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Persons with Disabilities and Religio-Cultural Traditions in Nagaland

NeW Bureau

Many Societies look upon persons with disabilities as inferior human being incapable of contributing anything to the society. The traditional societies did not give any leadership role to disabled people and excluded them from active involvement of the spiritual, social and developmental life. They suffer the same attitude even in the church. The church is called to be an inclusive community by empowering all people with or without disabilities as they are all created in the image of God, but church is also one place where they experience discrimination of exclusion. In almost all societies, persons with disabilities suffer from cultural prejudices, social stigmas and taboos, social exclusion or negative theological perspectives. Often, they are regarded as inferior not only with respect to their specific physical limitations, but also the “total being” and have always treated them as a strange species altogether. Consequently, the church remains silent for centuries to the problem faced by persons with disabilities due to negative construct of theology by abled people.

It is said that, in India there is a person with disability in every 10 families and most of them live in rural villages. They live without education, medical care, without proper food and clothing. In most societies, persons with disabilities are treated as second-class people, objects of charity or even abandoned. Socially, persons with disabilities are the most marginalized group in the society because they are subjected to prejudicial attitudes and discriminated by the able-bodied majority.
Some of the common social exclusionary practices of discrimination faced by persons with disabilities in the society are:
(a) Denial of Inheritance
(b) Stigmatization due to cultural and religious superstitions
(c) Infantization as they are connected with evil and sinfulness
(d) Abandonment on the grounds of keeping away ‘the curse,’ or stigma
(e) Confinement on protecting family’s name
(f) Illiteracy due to negligence and lack of facility
(g) Negligence of medical treatment because of abled people attitude
(h) Denial of political, economic and education rights, and sometimes religious right.

Autism spectrum disorder
Autism spectrum disorder

Therefore, persons with disabilities become the victim of many forms of injustice and discrimination.
In Matthew 15: 29-31(NIV), talks about Jesus’ healing of the lame, blind, crippled, the mute and many others who were brought to him. So, when the crowd saw the mute speaking, the crippled restored and the lame walking, and the blind seeing, they glorified the God of Israel. In Luke 7:21- 23(NIV) also talks about Jesus curing and healing many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits; and gave sight to many who were blind. And Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them.” “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Some of the biblical texts proscribe the full participation of persons with disabilities in ministry. These texts need to be read from ‘justice’ perspective in relation to creation in the `image of God’ and ‘holistic’ disability’. In Leviticus 21:18 (NIV) says, “For no one who has defect shall approach: a blind man, or a lame man, or he who has a disfigured face, or any deformed limb”. Thus, we can understand from Jesus’ teaching that the task of every individual is to take care of those marginalized and discriminated. However, millions of people were pushed to the margins due to injustice and that persons with disabilities became relegated to the margin of margins because their voices were never heard and thus they became the central teaching of Jesus Christ.

Persons with Disabilities in Naga Society: Then and Now
The Naga Primal religion was centred on the belief of many spirits. People believed in two types of spirits – malevolent spirits and benevolent spirit. The bad things and unfortunate events happen and are caused by the malevolent spirits and good things by benevolent spirits. It was believed that disabilities were caused by malevolent spirits. It is still believed and a taboo for a husband to go for hunting or kill an animal when his wife is pregnant. The spirit will cause deformities on the child resembling the killed animals. Person with disability were thus denied to come to religious ceremonies and participate for fear of their presence would bring displeasure to God and worshippers. They are regarded as curse, sin and object of charity, imperfect physically, excluded from entering the sacred place, community dormitory and were even abandoned.

