'Passage from India': Rebels fight for Christian nation in Nagaland

  • A guerilla fighter keeps watch at the IM General Headquarters of the Naga Army in the mountains of Nagaland.

    A guerilla fighter keeps watch at the IM General Headquarters of the Naga Army in the mountains of Nagaland. M. Scott Mahaskey / Daily Herald, 2003

By Rukmini Callimachi
Updated 3/11/2017 9:51 PM

Editor's note: This story is republished from a 2003 series, "Passage from India," by former Daily Herald reporter Rukmini Callimachi. She traveled to the country with M. Scott Mahaskey, a former photographer for the newspaper.

MOKOKCHUNG, India -- It took more than two months for mail to penetrate these jungles, but 12-year-old David Jamir counted off the weeks, waiting for Decision, the evangelical magazine of the Rev. Billy Graham, to reach his bamboo house.


Growing up in the 1960s in remote northeast India, he read each edition cover to cover, staring at the images of the preacher renowned for his stadium crusades for Christ.

On Sunday mornings, Jamir's mother tuned a Philips transistor radio to Graham's sermons, broadcast in India since 1954. Together they listened as his commanding voice wafted through the house.

When the monsoons pounded the tin roof, drenching the family's orchid garden, Jamir often sat at the dining room table fed by the fires of an evangelism he imagined to be greater than anything he had ever experienced.

Through Graham's sermons and the pages of Decision, he built his impression of America -- a land where skyscrapers, not banana trees, ruled the skyline. A nation where Jesus was ever-present, just like in Nagaland.

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Nagaland, a state in Hindu-dominated India, is the most Baptist corner of the world, according to the American Baptist Mission Center. In Mokokchung, where Jesus hangs on every wall, Jamir saw a future for himself within a church that could do no wrong.

"I'm going to go to America to be the next Billy Graham," he often would tell his mother. "Just wait and see."

Today, at age 46, Jamir lives in Wheaton, home of the Billy Graham Center. He works from the pulpit of a prominent house of worship, Baker United Methodist Church in St. Charles, weaving the gospel with stories from his childhood as an Ao, one of 16 Naga tribes.

But since he has been gone, his lush homeland has been ripped apart by a guerrilla war fought to establish a free Christian nation. An estimated 200,000 Nagas have died in the struggle for freedom from Indian rule. Most were killed by Indian security forces from 1952 to 1963.

But now, in the war's most recent flare-up, Nagas are killing Nagas and the faith fueled by Graham's fiery sermons is helping to kindle the war.


Nagaland for Christ

Nearly 90 percent of Nagaland's 1.98 million people identify themselves as Christian.

Both Christianity and guerrilla warfare took root in the 1950s. Now some of the Baptists use their faith to explain their motivation to make war.

Graham's broadcasts had not reached the distant village of Ukhrul when Thuingaleng Muivah, Nagaland's future guerrilla leader, was a boy in the 1940s. But even before he learned to read, Muivah stared at a picture of Christ cradling a lamb in his father's Bible and later saw in it a proverb for his people.

"God has created all of creation. Nagaland is part of creation -- and God has a purpose for it. Surely God means for us to be free," says Muivah, now 68 and living in exile in the Netherlands.

Although American Baptist missionaries first came to the region in 1872, few Nagas had converted by the turn of the century. In the 1890s, Jamir's grandmother became one of the first Ao women to accept Christ. Half a century later, his family was among only 41,000 Nagas baptized.

But in 1947, India broke free of colonial rule. At the same time, rebels in the Naga territories sought their own independence from India. They formed the Naga National Council and adopted a slogan -"Nagaland for Christ." They created a flag with a rainbow intersecting a blue sky, a reference to God's covenant with Noah in the Book of Genesis. Here, it symbolized God's covenant with the Nagas.

India tried to suppress them, sending troops in 1952. Three years later, the government banned missionaries from the region, believing they were stirring up the trouble. But Christianity didn't fade. It exploded.

With more than 16 tribes and 33 dialects, Nagas had many divisions. One common thread, Christianity, connected them. By the time Jamir was devouring 2-month-old issues of Decision, Baptists were commonplace around him. By 1975, 60 percent of Nagas had converted; today they number more than 1.7 million.

In Mokokchung, plastic crucifixes are sold in gas stations. Billboards on the national highway announce that "Jesus Loves You."

It's as if time started in 1892, the year Dr. E.W. Clark brought the Bible to nearby Impur. His name is used to demarcate time, as in, "My grandmother was born the year Dr. Clark came to the village."

