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Introducing Tribal Women of Northeast

Lalrinawmi Ralte

The tribal people of the Northeast of India comprises of eight states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. Before Sikkim got an independent statehood, we are known as “Seven Sisters” or the “Chicken head” states.

The Northeast region covers an area of about 2,55,082 sq. km. The boundaries are by China, Nepal and Bhutan in the north, Myanmar in the south east, and Bangladesh in the south west. The region is connected with India by a narrow corridor of 12 miles between Nepal and Bangladesh which is also called ‘the chicken neck’ area. The region is comprises of plateau, hills, mountains and valleys. Because of its geographical features and ethnic composition, the North East India is regarded as a distinct geo-ethnic unit.

The striking demographic features of Northeast is that the hill areas are predominantly inhabited by the schedule tribal communities while the plain areas are occupied by the scheduled caste and the other communities.

The tribal population is about 82,00,000. Even though greater population is found in the plain areas of the region it is important to identify that some of the states have a high percentage of tribal population. For example, Mizoram has 93.58%, Nagaland has 83.99%, Meghalaya with 80% and Arunachal Pradesh with 70.28% and so on.

It is not easy to determine the ethnic affinities of the population of Northeast. They belong to different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. However, most anthropologists agree that ethnically the tribes of Northeast belong to the Mongoloid racial stock.

Many people understand the people of this region as one homogenous group with a common political problem or social system and custom. But the region has an extraordinary diversity in ethnic, linguistic, religion and culture. There is multiplicity of languages and dialects used in the region. There are more than 400 languages in the whole region. All these diversities, however, do not disqualify the commonness they have in nature of struggles and difficulties. The diversity in religious persuasion extends from all major world religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity and a least number of people still hold their traditional belief.

The majority of the society is patriarchal with the exception of two communities of Khasi and Garo who are still holding the matrilineal society. Violence against women in the northeast in on the increase. Violence takes different forms such as social, culture (customary laws), economic, political and religious life.

Identity Crisis. The Mongoloid race in the Northeast are label as tribal. The question arises because of its implications. Tribal label is not our choice, but we are given by the government of India. We have no choice to reject it because we have no freedom. Tribal is not redeeming status because it implies many negative meaning such as primitive, savages and inferiority and lowest level of the political, socio-religious and economic systems. With that result, our areas are far behind the development and from the global market. About 70% of the people still live in a villages.

Political Struggles

The question of feeling good to the minds of the Northeast people is very strong. It is difficult for the tribal communities feel at home in India because of the treatment we received that resulted to start the independent movements. Some of us feel that the Indian government is treating us like a step children for not respecting the special provisions given by the British Government during the independence. The Naga started the movement the day before India got independence in August 14, 1947. They claim that they are the nation themselves. Mizoram started the independence movement through the famine movement in 1966. The peace accord was signed in 1986, i.e. twenty years later. Other states started independent movement as well.

Boundary mistakes is a serious problems in the whole of Northeast. For example, Mizo people are in Assam, Burma, Manipur, Tripura and in Mizoram, Naga people are in Manipur, Myanmar, Arunachal Pradesh and in Nagaland, and so on. Likewise, no one community is a solid one and are all a mixed community. This is one of the root cause of the ethnic conflicts.


Christianity was introduced by different denominations from around the world to the northeast people, such as the Welsh Presbyterian Mission came to Meghalaya and Mizoram, the Baptist Missionary Society came to Nagaland, the Australia and New Zealand Baptist came to Tripura. The American Baptist came to Nagaland and so on. The Christianity is growing very fast and it is to say that the percentage of Christianity in the northeast is very high. The highest Christian state is Mizoram which is 85 % of the population, and among the Mizo is 99% Christian. We are more than 500 women theologians in the whole of Northeast and only two are ordained by the Ao Baptist Church of Nagaland, and one woman is ordained by the Manipur Baptist Church. The whereabouts of others are questionable. Few get placements in the church, others have to hunt for their own ministry and living wherever they can find. The Khasi Church and Garo churches are strongly against the ordination of women in spite of the matrilineal society they belong. The men in the church often said, “Why should we bring women inside the church to dominate us” is often the excuses they made. Other churches like the Presbyterian Church, Baptist church and Methodist churches are on the same boat of other patriarchal churches who rejected women’s ordination and partnership of men and women in the church.

Doing Tribal Women’s Theology

Doing Tribal Women’s Theology is sharing. Sharing is a reflection of all forms of life experiences of their suffering in every aspect. Sharing our silent suffering of bloodshed, starvation, dehumanization and the violations of human rights to the tribal people is empowering as much as frightening. Women were raped during the independent struggles and thereafter. Some are tortured, abused and killed. Children are starved, sick and die. Men received constant punishment for no reasons.

Again, doing tribal women’s theology is struggle. Struggle for liberation from all forms of oppressions such as political, cultural, social, economic and religious life. Struggle for the acceptance of women’s significant contributions in the church and in society. Women are the upholders of the church by various ways such as fund raisers, church goers, upholders of the broken churches and comforter of the hopeless members. If women are ordained, their contribution can be much more and the church will grow. Struggle is a rediscovery of the strengths of women both in the past and in today’s life. By rediscovering their power, we affirm their contributors in order to make our life better.

Still again, doing Tribal Women’s Theology is commitment. This commitment is for the economic growth, for the protection of the ecological crisis, and the reconstruction of the disorder social systems that degrade women. Commitment for the liberation from various oppressive forces of economic, social unjust structures and religious inequality. Commitment for the service of God to uplift the less privilege people, to share their struggle, to lead them to the hope of Salvation to God. We share our cry to God, we struggle to reach God, we commit ourselves to liberate others. God is our only hope of liberation and every one can be the agents of change for the betterment of the marginalized people.

[Source – In God’s Image, Vol. 19/4 2000]



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