It was on February 3, 2003, when Elvis, a member of an underground insurgent group, the Kuki National Front (Military Council), while out on a patrol overheard a sermon streaming out of M Songel Evangelical Church in Churachandpur district of Manipur, a state in the North Eastern Region of India. An American missionary worker was preaching the gospel of Saul, an orthodox Jew who later became Paul the Apostle.
The sermon jolted Elvis, a young man of Jewish faith who had spent five years in the underground Kuki militia, from the path of conflict to one of peace. As a young Thadou (a dominant tribe in the district), Elvis had joined the underground outfit in the aftermath of the 1997-98 inter-tribal conflict between Thadou and Paite ethnic groups in the region.
“Saul was similar to me. I used to be Jewish. I had guns, tortured people and told them that Jesus was not a God but another Jew like me. In many ways, he and I thought alike,” Elvis said during an interview at his residence in Lajangphai village in Churachandpur district.
But after that day in February 2003, he gave up guns and picked up the gospel to follow his newfound faith and become Pastor Elvis. Now in his 40s, he runs a halfway home for orphans and deserted children when he isn’t preaching to addicts and sex workers or on an evangelical tour.
But it wasn’t his journey from being a gun-toting militant to a reformed preacher that propelled him to fame in his emerging commercial town, stunted by insurgency and rampant drug abuse for more than three decades. Ask any local who grew up in the 1990s to sing “Duty Post” and they wouldn’t struggle to remember the song released shortly after the clash.
Composed by Elvis, the song reminisces about the ethnic clash when youth like him had to guard their village, K Phaicham, after his old one, Phailien, was razed. “I was always on duty post day and night. People would bring packed lunches for us,” he recalled.
Fight between brothers
Churachandpur is home predominantly to the Chin Mizo Kuki tribes, for whom the ethnic clash between the Thadous and Paities remains a bitter memory to this day. Around the late 1980s, differences between the two clans started to erupt as the Paites began asserting their identity away from the other Kuki tribes – who speak different dialects.
Tensions came to a head after the Paites refused to pay tax to the Kuki National Front, which was fighting for Kukiland, and was formed in the 1980s to counter the threat posed by the organized militancy for a separate state of Nagalim by the dominant Naga tribe. The Nagas had the NSCN-IM, the biggest insurgent outfit in the region. The Naga-Kuki insurgent groups had been embroiled in deadly clashes from 1992 until 1997, when the NSCN-IM entered a ceasefire agreement with the government of India. They have just signed a peace accord with the central government, but details are yet to be made public.
The Kukis accused a Paite group of being trained and backed by the NSCN-IM. After 11 people were killed in the Paite village of Saikul on June 24, 1997, a series of retaliatory attacks by the respective armed groups on villages and churches followed, leading to a full-blown civil conflict. While exact figures are not available, the clashes resulted in the loss of hundreds, including civilians, underground cadres and members of the Indian Army, with more than 100 villages reduced to ashes.
After several rounds of negotiations and ceasefire agreements, the apex bodies representing both sides signed a peace accord on October 1, 1998.
A change of duty
Although Elvis was born to an evangelical minister, his sister, who married into the Jewish flock after his father’s demise in 1995, inducted him into Judaism.
After receiving the call back to Christianity, he enrolled in a Master of Divinity program in the Evangelical College of Theology in Rengkai, Churachandpur. But of course, the transition from a tax-collecting ultra-rebel to a pastor wasn’t seamless.
“In the beginning, no one trusted me. They did not want me to preach.” When asked why he chose to start afresh in the same town, instead of fleeing far away as most deserters do, he said: “I wanted to be in my land and among my own people”.
Luckily, his love ballads were popular with Kukis in Myanmar, Nagaland and Assam, who were more receptive to his missionary work. “Outside Manipur, no one knew I [had been] with an insurgent group. When I became popular outside Manipur, that is when people here started accepting me,” the pastor said.
Pastor Elvis’ testimonies and sermons are among the most sought after in the Kuki Christian and evangelical world, crossing into countries such as Malaysia and the United States, where a growing diaspora of the Chin-Mizo-Kuki tribes now live. His title hit, “Duty Post”, recently underwent a gospel revival.
You could say the man himself is the song.
Makepeace Sitlhou is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. She can be reached at @makesyoucakes on Twitter.