In the village museum, Clark's belongings have been lovingly preserved -- his kettle, his printing press and his masterpiece, "The Gospel According to John in Ao."

Billy Graham has attained rock-star status. When he led a three-day crusade in Nagaland in 1972, nearly 500,000 people attended -- the equivalent of half the state's population.

Guidebooks still capitalize on Nagaland's headhunting, a common practice among Naga tribes until about 1900. Even that image from the past has been turned into a metaphor for Jamir's Christianity.

"My ancestors hunted for heads," he is fond of saying. "But I came to America to hunt for souls."

Welcome to America

A tribal elder dons a smile in a village in Nagaland.
A tribal elder dons a smile in a village in Nagaland. - M. Scott Mahaskey / Daily Herald, 2003

Jamir came equipped for that mission. When he left for San Diego in 1981, he carried a suitcase, a hardcover Bible and his Ao shawl. The shawl, now fashionable for Mokokchung men, once was reserved only for successful headhunters.

He also carried the letters he had received from an evangelist who offered tuition, room and board to study at his institute in San Diego.

Jamir's village had cobbled together 80,000 rupees, roughly $1,700, to pay his plane fare. His church viewed him as a missionary to America and paid his family his annual salary, the equivalent of about $60 a month.

Jamir's Bible was bursting with sermon notes. He had spent months brainstorming ideas for lessons, anecdotes, hymns. He would be a missionary in reverse, bringing the gospel to Americans just as American missionaries had shared their faith with his grandmother a century ago.

He arrived in San Diego with $200 in American Express traveler's checks and waited on the curb for his escort. No one came to pick him up.

He hailed a cab and arrived at the evangelist's downtown high-rise. The gate to the skyscraper was locked.

He shook it. It made a sharp clanging but no one came out. He shook it again. A Korean woman emerged from a nearby shop. "Closed!" she screamed. The school had folded.

"I was so angry at everybody," he recalls. "In Nagaland, America is next to heaven. Not because people are well off, but because it was Americans who brought us the word of God."

But Jamir found help. A woman he met had an affluent friend in Oklahoma who agreed to pay for him to enroll at a Dallas Bible college.

Jamir, who already had a bachelor's degree in theology and had been a chaplain in Nagaland, tired of the school after one term. He called upon the only other Ao he knew in the United States -- the Rev. Wati Aier, a preacher who lived in Lombard.

Aier helped him enroll at the Bethany Theological Seminary in Oak Brook, where Jamir mowed the university lawn for $3.25 an hour to repay his room and board.

As he neared graduation, Jamir wrote letters to Baptist churches in Illinois hoping to find placement as a junior pastor. He got no reply. When he asked why, he was told Baptist officials preferred to match ethnic pastors to congregations of their ethnicity.

"If I was Chinese, they might have given me a Chinese congregation. But there was no Naga church," he says.

It was his second taste of disappointment. He could not bring himself to tell his parents he wouldn't be a Baptist preacher. In the most Baptist corner of the world, there is only one true church.

It shook his faith, and he thought about going home.

But things were changing in Nagaland, not for the better.

Taxing for Christ

Two years ago, in the living room of their house in the Naga village of Mopochuket, Jamir's brother and sister-in-law were praying with their eyes closed.

"I had just finished saying, 'Give us this day our daily bread,' when I heard them knocking at the door," recalls Lanu, David's younger brother.

Three guerrillas placed a revolver on the living room table and asked Lanu for his Jeep.

They said it was the family's turn to contribute to the cause of a free Nagaland. To the cause of "Nagaland for Christ."

Lanu Jamir reluctantly handed over the keys.

But Alila, his wife, ran out to the road and slammed her hands onto the hood. The Jeep did not belong to the family but to the local Baptist mission.

"This car belongs to God," she yelled. "How dare you take it. How dare you take it in the name of God!"

The men floored the accelerator. A few days later, the Jeep was returned with an apology and a 500 rupee note, about $10.

"It's only because the car belonged to the mission they didn't take it," says Lanu Jamir. "That is the drama that is played out here. They tax the local people at gunpoint.

"Those who don't pay, disappear. There are so many people who die, we don't even know their names."

Half a century ago when the British left, many Nagas believed they would create their own state, as Hong Kong had.

"We said to the British -- leave us the way we were before you came," says Chuba Jamir, David Jamir's nephew. "Instead they annexed us to India. That's where the trouble began. I am Naga and this is Nagaland. We are not Indian."

