TRIBAL STUDIES CENTRE

EASTERN THEOLOGICAL COLLEGE

Rajabari

JORHAT-785 014 ASSAM

 

 

 

Introducing the College.

 

     

 

Eastern Theological College is the only Post-Graduate theological seminary in North East India affiliated to the Senate of Serampore College/University. As the premier theological institution, the college plays a leading role in promoting theological education in the region. Its history goes back to the early years of the present century when the American Baptist Missionary, the Rev. P.H. Moore, made a significant beginning in 1903 by starting the Assam Valley Bible School at Nowgong (now Nagaon) with just three students. Later the American Baptist Foreign Missionary Society (presently known as the Board of International Ministries (BIM) of the Baptist Churches in United States of America decided to shift the Bible School Programme to Jorhat, the present location in April 1905 with 18 students. Very soon the institution was enlarged and named the Jorhat Christian Schools which included the Bible School, a Middle English School, a normal School and an Industrial School (1907) and later a High School (1914).

However, in order to meet the growing needs of the churches for more effective leaders, the missionaries and some national leaders felt it wise to upgrade the School. Thus, in the fall of 1950 a historic step was taken when the Jorhat Bible College was established, with the Rev. J.W. Cook as its first Principal. The college was renamed Assam Baptist Theological Seminary in 1953 and again the name was changed to Eastern Theological College in 1957. The present student strength is 260 of which 80 are women students and the rest are men.

Tribal Studies Programme
The tribal Christians of the North East India made a significant landmark in the history of theological education in India when they formally launched Tribal Study Programme at Eastern Theological College, Jorhat in 1995. It is a decisive move towards the contextualization of theological reflection. It is also a sign of Christian maturity in the process of Christianization within tribal culture. If the tribals can actualize their dream of developing a relevant theology it would mean a major achievement of theological vision and a significant constellation to the world Church. The tribals of North East India have a great challenge to develop “tribal ecumenism” within the framework of Tribal Theology in order to face growing socio-political problems in the region. The Need, Purpose, Methodology and Planning of the Tribal Studies are given below:

Need for Tribal Study
The study of indigenous/tribal societies in India owes its origin to the establishment of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784. The missionaries, British administrators and travellers collected data on tribal people and published their findings in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and Indian Antiquity. With reference to North East India, E.T. Dalton who had been to Assam (it refers to the state before decentralization) did an extensive study of tribals in North East India. This has been continued by the Anthropological Survey of India, Department of Anthropology in various Universities and the Tribal Research Wing of each state in the region. However, from the inception of tribal studies, the approach has been anthropological, which did not make much contribution towards contextualization of Christianity in this region. For the purpose of doing tribal theology, the enormous material that has been collected needs to be looked at afresh, to be re-conceived and re-interpreted.

It is important to note that 22% of the total Christian population of India (or 32% of the Protestant Christians) is located in this region. However, even though major church groups such as the Council of Baptist Churches in North East India, the Presbyterian Church of Khasi and Jaintia Hills, the Roman Catholic Church in North East India, the Presbyterian Church of Mizoram, etc. have celebrated their respective centenaries of mission and ministry, Christianity remains superficial to the people because it has not been deeply rooted in tribal culture. In other words, Christianity has not been experienced and expressed in tribal forms, a tribal configuration of Christianity has not yet emerged. Meaningful theology and spirituality need to emerge from within. We are convinced that there are number of factors which made tribal people to be uncritical and unsystematic. For example, the politics in the region has never been stable, there has been serious ethnic violence among the different tribal groups of the region.

