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Life time honour for serving Mising tribe

By C.M. Paul
Fr K.A. Thomas Kalapurackal, SDB
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Guwahati, Jul. 17.  Jorhat -- Lolima, Sabitri, Kampo and Jyotsna, four tribal youth leaders working with a social entrepreneur who opted the cultural path for development of their tribe nestled in remote part of northeast India honoured him with a life time recognition ceremony reserved only for becoming totally integrated into the culture and psyche of the tribe and for his life time service.

A member of the Salesian province of Dimapur Fr KA Thomas Kalapurackal (58 years) who has been working with the Mising tribe during the last 15 years, was surprised by the four ladies and their families with the josag ceremony and honours.
''As the father of Misings - we his adopted daughters got together with our families, to give a traditional josag meal in full Mising style for our father,'' said the ladies with pride twinkling in their eyes.

The josag ceremony is once-in-a-lifetime celebration offered to father of the family, by the children. Josag is a respectful offering of either chicken or pig performed with specific rituals calling on the sun and the moon and invoking the blessing of forefathers.

For the Josag the 'father of the family' dresses in the traditional turban, Mising galug, (jacket), and gonro ugon (short dhoti).  The meal is to be served on a Mensong, a three pronged platform made of bell metal. The legs of the mensong has stones or seeds inside. Before the meal, the officiating shaman performs a ritual, calling on the sun and moon to bless the father of the family, and later offers a symbolic meal to the seven forefathers, pushing the parcel of meat in between the bamboos to below the platform house. The first part of the meal is to take a sip of apong (black rice beer) specially brewed for the occasion.  On the father's plate on the mensong, there is placed a piece from every part of the pig, viz ears, nose, tail etc.  The josag meal is cooked in wild herbs, as per the traditions of Misings. After the main meal, the father has to return to the same house for a second lighter meal within 48 hours. This second meal is called dokhup dolod.

''I think it is an example of successful inculturation and a concrete living of the 'theology of incarnation,'' says Dr Jose Kuruvachira a close observer of Fr Thomas work from its inception.

Author of several books on Anthropology and Social Sciences, Dr Kuruvachira does not hesitate to add, ''I am sure, history will someday rate him [Fr Thomas] along with the great exponents of inculturation like Italian Jesuit Fr Matteo Ricci who lived in the Chinese Emperor's Court in Peking from 1583 to 1610 or another Italian Jesuit Fr Roberto De Nobili who worked among the Brahmins of Madurai from 1606 to 1656 in South India.

''It takes just one youngster to transform a village,'' says founder director of Mising Institution for Culture And Rural Development (I-CARD) Fr Thomas a strong believer of the power of young people.

While galvanizing the Mising community toward action, Fr. Thomas is also showing the church and other social organizations a new way of working with tribal people.
Dr Kuruvachira explains, ''by inspiring other dynamic missionaries, social workers and liberal individuals to follow this model in other communities, Fr. Thomas hopes to replicate his idea beyond the Mising tribe and reach out to other marginalized groups.''

Head of Don Bosco College of Social Work at Jorhat Dr. Jerry Thomas, says about Fr Thomas involvement in Human Developmental Activities: ''I-CARD is at once a publication house, a haven for cultural and youth activities, a rural development agency, and a catalyst for change within the Mising society.''

Dr Jerry further states I-CARD's uniqueness saying, ''it focuses on one tribe wherever it is found, it takes into account the overall situation of the tribe, it has adopted an integral multi-pronged approach, it draws in the various segments of the community, the community members having a big say in what is being done and they are involved in the process of decision making, it builds up leadership from among the 'dropout' youth and prepares them to play a proactive role in their communities. It stresses on partnership, hence much of the program and process is owned by the community itself.''  

Fr. Thomas hailing from Kerala and living in northeast India for over 40 years has a very scientific, intelligent and holistic approach in his work with the Misings who number just over 1.30 million people among 38 million people belonging to a myriad tribes and cultures in northeast India.

