in the Nagaon district was employed by the mission to translate the Christian scriptures into Assamese and an Assamese New Testament was published in 1819. In 1813 Krishna Chandra Pal, the first convert of the Serampore mission spent eight months at Pandua, under the Syiemship of Cherapunji . As far as Garos are concerned the first contact with education came in 1824, when David Scott sends three Garo boys to Serampore to study.
The whole of Northeast India had other associations with Christianity prior to the Treaty of Yandabu and the British annexation of Asom in 1826. This would mean that Northeast India had Christian presence even before the Ahom Raja, Rudra Singh. Encouraged by David Scott, and Major Jenkins, the Serampore mission opened a school at Guwahati in 1829; just three years after Asom had come under the control of the British. Soon Alexander Lish, opened schools at Cherrapunji, Mawsmai and Mawmluh and made a beginning in the development of Khasi literature. In 1836, the two American Baptist missionary couples came to Sadiya, but soon would move to the hills.
Since its establishment in 1834, the whole of Northeast India was under the jurisdiction of the Vicar Apostolic of Calcutta. Fathers Huc and Gabet, French Lazarists visited Mangaldai on their way to Tibet in 1846. From 1850 the Foreign Missionaries of Paris ministered to the scattered Catholic Communities in the Asom Valley. Asom became part of the prefecture of Bengal in 1870 under the care of the Foreign Missionaries of Milan (PIME). In 1890 the whole Asom was entrusted to the care of the then newly founded German Society of Catholic Education known as the Society of the Divine Saviour, or German Salvatorians. The JesuitMissionaries looked after the mission from 1915 to 1922. From 1922 the Salesians of Don Bosco (S.D.B.) or the Don Bosco Fathers and brothers and later on the diocesan Clergy and members of other religious congregations and committed laity made their contribution to development of education.
Contribution of Christian Institutions
The Barrister Pakem in his study of the interaction between Christianity and the people of Northeast India believes that “the prospects which Christian education has offered to the peopleof Northeast “compensates for any of its shortcomings”.
T. Menamparampil, Archbishop of Guwahati, Asom, distinguishes between different types of contributions: the contribution of Christian education and the influence of the Christian society on the people of Northeast India. Some observers see only a western influence in Christian communities and not the internal transformation and development of these communities. The major contribution of Christian education to Northeast India according to himis that it “acted as a stimulus, an inner urge, providing them with a new dynamism from within, setting them on a path to transformation and change”. It led them to “a self-awareness and made the people conscious of their own collective identity and heritage stirring to life alertness to its own identity”. It provided the people with “a vision that went beyond one’s own village, clan or tribe and gave a new world view based on the message of love, equality, forgiveness, pardon, peace, brotherhood, commitment and sacrifice”.
Following the usual pattern of missions, schools had been opened whenever a new station was established. The Orphanage and School, at Nagaon, Sibsagar, and Guwahati did tremendous work in education. But the establishment of the mission at Nongsawlia in 1843 was a turning point. In fact it was the first attempt at coeducation in Asom. The Nongsawlia school was converted into a normal (Teacher’s Training) School by the government in 1867. It was not until 1870 that the school graduates began taking up teaching positions. The establishment of St. Anthony’s orphanage and industrial training school in 1901, which are today known as St. Anthony’s Higher Secondary School and Don Bosco Technical School, was another turning point in formal and technical education in Asom.
A New World View
Every area of tribal life has been influenced by Christian education. At the same time we have to appreciate greater openness to others, greater sense of unity among the various groups, the willingness to cooperate in building up a better nation not withstanding instances of violence and corruption and the diminishing spirit of hard work. Before the establishment of Christian educational institutions the tribal world view was limited to a clan, village or at the most to a particular area or kingdom. Christian educational institutions all over Northeast India have brought a new world view to the tribal people not only by exposing them to the Indian nation, but also to the international community. Through Christian missionaries they came into contact with various cultures of Europe and America and through the process of exchange of personnel studies and service abroad have been made possible.