The vast majority of Nagas initially supported the freedom struggle, led first by the Naga National Council, which later became the National Socialist Council of Nagaland. In a 1951 vote, 99 percent of Nagas said they wanted to be free of India.

But by 1980, popular sentiment began to turn against the Naga guerrillas. That year Muivah and his long-time colleague, Isak Chisi Swu, declared the creation of the People's Republic of Nagaland. They appointed a cabinet and formed an army.

They acted, villagers say, as if India did not exist and began exacting taxes. When they started taxing their people at gunpoint, ostensibly to finance the underground government, they lost support.

"They are fighting the right war with the wrong means," says Chuba Jamir. "No one believes they are doing this for the good of the people anymore. Now, they are making business out of history."

Things worsened in 1988 when the socialist council split into two warring factions. About 600 civilians have died since 1992 in Naga-on-Naga violence, says the South Asia Terrorism Portal, which monitors terrorism in the region.

The NSCN (K) faction, led by S.S. Khaplang, took over much of the Ao territory in northern Nagaland, including Mokokchung. The NSCN (I-M) assumed control of the south.

The rival factions had different goals. The Ks continued to fight for a free Nagaland, while the I-Ms fought for control of Greater Nagaland, or Nagalim, an area seven times larger than Nagaland that also includes parts of Myanmar.

Both the K and the I-M groups claim they tax in a systematic way -- 24 percent for businesses and $2 per household each year. But Jamir's family says they get extortion demands often.

Lanu Jamir says, "All of my golden years are gone."

Lanu, at 43, is robust. He does not smoke or drink. But a profound sadness darkens the room of his house, like the shadows cast on the floor by the kerosene lantern.

"Suppose I start a business. I get a grant from the (Indian) government. Then they'll come and take it from us. So you feel discouraged. You feel like not doing anything."

For a moment, he glances at the poster of the Last Supper on his wall. "I cannot fulfill the work I wanted to do for God," he says, as he covers his face with his hands.

The Baptist guerrillas

At the top of a mountain perpetually shrouded in mist, the general headquarters of the I-M guerrilla army is in Nagaland's Garden of Eden.

The forested corridor leading to the camp is intersected by rivers and men, who emerge from the jungle speaking into walkie-talkies. The last corkscrew mile of road is so steep the jeeps routinely stall, forcing soldiers to walk the three-hour ascent.

Women guerrillas pick wildflowers to brighten their bunkers, blood-red poinsettias and white orchids. They sew fatigues with material from Burma and wash their clothes in river water.

Each soldier is required to carry two items at all times -- a packet of salt to fight dehydration and a pocket-sized Gideons International Bible.

Capt. Edwin Shimray, a slight and extremely polite 28-year-old, holds his book gently, like a delicate mountain flower.

"In the battlefield, even if we don't have time to read," he says in English, "there is some inspiration in knowing I'm holding the Bible. It's with me."

The I-M general headquarters is the base for 1,000 guerrillas. Altogether, the I-Ms claim a force 6,000 strong, spread out over the territory. Trained by the Chinese, they have been in the jungle for more than 23 years.

A cease-fire declared in 1997 and still tenuously in place, has allowed them to be more open.

Since 1992, 213 Indian soldiers have been killed trying to keep the grip on Nagaland, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. To build support, the Indian government pours money into the region's roads, electricity and schools, but demands no federal taxes.

In the guerrilla camp, bunkers are named for biblical locations like Zion, Canaan and Horeb.

The central gathering point of the camp is a tented church, where a poster bearing the I-M insignia, a golden crucifix surrounded by sheaves of rice, hangs behind a wooden pulpit.

Their slogan, which the soldiers shout out at morning roll call, is "Nagalim for Christ" -- a subtle change from the K's cry of "Nagaland for Christ."

Both mottoes are the last words, villagers allege, that those who refuse to pay hear before being executed.

The I-M leaders deny they collect taxes at gunpoint. But they confirm taxation is part of the movement.

"A section of the people may dispute our right to tax -- but about 90 percent support us," says the commander-in-chief, Gen. Hansi Ramsen. "It is taxation for the greater good -- a contribution for the nation."

Lt. Wungthing Zingkhai's contribution was personal. He lost his eye during an encounter with Indian forces. Others' scars are on the inside.

"Sir (Ramsen) ordered me to execute my friend," recounts one young man. He speaks softly, playing with the AK-47 slung over his shoulder. His eyes are dark and wet.

