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Christianity in Manipur south-west: A problem of dating

Monday, February 5, 2018

/ Published by Simon L Infimate
~ By John H Pulamte

July 12, 2004: Ninety-two long years had passed since Watkin R Roberts set his foot for the first time to preach the gospel of Christ to the tribals of Manipur south-west, or to the people of Churachandpur district which of course in those days, was only a sub-division administered from Imphal along with Sadar sub-division. The village of Manipur, which heard the first preaching of Mr. Roberts, is Senvon village, one of the biggest Hmar villages till today.

It may be noted that this famous Hmar village was almost occupied by the American Baptist Mission in the past. When William Pettigrew, the first Christian Missionary to have set foot in Manipur was asked to leave the Manipur valley by the government in power, he was offered Senvon village along with Mao Songsong and Hunphung (Ukhrul). As he did not receive a reciprocal permission to come to their village and preach the gospel from the chief of Senvon and Mao Songsong he proceeded to Ukhrul only. In the words of Prof. Lal Dena, "Had he (Pettigrew) received that permission from the then chief of Senvon the religious and political history of the Chin-Kuki-Mizo tribes might definitely have a different turn".

The various Christian denominations of Churachandpur, the Hmars in particular have now begun preparing the basic groundwork for the Gospel Centenary Celebration in 2010 AD. The Independent Church of India for instance had started constructing a four storied centenary building at its headquarter in Sielmat, Churachandpur; the first two floor is almost completed now. Come March and other church and departments will definitely resolve in their General Assemblies to have some more programs and projects keeping in view the approaching gospel centenary.

However, inspite of the nature of the preparation for this important and significant landmark, there are still some important questions that relates with this important event and that which many people still asked. And the answers differ from denomination to denomination and writers to writers. Some of these questions are – On what exact date did Mr. Roberts reach Senvon village to spread the gospel of Christ? What day of the year should be observed as Missionary Day? Did Robert come as a real missionary to preach the gospel of Christ and to establish a mission or, he came there as an ordinary visitor or to survey the region for establishing a mission in the near future?

Whereas Watkin R Roberts is a pioneer missionary to his followers and supporters, the man responsible for introducing the Christian faith, the faith that changed the lives of the tribals in all respects is Sir Youngman. He was revered in the highest esteem and is fondly called, "Pu Tlangval" (Sir Youngman), as he was only a young man of 24 years when he first came to Manipur. On the other hand, for others he is just a self appointed, un-paid, un-ordained and untrained missionary who came to north-east India just to assist Dr Peter Fraser, a missionary-doctor of the Welsh Presbyterian Calvinistic Mission stationed at Aizawl, Mizoram. Before we discuss the missionary status of Robert and his date of arrival in Senvon village, it is noteworthy, clear and accepted by everyone that, Robert did arrive there in Senvon in the early part of 1910 in response to the fervent request made to him by the then chief of Senvon, Kamkholun. He spent one Sunday in that village and returned to Aizawl by taking a different route.

As for the exact date of his arrival in Senvon village many writers and historians put up a different version. Rev. R Pakhuongte believes it to be February 10, whereas Dr Jacob Pudaite puts it on February 13. Rev Darsanglien Ruolngul safely put it within 'the month of February, 1910'. The most serious research on this important date was done by none other than Prof Lal Dena of Manipur University who had even visited the birthplace of Robert in Wales. He based his findings on the official statement of the Thadou-Kuki Pioneer Mission signed by Rev D Lloyd Jones and Watkin R Roberts, issued on February 20, 1914, which is reproduced herewith:

"About the end of January 1910 Mr. Roberts, a few of the Lushai Christians and others started for Manipur. The Sunday evening before they left Mr. Jones kindly drew the Church's attention to the fact that they were leaving on the morrow to Manipur, and prayers were offered for the safety of the party and God's blessing on the undertaking… On February 4th 1910 – a few days after Mr. Roberts' party had started, Dr Frasers wrote to the Rev RJ Williams informing him that "Mr. Roberts and several of the Christian school-boys" had gone to a Thado village about 13 days journey from Aizawl in response to the Chief's appeal. About the end of February 1910, Mr. Roberts returned from Manipur and at a reception meeting under the presidency of Mr. Jones held at Aijal Church, Mr. Roberts and others of the party gave a report of their journey to this previously untouched field…"

Lal Dena quotes two important phrases from the above statement to support his thesis. They are – 'the end of January' and, 'the Sunday evening before they left'. The last Sunday of January 1910 is 30. As such it is evident that Robert and his party left for Manipur on the day after Sunday 1910 January, which was Monday, January 31. Besides, mention of an event that took place on February 4, 1910 – 'a few days after Mr. Roberts and others had gone on a journey' also substantiate this fact. Considering the distance between Aizawl and Senvon, and the conditions of the village roads in those days, it is quite obvious that Robert and his party reached Senvon on the February 5, 1910 that is Saturday. Lal Dena also writes that Robert preached in an open air on following day, i.e. Sunday, February 6, by reading a Bible verse taken from John 3:16 and conclude by asking the gathering, "Do, from now on believe in Jesus". He also distributed some few medicines he brought along with him from Aizawl.

Fully accepting the observation made by Prof Lal Dena, most of the Hmar Christian denomination including the Independent Church of India and the Evangelical Free Church of India observed February 5 as Missionary Day. The Hmar Students' Association in its Declaration made on 12th January 1985 also points out that, 'the light of Gospel came to Hmar land on 5th February 1910'.However, L Keivom, another important thinker and writer of repute among the whole Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Hmar tribe had a slightly different opinion on the date of Roberts' arrival in Senvon. He incidentally also based his opinion on the same official statement quoted above.