The work of the Centre during the last five years has been an effort to explore the possibilities of methodology for doing theology with indigenous/tribal resources. A few of the books published under the Centre’s programme clearly indicate that. These books are the outcome of the Consultation/Workshop organized by the Centre. The Centre, in the next few years plans to focus on the following challenges:

(a) Rapid Social Change – The indigenous communities who were not literate about one and half centuries ago have been propelled into the modern world, and yet people are not prepared to face the new challenges of modern world. The rapidly growing churches have tended to focus attention almost exclusively on an understanding of evangelism that is defined only in terms of the numerical growth of the Christian community. Contemporary problems like rapid growth of drug and alcohol addiction among the youth, ethnic conflict, corruption, political unrest, armed culture, unemployment, prostitution, poverty, etc. are not addressed seriously by the churches. This area would be one of the primary foci of the Centre in the immediate future.
(b) Identity Crisis – The process of modernization and globalization have caused a serious identity crisis for indigenous peoples. Their natural resources are being mercilessly tapped by non-local business communities. They are being used as means of development of others rather than developing for them. Thus, they felt greatly threatened by the prospect of becoming ‘no-people’ in their own land. Several attempts have been made to preserve their distinctive identities. However, we continue to witness unrest, tribalism, alienation and rampant ethnic violence. The issue demands varied approaches to address the problems. The Centre will attempt to take up this issue more concretely in the near future.
(c) Economic Dependency – The shift from a nomadic life to a settled life has brought a great transition among the indigenous peoples, creating a situation of dependency in technical, engineering and business fields. In the new economic enterprise, the migrants get better opportunities because of their superior skill and pattern of work behaviour. At the same time, the indigenous peoples’ subsistence economy of the existing slash and burn shifting cultivation can no longer sustain the growing population of the people. As a result, the indigenous people who were once largely independent economically have been reduced to a condition of dependency. In the midst of poverty, a few wealthy elite are accumulating all the wealth and power. Since indigenous peoples have not worked out a self-development programme, a majority of them are poor. This is one of the reasons why many young people have continued to join the resistance movements during the last two decades. There is a great need to re-orient people towards alternative ways of living and growing. This is another area the Centre is going to address as a programme of transformation.
(d) Ecological Issues – The land is the only source of wealth for the people. But today it is under tremendous pressure due to increase of refugees, population explosion, unplanned development work, urbanization and other related activities. The land and forest which sustained life for many centuries are now being depleted. The poor indigenous peoples are being deprived of not only their land resources, but also of their land-centred culture and life. We have to address this as a justice issue. In the context of the indigenous peoples’ experience, it is neither possible to attain social justice without justice for the ecology to achieve justice for nature without social justice. This issue needs to be addressed seriously.
(e) In view of Decade of Overcoming Violence (DOV), we intend to consider the situation of the Bangladeshi immigrants in North East India. That the Bangladeshi immigrants are one of the strongest workforce in the region when it comes to the works like building construction, tea gardeners, rickshaw and thela pulling, vegetable vendors, gobblers, agriculture and industrial labours, etc. They render their service at a cheap rate (low wage is paid). For a long time, a huge population from Bangladesh have been working in the region. They were, to a certain extent protected Assam state bill called Immigrant Tribunal Determination Act? but when the Supreme Court of Delhi gave a verdict that the bill is unconstitutional and invalid and also certain militant groups issued quit notice to them the minority Muslims (Bangladeshis) in the region particularly in Assam have been seriously threatened of their survival. The Assam government is working on identification of immigrants who had come to the state before 31st December 1975 and deport those millions who have come after that deadline. Thus, the situation of the minorities is made confused with the question whether they will be accepted as full fledged Bangladeshi nationals in Bangladesh or not?
(f) Tea Gardeners’ Problems:
(g) Preservation of traditional tribal artifacts:
(h) Tribal traditional communication system:

Aims and Purpose
As already indicated, one of the main concerns is to develop contextual Indigenous/Tribal Christian theology. It requires much effort and struggle. For this purpose, Eastern Theological College, Jorhat has been chosen as the Centre. This college provides both human and locational facility. The Eastern Theological College is the first college which offers both Bachelor of Divinity (B.D.) and Master of Theology (M.Th.) degree of the Senate of Serampore (University) in the whole region. Moreover, the college provides an ideal setting for the purpose with representatives of more than 40 different tribes in the faculty and student body. Jorhat is conveniently accessibility to all the hill regions where the Christian population is concentrated. It has students and faculty coming from almost all the North Eastern states, and some tribal groups like Munda and Oraon from other tribal zones of mainland India.

When we talk about tribal theology, we are in no way trying to revive the past and take people back to the primal period of religious life. But Contextual tribal Christian theology will be developed from the cultural traditions, values and experiences of the people in their struggle for liberation. This will involve an in depth study of the culture, traditions, values, religions, philosophy and struggle of the tribal people. It requires an adequate analysis of the cultural, socio-political and economic situation of the people in the region. On the basis of the findings of such analysis we can identify the challenges and theological agenda which should be addressed in the construction of a tribal Christian theology. For all these, a widely represented community would be a good source for collecting tribal information. In doing this the students and faculty would be made aware of the realities and causes of the problems which will again lead to more relevant way of interpreting the Bible.

Methodology
The research methodology is already highlighted by its aims and objects. It will involve a combination of library and participatory research. In the process of research for contextualization, tribal culture and values will be critically assessed and configured towards the transformation of tribal society in this region. This means that rejection, adoption and transformation of certain cultural values and practices will be an integral part of the process of contextualization. Those cultural elements compatible with central biblical themes will be rediscovered and re-interpreted. This will help in re-reading the Bible in the light of critical reflection in participatory research.

Planning
Within the last five years sincere efforts have been made by tribal theologians and faculty members of the College. With limited resources the Centre has organized one international Seminar on Vision For Tribal Society Beyond 2000 from 22nd to 26th November 1995 at Eastern Theological College, Jorhat and also few local seminars. As a result, a few exploratory books have been published and a journal, Journal of Tribal Studies is being published twice a year. The publication of the journal is made possible particularly because of the financial contribution made by the students of the college. The Centre will continue to engage in conscientizing process through publication, documentation, seminars, and consultations at various levels and also engage in academic programme, both in the graduate and post-graduate levels in collaboration with various Senate of Serampore College/University programmes. At the rural level, we are also very much concerned with tribal traditional resources. We intend to initiate some comprehensive programmes like ethno-musicology and also traditional herb system. It is our concern that after the elders are gone many tribal people would in spite of availability not know how to use the useful leaves and roots of the forests. Some programmes on this line will be very helpful to make herb-system a major resource. So that people can make use of their own forest resources.

We believe that the Centre’s concern for a full life for indigenous people is great and our vision is realistic. With all these, the Centre is committed and determined to explore more possible means and extend its partnership to the wider circle of people’s concern through which it may be possible to actualize the vision of the Centre, which is to prepare the tribal Christian churches of the North East India to face the challenges brought forth by the social change, which they will continue to experience in the years ahead.

Identification of Needs
The first and foremost need is to undertake research work by some very capable persons. It is thus necessary to make available research funds for the purpose. I, as Dean of the Tribal Study Centre feel it necessary to engage some committed persons to do research on different tribal communities for about three years. In the mean time, we will organize consultations on their findings along with invitees, faculty members and students of Eastern Theological College, Jorhat. This task requires a substantial annual research budget.

Secondly, we will need resources for publications. A similar plan for publishing both the Tribal Study Series and Journal of Tribal Studies may be maintained for some more years. For this we need an initial ‘publication grant’ from which it may be possible to establish a separate fund from sale profit within a few years time. There are already a few concerned persons who are in the process of writing articles with different foci on tribal culture and traditional values.

Thirdly, there is an urgent need at this stage to organize an International/National Seminar which would provide opportunity for interaction between Tribal Christian theology and other theologies like Liberation, Dalit, Minjung, Feminist, etc. Again, it will be necessary to look for financial sponsors in order to organize such programme.

Fourthly, we urgently need a computer and ancillary hardware for all these publications and programmes