Thursday, July 5, 2007

Tribal Christian Marriage

By L. Keivom

There was a man called H. H. Coleman from Philadelphia in the United States. Though a moonshiner during the days of prohibition in the States and a dismissed employee of the New York Bible Institute, he ingratiated himself to join the Home Council of North East India General Mission (NEIGM) as a temporary Office Assistant in 1926. This NEIGM American Council was set up in Philadelphia in 1924 by Watkin Roberts, the founder of the Mission to supplement the works of the London (British) Council. Mr. Coleman was however a clever genius, a venomous snake in the grass.

Soon, he plotted against Mr. Roberts. With the deftness of a devil’s hand, he took control of both London and Philadelphia Councils, dislodged Watkin Roberts from his position and became General Secretary of the Mission. His next move was to disgrace Roberts completely by snatching his Mission with the help of the Home Council and the British officials in Manipur, his main field of operation.

It was this Coleman who first raised in the Court the validity of the marriage licence being held by the tribal ordained pastors and ministers in the Mission. Why did he raise this issue? Let me tell you the sordid background. It was a long and shameful story but I will cut it short to an arm’s length.

After hijacking the Home Councils, Coleman’s next move, as mentioned above, was to capture the Mission Field from Roberts and consign him from ignominy into oblivion. But he only partially succeeded in this game. Roberts was lucky to have a staunch supporter in the person of one H. K. Dohnuna, his Field Secretary at the Lakhipur headquarters near Silchar.

Dohnuna was a man of honour and influence, hardworking and efficient and highly respected by his people. Coleman soon discovered that the only way to eliminate Roberts from the Field was to have Dohnuna on his side, and if Dohnuna refused to co-operate, to remove him too from Lakhipur headquarters by employing a carrot and stick policy.

Coleman therefore first tried to inveigle him into joining his side by making juicy promises. He failed. Dohnuna refused to bite his dangling baits. He now had to resort to his stick and hammer policy. He threatened Dohnuna that if he did not leave Lakhipur voluntarily at his bidding, he would take him to court for a serious violation that would land him in jail for ten years.

That ‘serious violation’ referred to by Coleman is the subject of this article. H. K. Dohnuna’s eldest son was Dr. H.K.Thanglura from his first wife. Dr. Thanglura married a girl named Darchhunkimi (Darsunkim) from Parbung in Manipur. The marriage was performed by Pastor Kambuanga, an ordained pastor from the Mission at Lakhipur, Cachar District, Assam. Pastor Kambuanga in the past married off many tribal christian couples and issued them marriage certificates as per the form designed and approved by the Church. This is a practice being followed till this day in the hills.

The foxy Coleman however tried to nail Dohnuna on this very issue so that the latter hit the jail for ten long years. Coleman’s contention was that Pastor Kambuanga did not have a marriage licence to entitle him to perform a marriage under the Indian Christian Marriage Act XV of 1872 and therefore the marriage solemnised by him was invalid and violative of Section 109 of Indian Penal Code which was punishable for a ten year imprisonment. Since Dohnuna knowingly and illegally arranged the marriage of his son to be solemnised by an unlicensed pastor, both he (Dohnuna) and Pastor Kambuanga were guilty of violating the law.

Accordingly, Coleman arranged a complaint petition filed in the name of Mr. Zamkaia, one of the Kuki students of Dinwiddie Bible School at Lakhipur on May 13, 1930 before the court of Mr. G. D. Walker, Deputy Commissioner of Cachar. Coleman apparently had consulted Walker before on this issue and it was believed that the petition was filed at the behest of the latter.

The hearing was fixed for June 9, 1930. The fact was that the petitioner Zamkaia did not even know the contents of the petition but was made to sign by Coleman on the dotted line with Pastor Paul Rostad, Principal of the Bible School and Mrs Ella Rostad as witnesses. On May 15, Dohnuna and Kambuanga were arrested by the police but were granted bail of Rs.1000/- each, a huge sum reserved only for serious crimes.

Dohnuna’s explanation was that (a) the Indian Christian Marriage Act was not applicable in Mizoram, Manipur and other adjoining hill areas and (b) the marriages amongst the Hill Tribes of these places were solemnised according to the native christian customs by pastors appointed, in accordance with the native christian customs prevalent among the Hill Tribe Christians, by the assemblage of the Christians themselves. Therefore, summoning the accused under the circumstances of the case was improper, illegal and ultravires.

Sensing that he might not get justice before the court of the Deputy Commissioner of Cachar, a suspected corroborator of Coleman, Dohnuna immediately moved the Calcutta High Court to transfer his case to some other Court outside the District of Cachar. The Calcutta High Court accordingly immediately transferred the case to Syhlet Court where the two accused were released on bail of Rs. 50/- each only and not Rs. 1000/- imposed by the Cachar Deputy Commissioner’s Court mentioned before.

After the first hearing in Syhlet, the petitioner Zamkaia, having realised the gravity of his petition, withdrew the case much to the annoyance and embarrassment of Coleman whose intriguing game plan was exposed and thwarted by the sensibility of the tribal dignity and honour and also by the fear of God over his (Coleman’s) abominable devilry. As a result, the case was never formally decided.

One of the few missionaries consulted by Dohnuna on the issue was Edwin Rowlands, then serving as High School Principal in Rangoon. Rowlands clarified that there was once a suggestion to extend Indian Christian Marriage Act to the hill areas also but the pioneer missionaries objected to its extension on the ground that
(a) the hill people had already devised a marriage system of their own relevant to their living conditions and level of growth and it would therefore suffice to add to it only solemnisation of the marriage in the Church according to christian practices
and (b) the hill people were not yet ready to have a complex system of marriage like Indian Christian Marriage Act with its complicated legal bindings and litigations. This position still holds good in most hill areas till this day.

When India became independent and the Constitution was adopted, the new leaders very wisely and farsightedly included Sixth Schedule in the Constitution to specially safeguard and protect the traditions and customary laws and practices of the tribal people of north-east India. This includes traditional marriage practices and other related customs. The constitutional safeguard does not cover tribal Christian marriage.

In point of law, therefore, the tribal Christian marriage as practiced in our society has no legal standing and is not enforceable in the court of law; it only has a moral value. What has been recognised and protected under the Sixth Schedule is marriage held under customary laws and practices of the tribal people living in a specified scheduled area and not marriage performed by our pastors in the church.

The marriage licence held by our ordained pastors and ministers are not valid for conducting marriage under Indian Christian Marriage Act. Pastors, please check your legally invalid and unrecognised marriage licences!

L. Keivom - IFS(Rtd) can be reach at
This article was webcasted on 17th April 2005.
taken from:


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