Sharp changes in religious demography of North East Indian states

India is a Hindu majority nation, with around 80% of the population adhering to the faith. But there are two notable exceptions. Jammu and Kashmir in the North is about 70% Muslim, while many of the states bordering Myanmar in the North East are Christian majority. Christianity was established in the North East India long back, but before independence,  the impact was minimal. But as of 2001, Christians are nearing 90% mark in many of the states in that region.

The people living in North East India (with the exception of Assam) are mostly Mongoloid in their appearances, and differ from the mostly Indo-Aryan and Indo-Dravidian mainland population. There are a total of 8 states in North East India. But one of them, Tripura is not always considered so, due to its majority migrant population (in Tripura mainland migrants account for more than two-thirds of the population). The indigenous people living in the North East are either Hindu (with varying degrees of Animistic beliefs) or Christian. Some are Buddhist. But during the last 30 or 40 years, religious demography has undergone sharp changes in this region, resulting in gain for Christianity and decline for all the other religions except Islam.

Sikkim is one of the smallest states in India. Ethnic Nepalese are a majority here and almost all of them are Hindu. The main tribal groups are Bhutia and Lepcha, who are mostly Buddhist (with an insignificant Hindu population ranging from 5% to 6%). More than 10% of the Lepcha are Christian now. During the last 20 years, the percentage of Christians have risen by more than two times. In Tripura, where tribals are just one-third of the population, more than 80% of them are Hindu. However Christians have risen during the last two decades and now constitute 10% of the population. The remaining are mostly Buddhist. Among the major tribes, Chakma are 96% Buddhist and 3% Hindu, Garo are 60% Christian and 39% Hindu, Halam are 67% Hindu and 32% Christian, Jamatia are 92% Hindu, Kuki are 78% Christian and 20% Hindu, Magh are 94% Buddhist and 5% Hindu, and Riang are 82% Hindu and 17% Christian. The major tribe, Tripuri is 95% Hindu. During the 1991-2001 period, the number of Hindus declined from 80% to 67% among the Halam and from 92% to 82% among the Riang.

Arunachal Pradesh is experiencing even sharper changes. Christians were just 0.79% of the population in 1961, and they were 18.7% in 2001. The largest tribe there, Nyishi is mostly Christian now. Naga tribes like Nocte, Wancho, and Tangsa, who were having a Hindu majority earlier is also Christian now. The increased role of Christianity is also leading to an ethnic polarization in the state with Christianized tribes like Nyishi, Dafla, Nishang and Wancho on one side and the non-Christian tribes like Galo (Animist/Hindu), Mishmi (Hindu) and Monpa (Buddhist) on the other side. Christian militants from Nagaland are adding fuel to fire, by burning down temples in Tirap and Changlang districts.

Almost all the tribals in Manipur and Nagaland are Christian, so there is no large scale change in demography during the last few decades. In Nagland, 98.5% of the tribals are Christian, while only 0.97% is Hindu. Among the ethnic Naga, 99% is Christian, 0.50% is Hindu and remaining is Animist. Only the Zeliang tribe is having a non-Christian population of more than 5%. In Manipur, although the general population is Hindu majority, 97% of the tribals are Christian, 1% is Hindu and 1.6% is Animist. Out of the 7,314 Hindus recorded during the 2001 Census, majority were among minor tribes (Kabui – 1,675, Lushai – 1,263, Paite – 743, Tangkhul – 769, Thadou – 952, and Monsang – 351). Animists numbered 11,827 (Kabui – 9,480, Maring – 346, and Thadou – 579). Like wise Mizoram is also Christian dominated.  More than 90% of the tribals are Christian and 8% is Buddhist. The Buddhists are mostly Chakma. There were 5,114 Hindus (Lushai – 2,616, and Kuki- 1,666)

Assam is the largest state in NE India. Out of the 3.3 million tribals living there, 90.73% are Hindu and 8.78% Christian. Major Hindu tribes are Boro (90.31%), Dimasa (98.54%), Hajong (95.31%), Mikir (84.64%), Naga (37.62%), Barman (98.99%), Deori (99.59%), Hojai (99.95%), Kachari (99.37%), Lalung (99.70%), Meche (98.18%), Miri (98.83%), and Rabha (96.58%). Christian majority tribes are Garo, Hmar (99%), Khasi, Kuki, Mizo, Naga, and Synteng. During the 1991-2001 period, the percentage of Hindus dropped from 92% to 90.7% among the tribals of Assam. The largest changes were observed among the Chakma (-14.96%), Khasi (-5.38%), Kuki (-4.41%), Man Tai (-54.77%), Mizo (-6.49%), Mikir (-3.61%), and Naga (-8.98%).

Meghalaya is one of the few states in the NE which doesn’t share a border with Myanmar. Christians are nearing 80% mark there. Among the major tribes, Garo is almost 90% Christian, and Khasi is close to 80% Christian. These two tribes account for more than 90% of the total tribal population. Hindus are mostly Hajong (30,512), Rabha (26,634), and Koch (21,067). There are only 26,770 Hindus among the Garo-Khasi population. In 2011, there were major religious riots between Hindus and Baptist Christians. Hindu Rabha and Garo homes were burnt down and villages destroyed and many tens of thousands fled to Assam. Illegal immigrants from Bangladesh also took part in the riot, siding with the Baptists. Garo areas were almost all-Christian after the 2011 riots. However, the Khasi areas were witnessing a reawakening of the Niamtre religion (indigenous religion).

Right now, Christians are a majority in three of the eight states in the North East India. The growth of Christianity in the other five states is causing unease among the Hindu and Buddhist population there. A number of clashes, like the Dimasa-Mikir clash of 2005, Dimasa-Hmar clash of 2008, Rabha-Garo clash of 2011 and Rongmei-Hmar clash of 2011 have been culminated as a result of the growing religious polarization. It will be interesting to see the response from the indigenous religions as Christianity continues to encroach in to their spheres of influence.

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