Lessons from Experiences in Peacemaking IN NORTHEAST INDIA
by Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil.
I am happy to share with you a few lessons that I have learned over the years from working for peace in Northeast India, in the context of ethnic conflicts in places like Kokrajhar, Churachandpur, Haflong, Diphu, Udalguri and other places. I am adopting a reflectional style, and I hope that someone finds at least a few ideas that I share useful while working out practical strategies for peace.
Let me begin with a general statement valid in any part of the world today. We have been fed for over a century on philosophies of struggle (Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, propagators of the Fascist, Nazi and Communist ideologies and their milder versions, and various forms of nationalisms, 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. Young revolutionaries find words like these of Marx and of other radical thinkers inspiring, “Far from opposing excesses, the vengeance of the people on hated individuals or attacks by the masses on buildings which arouse hateful memories, we must not only tolerate them, but even take the lead in them” (Wilson 250). There are milder versions of this theory, for example the one proposed by Fritz Fanon which says that for oppressed people violence was psychologically healthy and tactically sound!
In recent years, some Latin American Liberation theorists have proposed, “By commanding us to abandon neutrality, the gospel forces us to create enemies and combat them…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 142).
No wonder, then, that the fighter is the hero today, and the peacemaker is at most a ‘useful botheration’ or ‘unnecessary help’, who may be granted a minimum space grudgingly in our consciousness. Activities of such a harmless do-good-er do not get the headlines in the press or attract attention. 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, he is at his best. He emerges as a hero.
Consequently, we are beginning to forget that there are certain basic skills traditional 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 the opponent’s goal or at least some aspect of it, dialoguing, explaining, arguing amicably, negotiating, avoiding aggressive language, making a special effort to convince; yielding, conceding, tolerating, forgiving, coaxing, eliciting compliance, drawing people into accepting one’s own point of view, evoking collaboration, insisting on gentler solutions, and inviting compromise. So, the first learning I have acquired is that anyone who desires to be a peacemaker needs to unlearn some of the earlier mentioned skills of confrontation and develop the skills needed for reconciliation.
Causes of Conflicts
In this paper we are concentrating on experiences in peacemaking. Here we do not intend therefore to study exhaustively the reasons why conflicts arise. A generation ago tensions among people would have been described in ideological terms, today more in terms of ethnic, regional, national, religious, or community grievances. While contextual reasons may be different, human nature remains much the same in all situations. Experience shows that a society with a high proportion of young people (in most developing countries) is likely to have youthful energies that collide if they are not guided in a positive direction. State or nonstate actors having aggressive designs find it easy to mobilize supporters in a climate of exploding youth-energy when it is combined with land scarcity, joblessness, depressed wages and job competition. As a consequence there emerge a youth-dense street culture and gang formation. Youth tend to be idealistic, easily satisfied with peer approval, ready for risk-taking and naively accepting of ideological explanations. They take to the streets, positively demanding democracy, participation and inclusion; or negatively taking to what is known as terrorism. This could be one of the explanations for what is happening in West Asia.
Similarly, in many parts of Asia and Africa, migrations to each others’ areas during the colonial period have left behind several inter-ethnic problems. We are experiencing some of them in our region as well. The ‘sons of soil’ in many places show themselves very assertive. Of course, the rights of the indigenous people must surely be respected. However, if the immigrants learn to respect local concerns, integrate, develop peaceful habits, learn skills, contribute to economy, play complementary roles, and if the indigenous people avoid discrimination, both groups are going to gain. Tomorrow’s economy is going to be more knowledge-dependent and skill-dependent than land-dependent. That is why development of knowledge and skill (EDUCATION) will be of extreme importance during this critical period.
Almost all over Asia and Africa we notice internal migrations either to less populated areas of the same country or to cities, due to rural poverty. Most urban centres in the Third World are growing fast. There are also migrations to other countries due to weak national economy, natural or human disasters, or inter-community conflicts in weakly governed countries. All these migrations and inter-mixing of peoples affect ideologies, lifestyles, relationships, culture, social codes, religious trends, leading to situations of tension. There are no simple answers in such situations. All people of good will must come forward to help.
2. If, in an on-going conflict, 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, and that we have to take sides and fight to a finish… if this is our conviction, 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.