Intellectual disability
                 Intellectual disability

Disability was also considered a result of divine displeasure, for example not proper sacrificial performance by parents. Some other said that killing an enemy who possessed a special mana (magical power) affect the killer’s children. Such was/is the conventional perception of disability among the Naga people. Naga society thus considered those families with disabled child as disgrace and a punishment for sin. Disabled persons are often subjected to mockery and fun in the public talks. The parents are normally blamed, for example, carelessness of a mother during pregnancy, a senseless behavior of a father with other women while wife is pregnant that may result in babies being born with deformity or other impediments.
Persons with disabilities faced many restrictions and were/are placed in the lowest strata of the society and were excluded from social involvement like community fishing or any other kind of community activities in the village. They are also not allowed to participate during the Moatsu and Tsungremmong festivals. They are also not allowed to perform the feast of merit for the Ao Nagas. The disabled people are not qualified to become a village counselor, called putu menden (village council) which takes all the decision concerning the village affairs. They are also debarred from any respectable position in different social organizations. The case is same even today. The disabled person faces condemnation, isolation, discrimination and was even neglected at times from the families that leads person with disability a miserable life. They are even restricted to move freely in the community areas because abled people fear that they might also be affected.
In general, the disabled are looked down upon as inferior and incomplete. They are seen as unattractive and unworthy of favour and service to the people. Even though 90% of the Nagas are Christian, disabled person’s participation in the religious activity of the church is almost next to nothing. There is not a single disabled pastor in the church, except one or two assistant pastors in whole of Nagaland. Church leaders are still ignorant about the potentiality of persons with disabilities and their gifts are not recognized. Persons with disabilities are treated as second class citizens and still suffer the stigma of impurity and discrimination. Some churches especially in the rural places think that disability is related to sin and the work of the demons, and thus do not allow to participate in special function like marriage and Easter Sunday. This indifferent attitude of abled people leads to exclusion in social functions, religious services, educational programs, work places and marital relationships which further contribute to social and economic isolations.
However, despite very strong negative religious, cultural and traditional practices, there are also liberalize traditions such as the principle of sobaliba (social manners) and the communitarian social life that have upheld an egalitarian way of life, self-sufficiency and protected the poor and needy from being neglected and exploited. The communitarian value system had a strong liberalize potential that persons with disabilities were also taken care of and respected, supported, and treated with dignity and equality in the Naga community life. For everyone, community welfare is the first and foremost when it comes in terms of sobaliba. Therefore, abled people are always compelled upon as well as it is the mandate of their clan to take care of person with disability, poor and marginalized and of each other.

Vision-N-Locomotor-child
Vision-N-Locomotor-child

Integrating Communitarian Value System in Transformative Diakonia
Nagas are divided into different tribes and each community has their own distinct common identity governed by their own customary law and language. Wherever they live they form their own community fellowship even today. They extend solidarity among themselves and to be not identifying and neglecting one’s own community is regarded as shame. Like any other nations, Nagas’ ethnic identity, culture, history, religion, and politics are deeply rooted and is influenced by their own concrete geographical land which basically affirms a very strong Naga communitarian culture. So, culture for Nagas is as important as person, because it is the crux of an individual’s identity.
Nagas faced untold suffering during colonial rule, bamboo famine, insurgency problem, military operation; however their strong communitarian values enable them to stand together in solidarity. In spite of many condemnations, weaknesses and failures, there are many liberalized positive potentials of Nagas tradition. One of the facts which is very clear among the Nagas is that, there is no beggar in the Naga society till today because of their strong cultural and social system that protect the poor and needy. Nagas understand that if a person from their own tribe or community is left begging or neglected it is indignity for their tribe so they protect the person. In the same manner, the downtrodden and person with disability are helped and taken care of by their family or clan. It is the duty of their clan men and women to show solidarity and render support because a person’s identity was inseparable with that of his/her family, clan and village. That is how the division of the tribe enforces them to think and feel responsible that they have a larger family or community of their own tribe in which they are allegiance to protect their own tribe men and women. So, each tribe locating in their own common land, bond by customary law and culture, makes a tribe or a community important to help and protect those persons who are disabled or in trouble.
The Naga villages are comprised of several households belonging to different clans and that plays an important role towards the social well-being of their tribes. So distinct is the clan from the village that it forms almost a village in itself and fortified within the village inside its own boundaries. The household are integrated into the society, by being members of larger functional units, lineages, clans, age groups and village community. Every village has unique identity to protect, help and support each other. And since Nagas uphold a very strong unity, brotherhood/sisterhood, common origin, it form a common communitarian society and culture. From very childhood, children are taught through stories and legends about survival, endurance, and respect for nature, between one another and all humankind. They gave importance to communitarian social life and this value needs to recapture to fight against individualism and discrimination and makes abled people to give importance to take care of the marginalized, the poor and persons with disabilities. It also shows that care of the poor people through clan system in the village is very strong that the village unit must protect and care for village people especially those persons with disabilities. This is one of the reasons why disabled people, even up to the number of twenty to fifty used to live together in Angh (Chief of the village) house among the Konyaks (one of the tribes in Nagaland). Thus, this communitarian living compelled the abled people to take care and played a great role for protection of person with disability, poor and marginalized.
The strong communitarian social structure and the value system are sustained because of the philosophy of sobaliba. This sobaliba involves the total commitment to community building, and to bring change. It calls to live out to protect community life. The ethical principle of sobaliba binds the community and forces people to sacrifice for the cost of community and preserve their identity as a distinct community. This ethical practice also enforces a family, clan, village and tribe members to support and care for one another in times of suffering, war, and famine and also binds people together in the society in times of joys and sorrows. This principle of sobaliba hence needs to be integral part of the transformative theology in relation to person with disability and that community approach alone can bring structural change in the society.
In Christian teaching, Diakonia involves actions of care, relief and service towards the poor and marginalized, but it goes further and addresses the root causes of injustice embedded in oppressive systems and structures. A church becomes transformative when it engages in the overall development of people as taught by our Lord Christ Jesus. In his words and action, transformative diakonia, this transformative diakonia needs to extend beyond the boundaries of a church community. It needs to address the larger society in order that people of all races and cultural background experience love and harmony. The community transformative diakonia will enable the disabled and marginalized people aware of their strength to change the oppressive structure. It empowers whole people to bring about those needed changes. We see in Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is understood that the Good Samaritan does the service of compassion by helping the man who was stripped down by robbers. Unless, as church and community of Christ we acknowledge the gifts of persons with disabilities, the world will remain incomplete. Therefore, practice of transformative diakonia should not be just an incremental help or emotional act, but it should be a task and commitment to ceaseless struggle against every oppressive and unjust system. It involves empowering both abled and disabled people for change.

Ayangla with a Vision impairment child
Ayangla with a Vision impairment child

The transformative diakonia or community diakonia should be the effort to enforce a change in the way churches do diakonia and invites those who are broken and shattered, those who are oppressed, and gather together friends and strangers into the shared fellowship of God. The marginalized people should be given the most special place, the called out one in order to give a good identity. “In God’s World – Called to be one” is a divine imperative and not an option. Every person is called to strive to be one with one another not because it is expedient but because God has called into existence as one people. It is God’s will that God’s people be one and together – to be united and diverse at the same time. We are called to be one not because we are same, but because we are different; not because all are good or all lead to the same goal. But we are called to be one because we are all created by God in his own image. The church will not be able to realize what it means to be “called to be one”, unless we listen to the voices of the peoples in the margin. This reflects that every disabled person deserves the dignity and respect just as normal people receives. The values of love, healing, hope, and solidarity should be integrated in the theology transformative diakonia.
Transformative diakonia is wholistic and its service is an integral part of Christian calling. It is not charitable or developmental issue, but it comprises of all social, psychological and political issues that needs to address the social structure, that is changing attitude of the society. The transformative diakonia of the church cannot be fulfilled unless there is cooperation among all members of the church. The church has to take the position of, and for the poor and become the voice of the poor and the exploited. The church and the society as a whole need to be transformed and challenged today to involve not only for the ecclesial community but to step out beyond its boundary and to look at the margins social sphere in order to bring dignity to poor people, the marginalized and those persons living with disabilities. As the term ‘transformation’ points to a number of changes that have to take place in the societies, if people living in the margin are to enjoy their rightful heritage as God’s creation. The transformative diakonia must be a theology that transcends the suffering of the people with love through God’s goodness and grace. Therefore, society from its most basic unit of the family to its broader forms the church and the community should be a community of inclusion for everyone regardless of gifts and abilities by welcoming and giving the opportunity to participate and be treated equally.

About the writer.
(After completing Master of Social Work Counseling & Master of Theology in Theology and Culture from Yushan Theological College & Seminary, Taiwan, I. Ayangla is now a Freelance Social Worker and Administrator at Shekinah Hostel Dimapur)

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