God does not look into your past to determine your future, reads a sign near a Presbyterian church at the Lodi village abutting Haflong town, 325 km southeast of Guwahati. But the past is haunting the present in a virtual tug-of-war between the Christians and the followers of the indigenous Heraka religion, for whom Rani Gaidinliu is a god-like figure.
Fifteen years before Indian independence, the 17-year-old Gaidinliu had raised a three-tribe Zeliangrong army against the British to establish Naga Raj, and resist the Nagas' conversion to Christianity. She lost the Battle of Hangrum (Assam) in 1932 and was arrested later that year from Poilwa village, now in Nagaland. Naga converts were primarily held responsible for her capture and imprisonment until 1947. After Independence, she became Jawaharlal Nehru's poster girl of the northeast. He gave her the title of 'Rani' (Queen).
Rani Gaidinliu met Rajiv Gandhi in February 1988, to submit a memorandum for a council for the Zeliangrong people.
As the Bharatiya Janata Party builds her up as a regional icon, much like Chaitanya Mahaprabhu of Bengal and Rana Pratap of Rajasthan, the largely Christian Naga domain is now divided between the revolutionary Gaidinliu and the missionary Gaidinliu. Ideological, geographical and ethnic differences led to questions about her freedom-fighter status as she had also battled the British on religious grounds.
Many in Nagaland resent the Delhi-funded museum-cum-library coming up beside the tomb of legendary leader AZ Phizo near the state secretariat in the Naga capital of Kohima. Opposing the move last year, Thepfulhouvi Solo of Nagaland Tribes Council wrote in a newspaper: "What has Gaidinliu done for Nagaland to deserve expensive memorials?" He also termed her tribe, Rongmei, as guests from Manipur, implying she was "unwanted".
Others point to Gaidinliu going underground from 1960-66 to fight Phizo's Naga National Council that waged a war against Delhi. Some saw it as Gaidinliu extending her battle against the British's Christian agenda. The perception that she was a Hindu cult promoter grew stronger in the 70s, when the Sangh Parivar aligned with her Heraka religious movement. "A section of the Nagas is against honouring our great leader. But Nagas do take pride in her," says Achun Kamei, her former personal secretary and founder-chairman of the Rani Gaidinliu Integrated Foundation. Nagaland Chief Minister TR Zeliang, a Christian, is its chief patron.
Christian Nagas are wary of the Hindu tag and the drive to promote Gaidinliu. Heraka adherents, meanwhile, have blanket approval for everything she stood for, including her religious stance. Both groups have, so far, avoided direct confrontation.
"There is no pressure on us despite the changing political scenario. The Zeliangrong people regard Gaidinliu as a freedom fighter, but we do have reservations about her religious affinities," says Rev PauduatingNewme of Cachar Hills Tribes Synod, Haflong. A sore point is that Gaidinliu's portraits, along with those of her guru Haipau Jadonang, adorn each Kelumki or Heraka temple. "We have no agenda of pushing our religion while seeking the honour Rani-ma deserves. But we cannot wish away the fact that she fought for a land free of an alien religion," says Montuing Zeme, a leader of the Zeliangrong Heraka Association (ZHA) backed by the RSS.
Zeme says converted Zeliangrongs have been returning to the Heraka fold, but denied the use of force or coercion. "We are doing what they are doing - letting a team of Hingdepaupeus (preachers) motivate our people to return to our roots."
With her relatives a year before her death.
The ZHA has mapped the Heraka villages across the Zeliangrong region comprising parts of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland, divided them into circles and is assigning preachers to each of them. The conversion rate, it said, decreased more than a decade ago. Reconversions increased at an average of 10 families a year. Ramkuading Riame's 30-member family became Presbyterians in 2006 after a preacher assured him conversion would help heal his terminally ill brother. His brother died, and Riame was back as a Heraka in 2013. "My son is still a Christian but that is because we are yet to speak to him," says the resident of Laisong village, 55 km east of Haflong. Further east, at Hangrum village - a pilgrimage for the Herakas because of a memorial for martyrs of Gaidinliu's 1932 war against the British - the number of Christian Naga families has outnumbered the Herakas.
Both groups, however, unanimously chose Tingsuibe Riame as the gaonburah or chieftain two years ago. He turned Presbyterian 20 years ago, but went over to the Baptist church around the time his friend Hrangkuang reconverted to Heraka two years ago."Why did I become a Baptist? Perhaps for a better life," answers Tingsuibe.
"Wanderers keep wandering. But those rooted to tradition cannot be moved," Montuing says. "This is a limited market for the missionaries, who, thanks to the Sangh Parivar's focus on education, hardly find gullible people to target these days. So they are taking from each other to be in business besides targeting us for 'uncivilised' customs such as wearing ngaipui (the earring that every Heraka male wears as a religious identity)."
Christian sects have been fighting for space too, as was the case when Presbyterians destroyed a church set up by neo-Baptists at Lodi village seven years ago. Peace, ironically, was brokered by Heraka leaders.