Migrating from Southern China almost the same time the Ahoms from Thai-Burma occupied Assam, the Misings live predominantly in eight districts of Upper Assam (Golaghat, Jorhat, Sivasagar, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Sonitpur, Lakhimpur and Dhemaji) and three of Arunachal Pradesh (Lohit, East Siang and Lower Dibang Valley).

Misings today constitute the second largest tribal community of Assam after the Bodos.

Over the past 15 years I-CARD has impacted the lives of some 250 school dropout youths making them agents of social transformation. With their help, I-CARD has brought attitudinal change in some 420 villages, started about 380 branches of ''Young Misings Association'' with a total of 6,000 members in 380 villages. They have started 300 Self Help Groups and identified leaders who today form the Agency for Rural Development Action (ARDA), a registered independent NGO.

One of the seven Ashoka India Fellows from northeast India, Fr Thomas was recognized in 2002 for ''stepping beyond the confines of a religious mission concerned chiefly with formal schooling, and building ways to support and develop the Mising people, one of Northeast India's remaining minorities that has yet to succumb to armed struggle and the politics of ethnic nationalism.''

He was honoured by Ashoka after he started the training centre for school dropouts, making them agents of social transformation.

For his BTh (Bachelor of Theology) paper in 1983, Fr. Thomas did a comparative study of Neo-Vaisnavite Monasticism in Assam in the light of Christian monasticism.  Since then he has been frequenting the Kamalabari Satra or monastery. After ten years of priesthood, Fr, Thomas left for the USA and did his Masters in Multi-cultural Ministry from the Franciscan School of Theology, Berkely.  He returned to Assam to found his Institution for Culture And Rural Development, refusing other traditional ways of ministry in the Salesian order.
On 22 March, 2014, Bane Kebang, the apex body of Misings, publicly honoured Father Thomas, in the presence of all major leaders of the Mising tribe and witnessed by thousands of people, for his contributions to Mising life and culture. The Mising Autonomous Council too has invited Fr. Thomas to collaborate with them for the holistic development of Mising people.

To reach other educated quarters of the tribe and sensitize them to the needs of the community, Fr. Thomas started a monthly newspaper in the Mising language (the only regular newspaper for the community at present) called Anu Agom, or New Language. The editorial team is made up of local Misings, mainly teachers and other educated people who volunteer their time to run the paper.

Realizing the dire need for dynamic young leaders to take the community forward, Fr. Thomas started a leadership-training center Karsang Takar (Rising Star) at Dergaon offering year-long training to 20 young Misings - who become agents of change.

A team of 6,000 volunteers from the Mising community help Fr. Thomas through Youth Groups, Adult Village Development agencies, dropouts and other bodies.

Other activities include: Cultural Tourism called Ethnique, a  Festival which since 2012 has become Jorhat's own annual Tourism Festival. He has so far conducted  14 Annual Socio-Cultural Seminars, and brought out 12 books in Mising language. ''Misings Through Mising Eyes, Volume I'', is a book compiled and edited from seminar papers.

He started two bi-monthly Magazines: ProMising Action in English and ''Mising Aiyan'' in Mising language published since 2004.

A collection of over 200 mini digital video depicts the life and culture of the Mising tribe, collected over the past 8 years. The Photo Library has over 300,000 photos covering every aspect of the Mising community's socio-cultural life.

Two residential traditional weaving units supported by village women groups, have been producing traditional tribal hand-loom integrated with modern city wear and promoted in various cities of India.

I-CARD also supports primary school education of poor children, and higher education of deserving ones through its Club Life Boat Trust.

Jeevan Entrepreneurship Training Institute (JETI) trains educated unemployed youth in computer, spoken English, personality development, life skills for the job market.

A vast majority of Misings still follow their traditional religion called Donyi-Polo honouring mother sun and father moon. Though mostly practiced in Arunachal, this cult is gaining ground also in Assam. Since the 16th century some Misings have embraced Hinduism, under the influence of Sankaradeva, the Vaishnava saint of Assam. However, they have kept their traditional rituals and practices intact even until today.
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