Ethnic insurgencies in the ‘seven sister states" of India’s north-east goes back a long time. In 1996 local Churches set up a Joint Peace Mission Team. The former archbishop of Guwahati describes what makes a good peacemaker. Peacemaking succeeds if mediators can sympathise with both sides. Appealing for peace must be sincere, excessive publicity can be harmful, and influential people can come together. The power of prayer is a key lesson.
Jowai (AsiaNews) – North-eastern India includes the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. Known as the ‘seven sister states’, they have been the scene of violent insurgencies for decades. Recently, some rebels fighting for local autonomy have surrendered. This has gone largely unnoticed by India’s mainstream media.
Mgr Thomas Menamparampil, apostolic administrator in Jowai (Meghalaya) and Archbishop Emeritus of Guwahati (Assam), spoke to AsiaNews about this exceptional event. Since 1996, the local Church has been involved behind the scene through the Joint Peace Mission Team.
Violence in this region left 413 people dead in 2014, far more than the 193 people killed in India’s Kashmir, and yet the latter has received greater international coverage.
Peace efforts got a boost recently after representatives of various religious groups, as well as activists, and political and social organisations met in late May in Tura, Garo Hills District (Meghalaya). Mgr Menamparampil was one of the participants.
Today he is happy that the insurgency situation has been peacefully resolved. The latter goes as far back as India’s independence, and worsened after the State of Meghalaya was created out of Assam.
Titled ‘The way to peace is painful’, we publish the archbishop's comments on the importance of being "peacemakers" in India.
Tragedies Gave Rise to Peace Initiatives in Northeast India
The peace initiative of the Joint Peace Mission Team of Northeast India won much attention when recently a number of Garo young men surrendered arms in a reconciliation ceremony in Tura. The event took place soon after the Peace Team had made an earnest appeal for peace. This has aroused a new interest in the history of this low profile Peace Team, locally referred to as JPMT.
The JPMT came into existence in 1996 in answer to a clash between the Bodo and Adivasi tribes in Assam which had driven over 250,000 people into more than 47 refugee camps. The tragedy took place soon after an election and the Government was too busy distributing portfolios. There was no choice for the Christian Churches in the region but to plunge themselves into relief work with all their heart, coming to the aid of people in the most wretched condition.
Fortunately, the Church leaders decided to cooperate and not compete, which made their collective effort most effective. Out of that spirit of cooperation and the eager expectation of the suffering communities emerged the present Peace Team.
The JPMT brought representatives of the conflicting groups together and facilitated a dialogue. With a few rounds of talks and intense visits to villages peace came, the atmosphere improved, relationships were re-established, and life returned to normal. The successful handling of this unmanageable problem brought the Government to appreciate Christian contribution to peace more than ever.
JPMT Extends Its Services
Ever since, during the last 20 years the JPMT has been invited to help in more than a dozen inter-community conflicts in Northeast India, each unique in its own way with its own causes and characteristics, and its own different path to reconciliation.
We never claimed that peace came from our work alone, but we rejoiced that we made a small contribution towards the cause of peace. All we claimed was that we generated good will, elicited cooperation, pointed the direction. But the decisions were made by the affected parties themselves, generally under the guidance of the Administration.
Our usual strategy was to avoid excessive publicity lest we evoked jealousy or opposition. We never built up formal structures or go for elaborate fund-raising programmes. We concentrated on building up brotherly bonds among the Church leaders which we sought to strengthen whenever we came together. For, the path to peace is painful. But as members of the JPMT, we learnt many lessons during our determined effort for peace.
The Fighter is the Hero Today
The peacemaker today is a non-entity in our times. I say that because for over a century we have been fed on philosophies of struggle (Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, propagators of the Fascist, Nazi and Communist ideologies and their milder versions, ethnic loyalties, religious fanaticisms), and are so inspired by the ideals of fighting and struggling for justice and rights, that our combating spirit has grown and our reconciling skills have sagged.
Christian communities themselves have been influenced. For example, In recent years, some Latin American Liberation theorists have proposed, “The Christian must love everybody, but not all in the same way; we must love the oppressed, defending and liberating him; the oppressor, accusing and combating him” (Frost, Brian Frost, The Politics of Peace, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1991).
No wonder, then, that the fighter is the hero today, not the peacemaker. What makes news is action, explosion, confrontation, collision, mutual destruction. What is expected of a committed activist is to condemn, denounce, expose, challenge, humiliate. When he does that best, he emerges a hero. But we forget that condemnation alienates, scatters; sympathetic understanding gathers.
