Corruption in Indian state concerns church leaders
Tribal people in Nagaland value candidates more than political parties at election time
Naga people in their traditional costumes get ready for the stone-pulling ceremony this month. The Catholic Church in Nagaland has started educating people about the dangers of corruption. (Photo by Swati Deb/ucanews.com)
Rhythmic cheering echoed around the streets of Chechema village as hundreds of Naga people, most of them Christians, began pulling a huge rectangular stone.
The traditional stone-pulling ceremony performed by the Angami Naga tribal people in Nagaland in northeast India was the highlight of the Dec. 1-10 Hornbill Festival sponsored by the Christian-majority state.
The function was graced by state Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, a practicing Christian, and federal Tourism Minister K.J. Alphons, a Catholic projected as the Christian face of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Despite Christians forming 90 percent of Nagaland’s 2 million people, the BJP gained political prominence and became part of the state government following an election in February, which many say was the result of alarming levels of corruption among the political leadership.
“Nagas were animists worshipping every bit of nature” before Christianity arrived in 1871, said Father John Kavas of Kohima Diocese as the men in their traditional costumes pulled the stone 3.5 kilometers to Chipobozou village in the northern Angami Hills in Kohima district.
“Stones were revered and at times pulled from one corner to the other in the spirit of merrymaking, teamwork and a display of valor.”
Nagas change their political affiliation with as much ease and fun as they pull the stone because “they care not much about political parties. Elections are won or lost by candidates,” said Kouley Angami of Chechema village.
He believes that was the reason why the BJP won 12 of the 20 seats it contested in the 60-seat legislature and became part of the government in the Baptist-majority state.
For most of Nagaland’s history, the Congress Party dominated. It was once led by the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and is now being led by his great-grandson, Rahul Gandhi. Even Rio, the incumbent chief minister, was formerly a Congress politician.
Rio quit Congress in 2002 and joined the anti-Congress brigade in the state. Just before state elections in February, Rio floated a regional outfit, the Nagaland Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), and formed an alliance with the pro-Hindu BJP.
The NDPP, BJP and their allies together won 34 seats, helping them capture power.
Angami told ucanews.com that money also played a role in the elections to engineer defections and withdrawals from candidates and lure voters. Politicians also sponsored community events to garner votes, he said.
“In fact, elections in Nagaland are one of the most expensive affairs in northeast India,” Angami told ucanews.com
Many in political circles admit the BJP’s “resourceful politics” helped to win seats, reducing the effect of the powerful Nagaland Baptist Church Council’s appeal for voters to stay away from the BJP.
“Corruption is eating into the inherent virtues of simple Naga people,” said Father Kavas, principal of Don Bosco School in Kohima.
The church understands that corruption is a major vice that needs to be addressed in Nagaland, he added.
“Apparently many Nagas voted for the BJP [because of money]. We are not taking up political matters, but people do raise these questions,” the priest said.
The Catholic Church in Nagaland has “started educating the people, especially students, about the ills of corruption and how it affects society. In fact, it has already affected them,” Father Kavas said.
Some Naga people argue that corruption came to their society from urban India. But others among them ask back: Can anyone be made corrupt unless one wants to be?
The Naga people wanted to remain independent and outside the Indian federation when the British finalized terms for ending colonial rule in 1947. They rebelled against being part of India, but the Indian army suppressed the protest and in 1963 declared the area an Indian state.
But agreements were also signed giving it special autonomy with special constitutional provisions including funds. Many Naga people appreciated the funding and chose leaders who were close to the ruling dispensation in New Delhi.
Over the last seven decades, most states in the northeast, especially Nagaland, have received billions in funds from the federal government. But very often the money spent has not been accounted for properly because of corruption and infighting between politicians.
“What is our [Naga] economy? … Our economy is essentially a salary economy,” Chief Minister Rio told ucanews.com.
“It depends on the government for everything, be it salary, be it support for welfare measures and benefits for the poor, so we have become a consumer society. It has reached saturation point.”
In the run-up to the polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised corruption-free governance and development in Nagaland.
The promises were dismissed outright by the state unit of Congress president K. Therie. Modi’s promises “will not fool the people of Nagaland, for the people have not forgotten the empty promises he has been making since 2014,” he said, adding that perhaps the BJP coalition will “loot the state for another five years and leave a legacy of debt.”
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