According to him, since the 'statement' also mentioned that the journey from Aijal (Aizawl) is "a 13 day journey" and also as Mr. Jones gave a reception to Robert and his party "about the end of February', it is obvious that they started the journey from Aizawl on Monday the 31st and reached Senvon on 12th. They then spent the next day, which is Sunday, 13th February at Senvon and then began their returned journey to Aizawl on 14th February, Monday. Mr. Robert, in one his own writing in the year 1925 titled. "Shall not returned void", also mentioned that, he started (that) 'long and tiresome journey which took (us) 14 days to accomplish'. Why Robert himself prefers not to mention the exact date of their journey – the day they left Aizawl and reached Senvon in any of his writings, diaries, or record is a very confusing aspect.

It may be noted that the chief of Senvon, Kamkholun did invite Robert to come to his village and tell them about the story of Jesus as mentioned in the Book of John which Robert dispatched sometime before to all the chiefs of the Lushai villages to the north of Aizawl. But, what the chief and his subjects asked Robert on his first arrival in Senvon was not to establish a church nor a missionary center but a primary school. Roberts did obliged with that request and soon afterwards sent three volunteers from amongst his students in Aizawl namely Vanzika, Thangchhingpuia and Savawma. Official statements and other reliable records tell us that these three native teacher-evangelists reached Senvon on May 7, 1910. This date is till today celebrated as Missionary Day by some section of the people of this region. The most important question that now lay before us is – Why is there a difference of opinion on the day to be observed as Missionary Day among the people of Manipur south-west, the Hmars in particular?

Due to the overwhelming response to the Christian faith by the people of the region, Roberts has no other choice than to establish his own mission which he named the Thadou-Kuki Pioneer Mission as his parent mission, the Welsh Presbyterian Calvinistic Mission dare not breach the agreement it had signed with the American Baptist Mission that gave the whole of Manipur state for the latter's Mission field. As stated, Roberts' mission grew by leaps and bounds.

Therefore, the name of the mission was later changed to North-East India General Mission in 1923 as its area of operation now covers as far as as the state of Tripura. With no regular source of funds to run and manage his mission Robert soon set up a Home Council in London known as the British Council land and another one in Philadelphia in the United States of America called the American Council to arrange funds for running his mission in North-East India. These two bodies are incorporated under their respective governments.

Roberts appointed JC Williams, his trusted friend as the Home Director of these two councils and he himself as the General Secretary to be the overall head of the Mission. When Roberts returned to India in 1926 after cementing the base for his Mission in India he unwisely but in good faith preferred to call himself the Field Director instead of General Secretary and thus diminishing his own status and position in the organizational set-up and which later on became one of his biggest mistakes.

Within a short period of time, for the misfortune of his mission and the tribals of Manipur southwest in general, a sharp division arose between Roberts himself and the Home Council on charges of financial irregularities, which had a far-reaching consequence. Whereas Roberts laments that out of the total 1320-10-9 Pounds received by its London office, only 5-6-8 Pounds is sent to the field in India. It may also be noted that whereas Williams, the Home Director received a monthly salary of about $300, the salary of the teacher-evangelist here in Manipur is a meager Rs 6/- per month.

The Home Council in their turn accused Roberts of misappropriating the money sent from them. They then, deputed three gentlemen JC Williams, the Home Director, HH Coleman, Secretary of the American Council and Doctor Turnley, Board member in the British Council to visit the mission field. They left London on November 17, 1928 and landed in Calcutta just before Christmas. The first sign of cracks between the visiting team and Roberts is clear from the fact that no meeting took place in Calcutta even though Roberts was also there during that Christmas. The team finally reached Pherzawl village in Manipur on January 24, 1929 where a Presbytery conference was being held. Things that could be amicably solved between the two parties were ignored; Coleman soon appointed himself as the General Secretary of the NEIG Mission and Watkin Robert was 'rested' from his service.
Roberts is then left with no other choice but to establish his own mission, which he called Independent Church. As the Manipur government in those days allowed only one Mission to be operated within the state, the leaders of this native mission are expelled from Manipur state one after another. Further more as Robert was debarred from organizing any fund drive in England or America, his mission and trusted followers had a really tough time in running their Mission for more than two decades until they got a full liberation' in the year 1941.

Those who remained in the NEIG Mission along with their new leader soon questioned the integrity of Watkin R Roberts and his missionary status. They, within a short period of time considered Roberts as a missionary without any missionary qualification, an unordained preacher and one who intruded into others' territory. Even his first missionary trip to Manipur was also put down to the level of land survey. His place in the history of Christianity among the tribals of Manipur southwest was then diminished and hence the date of his arrival was surprisingly ignored. On the other hand, the men he sent on his behalf and those he supported financially to teach the basic Christian faith and the three R's were given such importance that the date of their arrival in Senvon, May 7, 1910 is till today observed as Missionary Day by a good section of the society.

It will be really interesting to wait and see whether the church leaders in this area can agree to arrange the coming Gospel Centenary celebration under one banner and in a united platform and on the same date in a befitting manner. They did not do that in their Diamond Jubilee celebration in 1985. That year, each denomination or group went their own ways and had their own celebrations on the date of their choice which did not augur well considering the importance and significance of the event they celebrated.
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