Let us begin by turning to one group who are making loud claims of fighting for justice for their own people and listening to them at length. When we have heard enough of them, let us turn to the other side. Surprisingly we will find that they too are waging a war in behalf of fairness to their community and their own set of interests. Both are fighting for justice, each community for its own version of it. Thus, perceptions of justice clash. When justice clashes with justice, the peacemaker finds himself in a helpless position. An important learning from experience, therefore, is that a peacemaker should be prepared to fail. For, it is going to be a mighty effort to sort out issues in such contexts. However, he should never give up; on the contrary, he should be doubly determined to make the additional effort that the situation calls for. Barack Obama argues convincingly that “we can constantly remake ourselves to fit our larger dreams”.
3. Another learning is this: you will not be in a position to initiate a reconciliation-dialogue with contending groups, unless you have a measure of sympathy for their cause in your heart. 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 them. Hasty condemnations will enrage them. Even if you believe that their claims are exaggerated, unless you 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 their approach to the problem, or at least some aspect of their cause, you will not be able even to initiate a dialogue.
But if you are 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, with caution, begin to respond. The same will be true of the other party as well. Neither group is asking you to condone their immoderation; they are asking you to understand how they felt compelled to go to such painful lengths to defend their cause. They are not asking you to say much, but to feel much. They are not asking you to appropriate their anger, but to experience their pain in the inhuman situation in which they have imprisoned themselves at the moment (which, of course, they themselves had a share in creating).
4. There is a fourth learning I would like to share with you: that there is a profound longing for peace even in the heart of the sternest combatant. But peace at what terms? At whose terms? Not certainly at the cost of their central interests. Not certainly at the price of having to compromise their honour or damage their image before their community or their peers. If the peacemaker wants to retain his credibility, it must be clear to the contestants that he is not going to sell out the gains they have made during a lengthy struggle, or compromise their future; that he understands that they were ‘compelled to resort to violence’ only because they wanted to convey a greatly needed message powerfully to the public in general, but more specially to their opponents.
Carl Jung once aid that the strongman must somewhere be weak, and the cleaver man must somewhere be stupid…otherwise it would not be true to reality. In the same way, the violent man must somewhere be peaceable. Even the fiercest fighters are looking forward to an era of peace. That is why they keep a little door open for the peacemaker, which they can snap shut any time they feel unsure. It is this hidden entry-point that the peacemaker tries to target. But often, sadly, that secret door remains bolted and barred for reasons of security. And a peacemaker has often to fall back on the unyielding stamina he has built up and profound convictions he has cultivated to persevere in his effort and inspire confidence in the combatants and their leaders.
5. The most important thing for the peacemaker is to make an acceptable presence in the subconscious of the warring groups. If he or the organization he represents is well known for their beneficent services and non-controversial activities among the communities in collision, the belligerents may turn to him/her as a peacemaker, or welcome him when he takes the initiative. His ability to build up confidence-generating relationships with the parties concerned is the key to his success. Even those who have been engaged in justice struggles need not consider themselves excluded from the privileged position of becoming peacemakers, if they have always taught non-violence, sought to be fair to all parties concerned, consistently avoided exaggerated ego-claims, have a special skill for establishing warm-hearted relationships with people and are known for their universal outlook on issues.
As he was fighting his first election Barack Obama insisted, “We have a stake in each other’s success”. He spoke of “a future in which the economy grows and prosperity is shared”.
6. The peacemaker begins by entering into relationship with the two groups in collision with all sincerity. If he/she presents himself as a self-appointed mediator or arbitrator, he/she will be rejected. Criticizing one party to the other is not the best way of proving his/her neutrality. A commitment to humanity that comes through in his words, deeds and relationships is far more convincing. This quality is far more important than some techniques that he has picked up in a recent conflict-management seminar. A universal outlook, a sensitivity to human pain no matter who suffers, a keen desire to come to the assistance of people in anxiety…these are some of the qualities that a citizen who wishes to become a peacemaker needs to cultivate.
7. While an inter-community battle is raging, bringing the ‘right’ people from the contending parties together for negotiations itself is an achievement. Now, who are the right people? It is not likely that the frontline fighters will come for peace-talks; their skills lie in another direction. It is not likely either that the war-hawks will deign to sit for dialogue. They have a vested interest in keeping the fires burning. I would describe the persons who matter in a peace-dialogue as “socially important people”: people who are respected in society, persons who are non-controversial; groups whose opinions have wide acceptability among both radicals and moderates. Such persons would be thinkers, writers, professors, speakers, social workers and people who inspire society with their charismatic leadership or prophetic utterances. One needs to be on the guard against self-interested or politically motivated people. They can pull the peace-initiative in the direction of their own interests. However, we cannot totally exclude anyone having an influence. But the type of assistance sought from each one may be different.