We are Forgetting Traditional Reconciling skills
Consequently, we are in danger of losing certain basic human skills embedded in all cultures, like paying respectful attention to the other person’s (tribe’s, community’s) point of view, trying to understand them, showing sympathy for their goal or at least some aspect of it; dialoguing, explaining, arguing amicably; negotiating, avoiding aggressive language, making an effort to convince; yielding, conceding, tolerating, forgiving, evoking collaboration, insisting on gentler solutions, and inviting compromise.
o, the first lesson that our Peace Team learnt was that everyone who desires to be a peacemaker needs to unlearn some of these earlier mentioned skills of confrontation and develop the skills needed for reconciliation, and teach others to do the same. That is what we sought to do ever since the Bodo-Adivasi clash at Kokrajhar of 1996.
Causes of Conflicts
Causes for conflicts in different parts of the world may be: ethnic, regional, national, religious, ideological grievances. Here, ethnic grievances dominate.
Recent statistics show that there are more instances of violence in a society with a high proportion of young people than in others. Young people tend to be idealistic, eager for peer approval, ready to take risks and naively open to simplistic ideological explanations.
Over 60% of the population in Northeast India are young. It is they who come forward to defend the interests of their own people when there is a perceived sense of injustice along ethnic lines. The grievance may be linked to claims of the ‘sons of the soil,’ ownership of land, crops, transit and marketing facilities, or political representation. Internal migration for land or jobs aggravates the situation.
Politicians Misuse Youth Energies for Their Own Purposes
Unfortunately there are leaders who wish to use the exploding energy of youth for political mobilization; and not rarely, for campaigns against ‘outsiders’. They connive at their acquisition of arms. And young people who are dropouts from school, marginalized in economy, ignored in society, suddenly feel empowered when they get a deadly weapon in their hands.
Those who take up arms in the pretext of ‘defense’ of their own people, slowly develop aggressive ways, extort money first from businessmen from ‘outside,’ then from their own people, serve the political interests of leaders to get social acceptability, and gradually grow unwilling to give up that way of life finding it comfortable.
And violence of various levels of intensity remains on, as it has been happening in the Garo Hills in recent years. Such explosive material is ready for a clash at the slightest provocation. There are too many groups in the region in such a state of preparedness
All Fighters are Fighting for What They Think is Right
Now a word about how to intervene helpfully in times of conflict. If we take it for granted that one side is definitely right and the other side totally wrong, that one is a demon and the other a helpless victim, we shall not succeed to become mediators between two groups in conflict. For, both contenders in a fray are convinced that they are fighting for a good cause.
We listened to the endless lamentations of the Kukis and Paites of Manipur after they came into conflict in 1998. The situation was so terrible that people were digging trenches in their own houses to get a bit of sleep. A free bullet could come through the window at any time of the night.
Both groups were fighting for ‘justice,’ each community for its own understanding of it. Thus, perceptions of justice clashed. When justice clashes with justice, the peacemaker finds himself in a helpless position.
Excessive preaching and repetition of pacifist platitudes at the early stages of the dialogue when the contestants are still in an aggressive mood, will sound extremely annoying and humiliating to contestants. Hasty condemnations will enrage them.
The Peacemaker Must ‘Understand’, ‘Sympathize’
The peacemaker will not be in a position to initiate a reconciliation-dialogue with contending groups, unless he/she has a measure of sympathy for their cause in his heart.
Even if he believes that their claims are exaggerated, unless he can empathize with them at depth and are touched by the passion they have for their goals and the sense of justice that motivates them, or at least some aspect of their cause, he will not be able even to initiate a dialogue.
But if the peacemaker is profoundly struck by the magnitude of their grievances and are able to understand (not necessarily approve) the excesses to which their ‘legitimate anger’ has driven them, they will gradually begin to respond. The same will be true of the other party as well.
Neither group is asking the Peace Team to condone their immoderation; they are asking them only to ‘understand’ how they felt compelled to go to such painful lengths to defend their cause. They are not asking the peacemakers to say much, but to ‘feel’ much. That is how peace came to the Dimasas and Hmars in Haflong after a severe clash in 2003 through the intense efforts of the Peace Team. Listening had a healing power.
Fighters Long for Peace at the Deepest Level
We cannot forget that there is a profound longing for peace even in the heart of the sternest combatant. The Peace Team could see that during the conflict between the Kukis and Karbis in 2003 at Diphu. The dispute was over the profit made by migrants on ginger-trade. What the parties were asking was: “Peace, yes; but at what terms? At whose terms?” Not certainly at the cost of their central interests, including their collective image.
And yet, even the fiercest fighters are looking forward to a formula of peace. It is this hidden entry-point that the peacemaker tries to target. But ultimately the Kukis and Karbis mellowed, and agreed to come to an understanding.
The most important thing for the peacemaker is to make an acceptable presence in the subconscious of the warring groups. His ability to build up confidence-generating relationships with the parties concerned is the key to success.
He has to be fair to all parties concerned, consistently avoiding ego-claims, establishing warm-hearted relationships with people and being known for his sensitivity and universal outlook. Our Peace Team had to keep this in mind when we intervened in the conflict between the Bodos and the Muslims at Udalguri in 2010.
