Nagaland is as you can see from the map right in the northern eastern corner of India, next to Myanamar- amongst the more remote areas of India, it is still a predominately rural region but it has one odd characteristic, unlike most of the sub-continent it is majority Christian- the census of 2001 estimated that Nagaland was 90% Christian. This Christianisation proceeded over the last century- at the end of the 19th Century there were according to census data an insignificantly small number of Christians living within Nagaland. It has been over the 20th Century that this conversion has occurred. Richard Eaton though has discovered and discussed this conversion- because of the features that it exhibits and particularly because the conversion of Nagaland has not been even, different groups have converted to Christianity at different rates.
Eaton, a University of Arizona academic, produced in 2000 a collection of essays on Islam and Indian History including a study of the conversion of the Nagaland province to Christianity in the twentieth century. Eaton argued on the basis of data about three of the major groups of Naga peoples- the Angami, Ao and Sema who he argued provided the historian with a sensible basis of comparrison allowing us to understand why religious conversion worked. Firstly its worth saying that the political history of the three groups is almost identical- separate tribes within the linguistic groupings thrived up until the period of colonisation. In the thirty years between 1870 and 1900 the British annexed Nagaland and from 1900 various Baptist missionaries were invited to prosletise in the region. They were aided by an effort to educate the local population in schools and universities. In 1914 4,000 Nagas were called up to fight in World War One and that symbolised a larger change- the gradual economic integration of the Nagas into India. Trade for instance grew exponentially as did British legal influence upon the Naga tribes. But as Eaton noticed that doesn't explain the differing rates of conversion between the linguistic groups- it doesn't explain why two of those groups the Sema and Ao converted swiftly whereas the Angami were much more reluctant. One of the other variables one might expect to impact on conversion- the presence of missionaries- also didn't have much of an impact. Missionaries early on came to the Angami and Ao with differing effects- but didn't really make it to the Sema- when they did, they were surprised to find Christianity already strong.
Basically Eaton suggests that the variables which distinguished the various groups of Naga were not about colonisation but lay in other areas. Its worth pointing out at this point that Eaton adopts an anthropological theory formulated from observation of African conversion to Christianity and Islam which posits that as most pagan communities exist with a pantheon of lower spirits who deal largely with nature, local deities if you like, and then with an ascending scale of divinity up to a single high God at the top who is normally rather remote. What the theory states is that at a period of time when the world becomes more complicated and more vast- ie when the groups cease to be tribes and become traders with others then they become more interested in the less local gods and even in the high God- hence the creation of monotheisms. When surrounded by a monotheistic religion, they often fuse their high God with its God- hence they convert to that Monotheistic religion. If we use this theory as a tool, the conversion of the Naga becomes much more explicable as do the varying rates of conversion.
Using that theory its simple to explain why the Naga converted- but again its not so simple to explain why some converted easily and some didn't. Eaton argued that the difference in conversion between the three groups came from two factors-
1. The first factor explaining the different rates of conversion was the way that the earliest Christians transalated the whole concept of God in the bible. In the Aos language the word God or god in the Bible was transalated using the Ao concept of tsungrem or spirit. Basically the concept God became in Ao identifiable with the idea of spirituality and consequently the shift from their old high God to a Christian God was reasonably easy. All that they did was asign everything over the tsungrem boundary to the new all embracing tsungrem. If we look at the Sema- we can see exactly the same pattern emerge- the first transalations of the Bible into the Sema language used the name of the Sema high God for the Christian God. Therefore for the Sema the Christian God merely received the attributes of their preexisting God Alhou. Both the Sema and the Ao converted quickly but the Angami did not. The story of transalation there was much more complicated- with the Angami transalation of the scripture using two concepts both Jehovah (a European word) and a local Angami word for their high goddess Ukepenopfu for God. That created all kinds of theological difficulties within the Angami prospective converts- though even till today amongst the Angami who did convert the word for the Christian God is still Ukepenopfu.
2. The second aspect that Eaton identifies as explaining the reasons why the Naga groups converted in different ways is his description of their social organisation. Basically put the Sema were the most migratory of the groups- they had the clearest idea of a high God even before the British arrived. Next to them came the Ao who migrated a bit and also were ready to receive the idea of a high God. However the Angami were mostly sedentary farmers- they didn't practice slash and burn agriculture but managed very complex systems of irrigation and terracing. Consequently they were the least interested in acquiring a new high God as they had the least need for him.
Eaton therefore within the parameters of the theory developed by Horton from African evidence develops a quite convincing case about why particular groups within Nagaland converted to Christianity and why others did not. I can't attest to the accuracy of what he says- but he does have a large number of impressive primary sources to back up his conceptions- the idea does seem impressive to me, in the sense that it marries say with the way that in Anglo Saxon England churches were built near Yew trees and old festivals were taken over by the new Church. Similarly a Naga convert told an interviewer than he had adopted a Naga version of Christianity just as Europeans had a European version of Christianity. Whatever else this tells us, it makes for an interesting account of why a set of people convert to a monotheistic religion and how they do so. It may not be and probably isn't a perfect theory of how this process happens- but what it represents as a theory has some degree of plausibility.