8. Always search for ‘effective persons’. Such persons during conflicts may not necessarily the ones whose names appear often in the press like politicians or bureaucrats, but they are those quiet and almost ‘invisible’ individuals who ‘think’ and provide a ‘philosophy for action’ in the context of the present conflict. It is they who propose the goals, it is their ideas that keep teams together. Some of them develop strategies, maintain public contacts, handle publicity, build an image for the group, maintain the stamina of the activists.
A leader of this definition may be an unimpressive figure, mild-looking and soft-spoken. But he is a perceptive person and has the confidence of the ‘militant boss’ and his confederates. In fact, the ‘big boss’ depends on his ideas. For, the doer is not always the thinker. The doer acts fast, but does not always reflect. So, after organizing a few agitations, he is exhausted; or after killing a few harmless people and inflicting severe injuries on the other party, runs short of ideas, and the entire movement fizzles out. It is the thinker that interprets history, constructs a theory, visualizes a future in order to sustain the movement. I am not referring necessarily to just one person. There may be many such people at different levels of the hierarchy scattered in the various units. Any movement needs a philosophy built by its own intellectuals.
It is not likely that you will easily get the key-thinkers of a fighting group to come to the negotiating-table. The next best thing to do is to draw those who are close to them; and the next best thing again is to get those who are close to those who are close to them. In other words, you may have to work through mediators, or at least such people, as you think, have some influence on the guiding-team in the organization. Though you have such ambitious plans to draw the most suitable persons, those who ultimately come for dialogue may be persons totally remote from the frontlines and the controlling machinery. But at least they should be persons respected in their own society. For, as long as they have the confidence of their communities, the message they approve will meet with some recognition in intended circles. In order to draw such persons to the dialogue-table it is very important to make direct contacts with them, and not limit yourself to sending out letters.
9. There are times when negotiators representing conflicting interests will feel unprepared to face each other directly in the first session of a meeting. Even after they arrive at the venue, they feel emotionally and mentally not yet ready for direct discussions. In which case, it would be best that each group spends some time in separate meetings to clarify and formulate their own two different points of view and get themselves ready for the inter-group negotiations. Social leaders who have taken up the mission of serving as peacemakers can play an important role by trying to motivate the participants to bring their utmost sincerity to the common effort. They can begin by making a passionate appeal for peace, basing themselves on arguments from human experience, philosophical reflection, wisdom of the ancients in their own respective societies, and the teaching from the scriptures of their religious traditions. Depending on the charism and the moral authority of the peace-initiators, a great measure of mental transformation takes place during such an exercise.
10. If ultimately the two groups are prepared to come together, I would suggest that the citizen-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, the normal processes of discussions and the practical side of the decisions to be taken, the better. But the temptation to win recognition is so great, that the peacemaker, if he happens to be successful at the first stage, rushes into the role of a mediator, arbitrator and judge. Even if the contestants agree to such an idea, it would be unwise to assume such roles. 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.
11. 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. Self-evident as it may seem, if you rush to conclusions insisting on compromise, quoting scriptures and adages, before the parties had enough time to think over and when the anger is still high, the pedagogic process you have started may be disturbed. It is far more profitable to draw their attention to the disastrous consequences of an on-going conflict.
You have to walk a long distance with them sharing the pain of their people. Only when they are mentally prepared to look for other solutions than violence, is it pedagogic to propose compromises. However, it is unwise for the peacemaker to over-insist on specific areas in which a compromise must be made. It is far better that they emerge from the participants’ lived-experience and agonizing search for a way out of the deadlock they are caught up in. Prodding compromises in the area of their central concerns will appear insensitive to them. What they themselves are willing to concede is a gift they make to the opponents with large-heartedness, to the future of their own community, to the cause of peace and to humanity. For believers, it is an unconditional gift to God.
Compromise is intimately linked to forgiveness. Reinhold Niebuhr has something interesting to say about forgiveness, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint; therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness” (Frost 146-7).
12. Often the persons you have invited for peace-negotiation have no authority to decide on issues in behalf of the two contending parties. But they can make recommendations. And if these are carefully phrased, well balanced and corresponding to realities and needs, they usually evoke a good response. The participants in this meeting can make an effort to organize similar meetings at local levels, try to create once again the same atmosphere and goodwill, and discuss the recommendations with others. 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 citizen-peacemaker need not necessarily be present at all. If in the process he is clean forgotten or marginalized, he should rejoice, for it is in the order of things that ultimately peace is restored to a community no matter who serves the cause and that it is done by the concerned people themselves.
13. It is an honour and a privilege for a committed citizen to get deeply involved in the cause of justice and truth, in the defense of the poor and the deprived, and in the cause of human rights. But he should avoid certain mistakes: making public statements without having studied the issues from different points of view, taking sides too fast and condemning in haste, alienating persons and communities to whom he has a responsibility, and similar things. It is not the humiliation of the wrong-doer that conscientious leaders aim at, but the change of heart and the transformation of society.
In the context of Northeast India, while it is easy enough for committed citizens to plunge into areas of education, health, development, research, peace, promotion of ethical values, one needs to exercise a great sense of responsibility when taking a stand on issues that are politically complex. A religious leader needs specially to be cautious. Hasty statement with scant respect for different communities can only be counter-productive. Of this we are sure, that religious leaders should make of their faith a spiritual resource for human betterment and an impetus towards a community’s Ultimate Destiny. It is for the religious leader to discern and decide before God in what manner he may come out directly into the public sphere with his/her prophetic utterances, gestures or actions. His own Church/religious body guides him in difficult situations.
14. Here is another learning. Violence is not broken by superior violence (e.g., terror against terrorism), but by another power, a tremendous capacity for suffering. If you wish to save the lives of others, be prepared for death. This is a teaching that Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were convinced of. Some persons in the groups that are in conflict may be seriously opposed to a peace-settlement. A section of the public may be suspicious of the peace-initiator’s motivations. Petty-minded officers may be jealous. Groups opposed to the activities of a particular community to which the peacemaker belongs (e.g., a Church, an NGO, an organization, a party) may be critical. There may be negative interpretations in the press. There may be repeated failures in the peace-promoting work itself. Cynicism against him may grow. The peacemaker is ready to go through any suffering.
Jomo Kenyatta once said, “One must learn to suffer and endure, to replant and rebuild, to move on again. And as with farms, so with politics, the practitioner must never lose faith” (Kenyatta, Suffering without Bitterness, p. vi).
15. 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. Their ears may be poisoned against him, his community 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 peacemaker’s initiatives and successes. He may feel left alone to struggle.
But even in the midst of troubles, he/she should hold his/her head high. He does not need to refute every charge and counter every opposition he faces. He could respond to those accusations with a simple explanation or even allow things to be said and events to flow to their natural conclusion. He could let people speak just as they wish for a while. But he should be honest and upright in his intent and ego-less in his service. He should never give up. His very non-resistance may bring about a reversal of the trend of criticisms and open the eyes of prejudiced people to the reality of things. And then, all of a sudden, quite unexpectedly the truth will reveal itself.
16. There are times when peace-negotiations cannot make headway because the contestants keep giving their own meaning to different words, e.g. justice, peace, democracy; or because they have their own manner of interpreting history and the immediate events, their own biased ways of defending their vested interests, their own strategies of making allegations, their own style of creating myths, their own skill for deceiving the public. For example, people who claim to be fighting to save their ethnic identity and cultural heritage, may, in fact may be building up their own machinery for collecting contribution from their people, levying ‘illegal taxes’ from ‘outsiders’, and incidently for keeping a channel of drug-trade open; persons leading a struggle for political privileges may merely be taking advantage of their own illiterate community and grass-root level activists. Despite all these weaknesses, at depth there is some measure of goodwill in everyone. The committed citizen who wishes to be a peacemaker keeps seeking to tap that measure of goodwill. He does not turn cynical, but tries to rescue people from their own inconsistencies.
We will do well to pay attention to the inconsistencies that take place in our lives as well. America’s early chronicles tell us a curious story. In 1890, during a struggle of the American government against native Indians which happened to take place during the Christmas season, bleeding bodies of Indian freedom fighters were brought into a candlelit church. Christmas greenery could be seen hanging from the open rafters. Close to the pulpit there was a crudely lettered banner on which were written these words, “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men”. The chronicler takes note that the wounded bodies gave a different message. Similar inconsistencies keep recurring in our own days too. Our life and performance may often be contradicting the principles we profess.
17. