The Paradox of Religious Nationalism in the Production of Naga Identity

Abraham Lotha, Jakhama, Nagaland, India

Religion and nationalism both construct an identity for their members, share common sets of collective symbols, ritual objects such as cross (a symbol for suffering), sacred sites, and collective rituals. Both create a horizontal solidarity, comradeship and imagine a communion with fellow-members, also they evoke both strong passions and commitment from the members. Like conjoined twins, the separation of religion and nationalism can be simple or complex depending on the degree of their internal connection. Due to the symbiotic relationship between religion and nationalism, religious nationalism is a familiar phenomenon. In many parts of the world, including the Northeast of India, religion and the production of ethnic identity is part of an everyday discourse.

Based on participant-observation, this paper will examine how Nagas’ religious beliefs inform and influence their aspiration for a cultural and political self-determination (ethno-nationalism). Religion has not only played a complementary role but also partially provides the raison d’être for the production of Naga identity. This is illustrated in the following ways: 1. How the Naga traditional belief system is posited as different and incompatible with Hinduism or Islam. 2. The perception of the Naga territory as religiously homogeneous. 3. Nagas’ internalization and their local understanding of Christianity, particularly Baptist Protestantism. Finally, the belief by certain Naga nationalists that Nagas are chosen by God to be a nation (even though the appointed time has not yet come) with a mission to evangelize the non-Christians in India and neighboring countries. This paper will also examine how religious nationalism can also be understood as a resistance strategy when a people’s identity is threatened by a dominant culture and religion (i.e. as in Northeast India). Additionally, I will examine how the increasing level of global interconnectedness, especially with the American Baptist church, reinforces the performance stage for the production of Naga identity.