Exposure to a new world with its culture or cultures with its economic systems and structures, its political philosophies and forms of government, its educational and social structures in general totally different from those of tribal people living in isolated geographical and cultural pockets was bound to alter the world view of the tribal people. This I would say was the major contribution of education for better or for worse on the tribal people.
The Christian world view has as its foundation God who is creator and Father of human kind. The whole of creation is from God and hence everything is under a summons from God. God is the Lord of all history moving all creation to its ultimate perfection. History is dynamic and the result of divine human dialogue and hence man’s dignity and responsibility both as creature, child of God, and collaborator with God for the end result of history.
Every Christian educational Institution stands to proclaim that man is radically wounded by sin and hence in need of inner transformation which consists of the right relationship with God with one’s neighbor and with the universe around. All human beings are children of God and belong to the one family of God and hence equal in dignity and worthy of respect and mutual service.
The Christian world view is radically determined by the person of Jesus Christ, his love, mercy, pardon, forgiveness, acceptance and service to all. This theological, philosophical and ideological presuppositions of the Christian world view even if not always fully lived explains the dynamics behind the impact of Christian Educational institutions on the tribal population of Northeast India.
Tribal Solidarity and Tribal Integration
Before the establishment of Christian educational institutions in Northeast India, there might have been some general awareness that the people living in a particular geographical area are related to each other. Nevertheless, such an awareness was definitely non functional at the interactive level. Each village was self sufficient and remained as an isolated unit. There was hardly any interaction between villages, even among the villages of the same tribe. Christian educational institutions played a positive role in providing a basis for establishing a new relationship at the intra tribal; inter tribal and extra tribal levels. The Christian education was the first agent of tribal solidarity.
The very tenet of Christianity that all people are children of God and therefore brothers and sisters to one another helped the people to relate with others in love and understanding. This one’s village or tribe to the state and then to the nation as a whole. This was further reinforced by the Christian emphasis on one’s responsibility for evangelization and service even to those people who had traditionally been their enemies.
Language and Tribal Identity
Another way the Christian educational institutions nurtured tribal identity within the same group was through the standardization of their language. Often it was the Christian missionaries who gave the script to many of these languages and wrote their first dictionary and grammar. Gradually the same method was applied to different tribes by introducing English as a common medium of instruction in the schools. Thus the Christian educational institutions were able to expand the relationships among the people of the Northeast from village to tribe, tribe to different tribes and finally to the nation at large. No wonder then, today many people from the region are prominent on the national scene, both in politics and in the bureaucracy.
Traditionally, tribal solidarity was weak as it was confined to a single sub-ethnic group speaking the same dialect. Christian education exposed the tribals to a worldwide communion and solidarity in faith in Jesus Christ despite internal tensions, divisions arising from theological and historical reasons. The processes of Christian education brought about a qualitative change in inter tribal, non tribal relationships. The tribal isolationism and intertribal hostility gave way to a feeling of true internationalism, short of political ideologies. This identity also made the tribal who was educated acceptable to other communities in various parts of the world. While tribal identity was promoted through Christian education of the tribals, another process was set in motion, namely inter-tribal solidarity. Christian theology provided the intellectual and emotional under girding for a wider solidarity than inter tribal solidarity.
National Emotional Integration
There is no doubt that British administration and later Indian administration of independent India have contributed to the integration of the tribals into the wider Indian society. Despite certain accusations about Christianity as a hindrance to national integration, in many ways Christian educational institutions among the tribals have contributed to national integration.
Education of the tribals in the Northeast can be understood only as an integral part of a larger process of political, social, economic, cultural and religious change. It is necessary to realize that, the impact of Christian education must be seen as a whole rather than denominational segment, even though some have made greater contribution than others. It is also important to keep in mind that the impact of education on the northeast varies from tribe to tribe. Nevertheless it is true that there is reason in saying that education has been the primary agent of change among the hill tribes of the Northeast.