A commitment to humanity that comes through in one’s words, deeds and relationships is far more convincing about a peacemaker than some techniques that he may have picked up in a recent conflict-resolution seminar. This should combine with sensitivity to human pain no matter who suffers.
Bringing Together ‘Thinking People’
When an inter-community battle broke out, our toughest challenge was to bring the ‘right’ people together for negotiations. Now, who are the ‘right’ people? It is not easy to bring frontline fighters together for peace-talks; their skills lie in another direction.
I would describe the persons who matter in a peace-dialogue at the first stage as ‘thinking’ people, sensitive leaders, persons who are respected on both sides. It may include intellectuals, thinkers, writers, teachers, social workers and people who inspire society and whose words are noncontroversial. That is what we did during the Garo-Rabha clash at Mendipathar in 2011. And the communities responded promptly.
The Peacemaker Remains a Facilitator
It is best if the peacemaker remains merely a confidence-builder, facilitator and helps to create a serene atmosphere…an atmosphere in which interactions become easy.
He may suggest a step forward at key moments, invite deeper reflection, whisper a solution, allowing the contestants themselves to thrash out their differences. If he remains inconspicuous and keeps a low-profile, his long term contribution can be greater. The less he interferes with the natural flow of things and the normal processes of discussions, the better.
Finally a word about making compromises. Living together always means being prepared for compromises. This is true of a family, a village, a nation and the international community. The most valuable contribution the peacemaking team can offer is to lead opposing parties towards a gradual understanding and acceptance of this great truth.
Winning headlines may be flattering, but the fruits therefrom may not be lasting. Premature publicity can be fatal. Those who oppose peace may track down the peacemaker at any stage and make him trip over.
Doing things as though not doing—that is the role of the peacemaker in complex situations. One should feel free from having to play to the gallery. That is why the JPMT is little known outside the Northeastern region. Its contribution to the lift of a four-month economic blockade in Manipur five years ago remains unknown even within the region.
The Peace Appeal Must Sound Sincere
What our Peace Team does at the end of the dialogue(s) is to make an appeal for peace together with the representatives of the two groups concerned. And if the appeal is respectful, carefully phrased, well balanced and corresponding to realities and needs, they usually evoke a good response.
The participants in the dialogue sessions can make an effort to organize meetings at local levels and generate the same atmosphere of goodwill. If there is wide acceptance of the proposals in the communities, the community leaders may move on to the final round of negotiations in the presence of Civil Authorities, in which the Peace Team need not be present at all. If, in the process, the Team is clean forgotten or marginalized, we rejoice, for it is in the order of things that ultimately peace is restored to a community by the concerned people themselves. In 2015 the Adivasis of Uriamghat returned to their homes from where they were driven out several months earlier.
Healing of Historic Memories
The hardest to heal are memories of historic injuries. May be that is specially true in places like the Middle East. But even in our region memories of injuries received can remain alive in people’s hearts and negative stereotypes of each other haunt the minds of the two contending groups for a long time.
If no healing takes place, hostilities may be renewed at any time. That is why the healing of historic memories and the demolition of stereotypes form a great mission for the Peacemaker.
Our Peace Team Has Withstood Serious Negative Experiences
Experience tells us that there are many things in a complex situation that can discourage the Peacemaker. The representatives of the warring groups may refuse to turn up for dialogue. Their ears may be poisoned against him and his initiatives. Follow-up efforts after reconciliation may never take off. People may get discouraged from the recurrence of violence even after a peace-agreement.
Collective anger may be rekindled if a member of their community is hit again unexpectedly. Malicious rumours may be deliberately spread. The press may inflate the number of victims, interpret issues wrongly, ignore the Peacemakers’ initiatives and successes. They may feel left alone to struggle. But then, quite unexpectedly, the truth reveals itself, and peace returns. And the Peace Team wins unexpected recognition as it did in 2015 when the German based Berghof Foundation held up its methods for international attention.
The Mysticism of the Brief Moment: In God Nothing is Lost
One last learning for a Peacemaker who is a religious believer: he/she will have to have confidence in what I have chosen to call the ‘mysticism of the brief moment,’ in the power of prayer.
Prayer is the source of strength in moments of anxiety, tension, opposition, discouragement, failure, and humiliation. It is with this strength that he builds bridges across communities and cultures, sorts out differences, persuades people to forgive, join hands together and strive on to create a better world.
He also remembers that peacemakers in different parts of the world did not always succeed, that some lost their lives, and that some of their stories read like a tragic waste. Even being fully aware of these facts, the Ecumenical Joint Peace Team of Northeast has never lost hope. And when our small successes are added up, they do not seem to be insignificant.
For, in God nothing lost. Peace comes in its own good time. There are many ways in which God makes people ‘beat their swords into ploughshares’ (Is 2:4). Our Peace Team is immensely happy if they have played a small and humble role towards it.
* former archbishop of Guwahati, apostolic administrator of Jowai