BoroHaflong, Montuing's village above Haflong town, has the region's largest RSS-run Saraswati Vidya Mandir. The English medium school with 350 tribal children from four north-eastern states hosted the concluding function of the Gaidinliu centenary celebration earlier this year. About 5,500 people attended the three-day programme that entailed feasting on rice beer and an array of meats. "It is a sign of our acceptance of local habits and customs. I was a vegetarian who took to non-vegetarian food after coming here years ago. These are our people, and if we have to change to take them along, so be it," says Yogendra Singh, the local Vidya Bharti head from Rajasthan.
Unlike in Assam, change has been loaded in favour of the Christians in Manipur and Nagaland. Gaidinliu's kin converted to Christianity. So did a majority of about 170 households at her birthplace Luangkau in Manipur. "There are about 50 Heraka families here, including seven of Rani-ma's survivors. We are committed to the religion of our forefathers," says Lungdaini Rongmei, a kin and teacher at a Vidya Bharti school in Luangkau.
For the villagers, though, connectivity to the world beyond is more important. A mockery of a road, the 7-km-long 'Rani Gaidinliu Road', cuts through a turbulent stream connecting the highway to Imphal. A road paved, for the time being, with the hope of driving the faith in Gaidinlui all the more deeper.
KEEPING THEIR FAITH IN HERAKA
Like a cross, a three-leaf banana plant adorns the spire of an east-facing Heraka temple, the Kelumki. Inside, followers pray at the altar of a formless Tingwang, the supreme god of the ZeliangrongNagas.
Hymns are read out of a dharmgranth, the Tingwang Hingde. And Telau Di or holy water is sprinkled on important occasions such as the conversion ceremony.
Missionaries say these are church-inspired traits that went into establishing the first Heraka temple in the Zeliangrong region - areas inhabited by Zeme, Liangmai and Rongmei tribes across Assam, Manipur and Nagaland - 30 years ago.
A Heraka priest waits for locals to turn up for a puja, marking the end of paddy sowing season near Haflong.
But Heraka followers insist theirs is a religion of the time of the ancient divine healer Herakandingpeu. In the early 1900s, it was re-founded as a faith close to Hinduism with anti-Christian overtones, by Haipau Jadonang, a spiritual leader and political activist, and strengthened by his disciple and cousin Rani Gaidinliu. It started to get Vishwa Hindu Parishad backing in the early '70s.
"Jadonang and Rani-ma did away with sacrifices and superstitions that missionaries targeted to get new converts. Though associated with Hinduism today, Heraka is a distinct indigenous religion that literally means 'pure' after the elimination of evil spirits from the kingdom of god," says RamkuiNewme, president of ZeliangrongHeraka Association.
The association is the apex body of three groups of Zeliangrong faiths - the reformed Heraka, the traditional Paupai Chapriak of Rongmeis and the somewhat conservative TingkaoRaguang, who followa variant of Heraka. Roughly 35% of around 1.5 lakh Zeliangrongs, follow these faiths.
Newme, 68, is the go-to person in Lodi village, one of the largest Zeme-inhabited villages that, like others in the region, is segregated between Herakas and Christians comprising Presbyterians and Baptists.
The village is 4 km from Haflong, headquarters of Assam's DimaHasao district where Zemes, at 15 per cent, are the second largest group after the dominant Hindu Dimasas.
Each Heraka-following village has a Kelumki. The one in Lodiram is within a 34-acre plantation, thatNewme, a former government officer, owns.
Apart from rituals associated with the paddy-growing cycle, a Kelumki is opened only on full moon days. The administration of a village, including the Kelumki, is managed by the elders; the Tingkupao (priest) invariably is the eldest village male.
A Kelumki, though, is only for prayers. The rituals and feasting are done at the Paiki, a house chosen in a village as the sanctum.
The Kelumki has its dos and don'ts. Prayers are allowed only in the morning after suryanamaskar, and the temple stays closed between noon and evening. Most importantly - for the Paiki too - only Hindus can step into the Kelumki compound without seeking permission.
LANDMARKS FOR RANI GAIDINLIU
Important places in the northeast linked to Rani Gaidinliu (1915-1993) and the Heraka movement...
Gaidinliu's birthplace is a village of 170 Rongmei families, 200 km west of Imphal in Manipur's Tamenglong
In Tamenglong district, this is the birthplace of HaipauJadonang, Gaidinliu's guru and founder of the Heraka movement.
In Assam's DimaHasao district, this
village, 85 km east of headquarters Haflong, is where Gaidinliu's army lost a battle against the British forces in 1932; a martyr's column marks the event.
A village in Nagaland's Peren district where she was arrested by the British in 1932, allegedly with the help of newly converted Nagas.
Gaidinliu spent 24 years in the Nagaland capital after hostilities of secessionist Naga rebels ended in 1966; a museum-library in her name is coming up adjoining the secretariat.
Atop a hill in Assam's Barak Valley, it is believed to house the Zeliangrong god, Mishnu, who helped principal deity Tingwang re-introduce the Heraka religion through Jadonang and Gaidinliu.
Like Gaidinliu, other icons the BJP is trying to revive.
Maharana Pratap: The Mewar ruler fought the Mughals. There's a push to revive his legacy in textbooks.
Lala Lajpat Rai: Served as the Indian National Congress president, as well as the Hindu Mahasabha's.
Madan Mohan Malviya: Nationalist leader and educationist. Founded the Benaras Hindu University.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu: Hindu Bhakti saint from Bengal