It is a fact that without the Christian institutions, the Northeast would have been a very backward region even today. A Christian educational institution fosters a feeling of solidarity among the tribals of Northeast India. It thus helps national integration. Government policies are directed only at physical integration of the population with the rest of the country. But no effort is made for an emotional and psychological integration which is urgently required. Many tribals work today outside tribal areas while non tribals work in tribal areas in many church inspired or church sponsored institutions and projects.
There is no doubt that some educated tribals took to insurgency movements in Northeast India. Many leaders of insurgency happened to be Christian for the simple fact that they were better educated than the rest of their people and were able to question the established system. But such movements were neither inspired nor supported by the Church any more than the Sikh, Kashmiri and Assamese secessionist movements are inspired by Sikh, Islamic or Hindu religions. Insurgency has many parents like decades of misadministration, exploitation of ethnic, religious and cultural minorities by at least a number of politicians, government leaders, political parties, discrimination and cultural domination by certain powerful social groups. It is too facile an explanation to put insurgency movements at the door of Christianity.
Development of Political Consciousness
The tribal way of life called for few political structures in the modern sense of the word. Illiteracy, geographical and cultural isolation, rudimentary agricultural economy and other such factors did not call for elaborate political structures. Traditional tribal organizations took care of their political needs. One important factor that contributed to the growth of political consciousness was Christian education. The inspiration for the morphology of modern political organizations and structures came at least in part, from Christian education. So, Christian education brings with it the seeds of political consciousness. The process of creating political consciousness was accelerated by the considerable number of educational institutions of the churches in Northeast India.
As a result of the Christian education the tribals were able to discover their tribal political identity, create political leadership, claim their political rights and contribute towards political and administrative reorganization of the whole of Northeast India. Perhaps this process is still going on. In earlier years hardly anyone of the Christian communities occupied significant positions in public life. We were almost totally absent in the assembly, members of Parliament, several chief ministers and ministers in the states, and rarely at the centre as well. It is certainly a transformation and the credit to the early missionaries who gave attention to education.
It is also a great responsibility to go through a public career with a reputation for honesty, uprightness and service to the community. In an era when norms of ethics and morality are thrown to the winds by those who hold political and economic power, to bear witness to Christian values is certainly a great contribution. The educated elite were an enlightened group eager and ambitious to hold the reins of power in their hands. Such a pursuit was feasible because the traditional leaders were for the most part illiterate and could not provide good leadership in the evolving political situation. In fact they had to lean on them. In Khasi Pnar Hills the gradual take over came began already in 1923 when the local syiems and Bakhraws came together to form a Khasi National Durbar. It was headed by the Syiem of Khyriem, but Rev. JJM Nichols Roy, a graduate Khasi pastor was their spokesman. In this phase the traditional chiefs and the new elite worked together, but such collaboration was broken just a few years later in 1928 when the Khasi National Durbar split into two factions: one headed by the chiefs who submitted a memorandum to Simon Commission to protect their rights and the other which renamed itself as the Khasi Jaintia Young Men’s Association. The latter challenged the Zamindari rights claimed by the syiems and opposed the memorandum.
In 1923 the traditional leaders formed what they called the Federation of Khasi states and sought recognition from the Chamber Princes, but to no avail. However, the political consciousness was created and in 1946 the federation was revived and Khasi state People’s Union was created. This too was short lived.
The Political consciousness in Garo Hills took a definite shape in 1946 with the birth of Garo National Conference. It had the aim of promoting the well being of the Garos in General, and the social upliftment of the community. It was after the independence that Captain Williamson Sangma took over as the president of the GNC giving it a momentous life. In 1957 he formed Eastern Indian Tribal Union (EITU) and fought the elections. They swept the polls and became partner in the coalition government of Asom. But in 1960 Captain Sangma and the EITU MLAs resigned in protest against the Assamese language Act. With this issue the demand for a separate State gained momentum.
All the dissident Garo, Khasi and Pnar leaders came together under the leadership of Captain Sangma and formed the All Party Hills Leaders Conference (APHLC). They persevered in their struggle for a separate state and obtained it through non violent means in 1972. In all these political movements it was the educated elite that organized the masses. They helped the common people become conscious of their political rights and became more and more active in political leadership.