He joined the I-M at 19. His best friend was sentenced to death after being caught extorting money for personal gain. Executions within the camp are not uncommon, he says, the punishment that awaits informants, rapists and disobedient soldiers.

Prisoner and executioner walked to an open field. The prisoner offered no resistance.

"Pray for my soul," he said. "Don't do what I did. This is what happens when you sin.

"Pray for my soul."

The executioner looked away and pulled the trigger.

A church of his own

With the largest Christian church in the background, a man calls villagers to the annual Christmas games held each year to kick off the Christmas festivities in a village in Nagaland.
With the largest Christian church in the background, a man calls villagers to the annual Christmas games held each year to kick off the Christmas festivities in a village in Nagaland. - M. Scott Mahaskey / Daily Herald, 2003

As Nagaland began its descent into turmoil in the late 1980s, Jamir's life was looking up in Illinois. The Methodists had given him his first church in Davis Junction, near Rockford. He packed his guitar and borrowed a car.

In 1987, he moved to a congregation in Malden, in western Illinois, then to Mendota and Melrose Park before joining Baker Memorial in St. Charles in 1999 as associate pastor.

Sunday mornings, Jamir reads the paper at his Wheaton home, then puts the finishing touches on his sermon. He likes to mention the morning's news, then asks for prayers for obscure parts of the world. Not just Iraq, but also Zimbabwe. Not just Afghanistan, but also Nepal.

His attention increasingly has turned toward his broken homeland. He is the president of the Naga American Foundation, which represents the 197 Nagas living in the United States. Its aim is to bring Nagas together despite their tribal differences.

Four months ago, as fog descended on the Delhi tarmac, guerrilla leaders Muivah and Swu arrived at Indira Gandhi International Airport for peace talks, taking their first steps on Indian soil after a 37-year exile in the Netherlands.

For Jamir, 7,400 miles away in Wheaton, it was a moment filled with hope. Every day he searched for news to stay abreast of chess-like negotiations between the rebel leaders and the Indian government.

But at the same time Jamir's family, and Aos as a whole, had a terrible sense of foreboding. The I-Ms are dominated by the Tangkhul tribe and they feared that Nagalim -- which Muivah was there to bargain for -- would become a Tangkhul-dominated nation.

The Ks, led by the Aos, weren't invited to the table.

"Who has given them the authority to negotiate for us?" asks Chuba Jamir. "If the I-M tries to rule us, there will be bloodshed."

The talks ended without a clear solution and Muivah returned to the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, some say the I-Ms have made political gains by quietly backing the 3-month-old Nagaland People's Front party. Its coalition partners won 38 seats in the 60-member Nagaland state assembly in February, but Muivah denies I-M's involvement.

In April, peace talks reconvened but stalemated when the I-M demanded that its claim to a Greater Nagaland be first on the agenda.

Indian authorities maintain they want to find a solution, even if for the moment both sides are at an impasse.


David Jamir has been in America for more than 20 years, but he never attended a Billy Graham crusade. He long ago stopped subscribing to Decision magazine.

"I still respect him," he says. But it is clear the rock star approach to Christianity long ago lost its appeal for Jamir.

At the Oak Brook seminary, Jamir first heard the name of Martin Luther King Jr. He felt a new fire burning inside, one that took him back to the days when monsoon rains pounded a bamboo house.

"I believe in a prophetic Christianity," says Jamir. "It's the role of the church to speak out against oppression, against injustice. And if the church won't do it, who will?"

Wati Aier will and does. The Ao preacher who helped Jamir first come to Illinois returned to Nagaland in 1986 after 13 years in America. He has become a key player in the grassroots movement for peace.

"My ministry is with my people," Aier says.

But for Jamir, Aier is the exception in the Naga church.

For all the posters of Jesus that hang on the walls of every Naga house, the Naga church has yet to confront the violence head-on, Jamir says.

The lack of a spiritual authority to help end the violence is a failure larger than that of the government, he says.

If time started for Nagaland in 1892 when the Rev. Clark brought the Bible to Impur, it stopped in 1955, when Christian missionaries were evicted. It's as if the Naga church is frozen in time, Jamir says, stuck in a 50-year-old morality.

"If you take a drink or have a smoke, then it's like you're a bad Christian," says Jamir. "But if you pick up a gun and kill people -- the church suddenly has nothing to say."

He pauses. He is a long way from home. His voice, once confident, is filled with frustration.

"Nagaland for Christ," he says. "What does that mean?"

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