Building Agents and Instruments of Change
Reading and writing skills were not widely spread in the region, except for certain parts of the valley. But during the last hundred years, especially due to the Christian Educational institutional effort, educational levels have risen considerably in the Hills. Despite the limitations imposed by political restlessness and insurgency, educational standards are rising, and not a few are sending their wards to Delhi, Pune, Bangalore, Chennai and other cities for education. There is a great desire to repeat performance of Bangalore and Hyderabad in the field of Information Technology with the popularity of English education in the Northeast, and given the dynamism of youth in the region it should certainly be possible to make a mark in that area.
The one foremost agent of social change is education. This is particularly true of Northeast India where the levels of primary school, college and university education were amongst the lowest in India, both in quality and quantity. The tribal people of Northeast India did not have the tradition of formal education both in the family and society. The influence of Christian Education on tribal people cannot be overestimated. BD Sharma is of the opinion that it is Christian education more than anything else that shapes the new tribal society. The Boarding houses of Shillong, Guwahati and Dibrugarh have played an important role in the transformation of the region. They formed lay leaders and well instructed teachers. Every year a good number from among the senior students helped in the spread of education in Garo Hills, In Nagaland, In Manipur, in Mizoram in Arunachal Pradesh and even in Tripura. Women enjoy equality in all fields in Mizoram, especially in education and there is simply no discrimination whatsoever. It has become common practice to give daughters certain share in the family property. Girl students have enjoyed equal opportunities and are doing better than male counterparts in many fields including technical education. The experience of the Baptists in the Orphan School in Nowgong was to repeat itself again and again in dozens of Catholic institutions to our own day.
Even today the primary and major agent of literacy and higher education in many remote villages are the Christian educational institutions. The maximum amount of investment in personnel, resources and skills by the Churches is in the area of education. Where missionary influence has been the greatest like Mizoram, or Nagaland, literacy rates are far above the national average. What is significant is the keen interest noticeable in nearly all the indigenous communities in education and therefore the steady rise in literacy rates in the entire region.
Higher education especially among the tribals was also an initiative of the Christian Churches. Institutions like St. Anthony’s, St. Edmund’s, St. Mary’s, established and run were among the first centres of higher education among the tribals. These centres have contributed in great measure to the formation of the intelligentsia of the region and paved the way for the establishment of universities in the region. The Asom Don Bosco University, which has been established in the recent years, is already in the forefront of innovative and research oriented studies in the most advanced fields of business administration, engineering, and information technology, bringing education possible to the remotest regions through its distance education programmes.
Rural and Non-formal Education
The rural schools in every village established by the Christian missionaries are the back bone of many of the projects and programmes that are run in a massive scale by the central and state governments. The Sarva Siksha Abhyan and other rural programmes are carried out with the whole hearted support of the Christian educational institutions particularly in the Northeast India.
Education of Women
A century ago education of women was practically unknown, especially in the plains of Asom. The Adivasi tribal women were illiterate. Among the Assamese women too education was totally neglected. The first attempt towards the education of women in Northeast India were made at the turn of the century with the beginning of St. Mary’s School, and college, by the Sisters of the Queen of the Missions (RNDM) for the education of girls and women has rendered yeomen service in this field.
The Salesian Sisters (FMA) began their work in Asom with the education and empowerment of poor Adivasi tribal girls. Their example of commitment to this cause was followed by the Missionary Sisters of Mary Help of Christians (MSMHC) whom they formed at the initial stages of the congregation. The visitation sisters of Don Bosco (VSDB) founded by late Archbishop Hubert D’Rosario, SDB, in 1983 are doing great amount of work among the village and rural women. The qualitative and quantitative growth of the congregations has brought greater vitality to the tribal churches of Northeast India. This same commitment and dedication through their educational institutions is visible every where they work.
The government of Asom sought the help of missionaries in this effort. As Becker says, “The real problem was to arouse interest among the local women for the education of girls”. The beginning of education of women was a major breakthrough in the transformation of society in the region. Today it is taken for granted that girls too should be educated. Though it is heartening to note that women in general enjoy better status in the Northeast compared to the rest of the country, much more can be done to promote their dignity and self worth especially through education.
Professional and Technical Education
Training schools and colleges for the preparation of teachers were also set up by the Christian Churches. Technical schools were first introduced by the Church, particularly by the Catholic Church. This has been a specific contribution of the Salesian religious brothers through Don Bosco Technical Schools and now the Montfort religious brothers and others. Thousands of tribal youth have been introduced and trained in shoe making, book binding, tailoring, furniture making, general mechanics, motor mechanics, welding, composing and printing, computer, typing, shorthand, photography, and embroidery making. This movement has radically changed the tribal way of life and served as a catalyst for others to enter into similar pursuits.
Theological and pastoral education introduced and developed by the various churches in Northeast India has also quietly brought about major changes in the region. There are many philosophical colleges and theological colleges that impart ecclesiastical education to future church leaders in the Northeast India. They are the primary agent of social change in many areas of life.
Libraries and Reading Habits
Library and research habits were also promoted by the educational institutions set up by the Churches in Northeast India. Most seminary, philosophical, theological and pastoral centres of study and training, even simple mission centres and churches have large or small libraries. Silently they are developing reading and reflection habits among the tribals. Reading habits among the tribals have increased as learning attained greater importance. Innumerable books, articles reflecting their origin, culture, language, socio economic life have been published. The Christian Educational institutions have been encouraging artists and writers in local languages to bring out literary works dealing with culture, history, economic situation and religious beliefs.
“Love your neighbor as yourself”. It is the basis of Christian service. “In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine you have done it to me”. The neighbor is any one in need of help and service and the extent of love and service to the neighbor is to be even to the point of giving one’s life for the neighbor in imitation of what Jesus did. The target of service knows no boundaries of tribe, caste or creed. In fact, even the enemies must come within the sphere of Christian love and service.
Health Care and Hygiene
Tribal societies in Northeast India were practically unacquainted with hygienic ways of living, proper dietary habits, medical care and medical services before the advent of Christian education. They also attributed all sickness to evil spirits. With their emphasis on healing ministry so prominent in the life of Jesus and of the Church, all through twenty centuries, the Christian educators in Northeast India were always associated with the health care and healing ministry. A century and a half ago there was hardly any consciousness of health care, prevention of sickness, diagnosis, treatment, care, dietary habits, special care of the old and mother and child care.
Today all these are somewhat familiar to the people of Northeast India because of the presence of Christian educators with their emphasis on medical mission not only in towns but in villages too. In Shillong, the Welsh Presbyterian Hospital started in 1922, now known as Khasi -Jaintia Presbyterian Synod Hospital was one of the first hospitals to come up in the entire region. The village dispensaries attached to each mission remains the most popular medical facility all over Northeast India.
The Catholic Church’s vitality lies in her healing ministry. From the care of the lepers of Tura by the Missionaries of Christ Jesus, in 1950 the Church has been at the forefront of healing and healthcare. The Christian Nursing schools run by the Churches are considered the best in discipline as well as training. Nursing as a service oriented vocation and mission is something particular in Christianity. The Catholic lay and religious nurses have introduced a totally new perspective into Northeast India as regards the ministry of healing and health care.
Today many local personnel volunteer for nursing profession as a vocation too. They bring their work a great sense of love, dedication and sacrifice that is universally appreciated and seldom surpassed. The nurses trained in these institutions are much sought after for employment. There are dozens of church supported hospitals, hundreds of village dispensaries and health centres were not only curative medicines are given but preventive instruction that sustains the good health of the people all over Northeast India.
The past 50 years have seen a major change in the tribal society’s attitude towards sickness, diagnosis, treatment and healthcare in general. People who depended totally on village quacks today make good use of the medical facilities available to them. The Christian Educational institutions in this field have been contributing to the training of nurses in a big way.
Promotion of Medical students through scholarship has brought about a great change in tribal society. As a result today there are hundreds of doctors, nurses, laboratory assistants, technicians and auxiliary nurses from among the tribal population. Homes for the orphans and the aged established by the Churches have totally changed the situation of the poor and marginalized elements of society. Care of the differently abled has made many tribal families aware that there are new areas of life that need attention. Often corrective treatment, surgery, physiotherapy can do much to make life normal or at least tolerable to the differently abled especially children and youth. The schools for the differently abled in Tura, Shillong, Umiam Khwan and Agartala bear witness to this side of Christian education that has transformed the tribal society. What I want to stress here is the fact that the real achievement of Christian Education in these hills in the early years is not necessarily the setting up of medical institutions but the impact of mere education on the health consciousness of the people, thus making them healthier individuals.
Agriculture, Farming and Industries
There was a great measure of equality in the tribal community. Everyone cultivated his field and excess land was held in common. But in recent years a middle class has arisen even among the tribal people, professionals, contractors, bureaucrats and those who have been able to make gains out of politics or public service. Many of the newly educated youth of indigenous communities went into government services. With the creation of seven states in the region and massive growth of bureaucracy, scope for Government employment expanded. However, there was limit to such possibilities. Medical and Legal professions absorbed those who were qualified for them. But those with general education gradually found all doors closed before them. They became easily susceptible to excessive political influence which sometimes led to excesses.
A number of Christian education institutions have introduced varieties of food and cash crops such as potato, tapioca, cashew nuts, coconut, betel nut, banana, pineapple, rubber, tea and coffee in and around their institutions. Gradually these have served as models for individual families to begin cultivating them. These have widened the people’s outlook and imparted useful agricultural skills. This has enhanced their earning capacity and self reliance. Several Christian educational institutions have cattle farms, poultry farms and pig farms. Their example has been taken up by the tribal people to do the same. As early as 1912 the then government had entrusted to the German Salvatorian Missionaries the large sericulture farm of the government of Asom at Umlyngka in Meghalaya, because the missionaries were experts in the field. The Christian educational institutions also took initiative in providing technical skills which helped many from the region to find jobs outside.
Local industries were mainly confined to production of silks, shawls, and handicrafts.
Gradually, many other types of industries developed, especially in the valleys. Tea was possibly the first large scale commercial product. Asom has cared for itself a place in the world for her tea industry. Until recently, the rest of the Northeast was thought to be unsuitable for other cash crops. Lately, the governments, taking note of the example of Christian educational institutions, have begun to promote extensively the cultivation of cash crops in the region. Years before the governments began promoting them, the Christian educational institutions had shown the way.
Towns are more easily distinguished from village by the presence of imposing buildings. The earliest buildings anywhere among the hill areas in our region are perhaps the Churches and schools erected by the Christian missionaries. Undoubtedly it is they who have extensively constructed beautiful buildings to house their colleges, schools, and hospitals and other institutions. The vision of Shillong is incomplete if we omit its landmark buildings of the Cathedral Church, Mission Schools, Colleges, and the DBCIC. Tribal architecture for the most part tended to be very simple in many places. The missionaries lived in humble buildings and made use of very simple equipments. Today Church and presbytery architecture is completely new in design, habitability, functionality and methods of construction. Churches are built in a combination of Romanesque, Gothic, Arabic and Indian architectural designs. Obviously, wherever there is radical change in architecture there takes place also a radical social change. This process of urbanization is an illustration of this truth.
In ancient times, the market place grew up beside the Church; because it was there that the citizens most frequently assemble. So too now, markets automatically springs up near a Church or a place of worship. A school, a youth Hostel, a dispensary are common sights near a Church. The physical contiguity of the places of worship, education, health facilities and market attract more people to settle down near this complex. The nucleus of a city is thus born in the hill areas.
Printing Press, Publishing Centres and Literature
Among the various agents of change among the tribal population the printing press holds a unique role. In tribal societies that had no literature, and often not even a script for its language, the establishment of printing presses even primitive ones by the Christian mission was to have radical and far reaching consequences. In 1836 the arrival of the American Baptist Missionaries brought along with them the printing press. Miles Bronson of the ABS had brought a press to Sadiya. Mr Brown, of the ABS along with Mr. Cutter, both were men of letters, began to publish a monthly paper in Assamese called Orunodoi, a magazine devoted to religion, science and general information. With its first appearance in 1846, Orunodoi became the first Assamese journal.
The mission printing presses in Guwahati, Shillong and Jorhat also were used for the production of school text books and the basic books like dictionaries, grammars, and secular literature. From 1879 the first Garo journal, A.chkni Ripeng the friend of the Garos, began to be published from Tura. From the very beginning the Christian Churches of Northeast India established several publishing and research centres. They have been publishing Bibles, popular literature, school text books, educational material, reviews, newsletters, and magazines, weekly and daily newspapers. All these have silently changed the attitudes of the tribal people towards the print media.
Christian educational institutions have also contributed to research on the customs and cultures of the tribals of Northeast India. Several studies have been published on the history, culture and literature of some of the major tribes of Northeast India. A number of historical surveys on the birth and growth of the educational institutions have added to the literature on tribal life.
It was only with the arrival of the German Salvatorians in Shillong, in February 1890 that the Catholic mission began its contribution to language and literature in the region. The Salvatorians with Fr. Gerhard Abele, set up a small manual press in Laitkynsew near Sohra. A publication under the title U Nongialam Katholic, The Catholic Leader appeared once a month. In 1907, in order to concentrate and coordinate all efforts the small printing press was transferred to Shillong. Fr. Muenzloher was appointed director of the Press. From 1907 a regular monthly called Ka Iing Kristan, The Christian family was started.
Choice of Roman Script for Tribal Languages
The use of tribal language in education necessitates its development as an educational tool. The first step in its development is developing a writing system for it. One aspect of developing a writing system is the choice of a script. In the Indian context the choice of script may be 1) the script of the official language of the State in which the tribal language is spoken; 2) Devanagiri; 3) Roman and 4) invented script. Each has advantage and disadvantages from cultural, social, political, economic and technological points of view. The generally favoured view in India is the script of the state language with necessary modification to suit the needs of the tribal culture.
The second aspect of the writing system is devising an alphabet – a set of symbols- to represent the meaning of differentiating sounds of the tribal language. Here also cultural and political considerations intervene with purely linguistic considerations. The aspect of the writing system is spelling of words identification of word boundaries and punctuation marks. The last aspect is technological applications like printing, computer key board.
The Choice of the Roman script to reduce the languages of the tribals to writing with the exception of Assamese was an important decision taken after much discussion. This step had far reaching benefits. First the tribals learned the art of reading and writing. Naturally, the missionary had the intention that their people should be able to read the sacred scripture. Language played a very important meeting point between the missionary and the people. The Assamese people irrespective of their religious affiliation and historians of all hues credit the American Baptist mission for having helped to preserve the autonomy of the Assamese language. So too, many other tribes.
Language and literature enabled the tribals towards breaking out of isolationism. It opened up new vistas of cross cultural communication and enabled the people to cope up with the new socio-economic and political situation in which they found themselves.
The Introduction of Christian education into Northeast precisely at the time when changes were taking place would be regarded as historical accident. The fact is that Christian education is serving an important social function in the Northeast in particular and that accounts for the large numbers who embraced the faith. It has influenced them for the better and how they are able to face challenges of a fast changing modern India and cope up with the rest of the nation in spite of being tribals. We have seen the development in the various fields that have made them proud of the Christian stuff in them. The qualitative change that distinguishes them from the rest of the society is definitely the work of the education they have received. The search for identity of the tribals and the fulfillment of it in their community is a unique force of transformation of their lives from being head hunters to being civilized citizens of modern India.
About the Author
Dr. J. Anikuzhikattil SDB, (b. November 2, 1957) has a doctorate in Systematic Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome. He teaches Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Theological College, Shillong. He is and Rector of St. Anthony’s Higher Secondary School, Laitumkhrah, Shillong and Director of Distance Education in the Asom Don Bosco University.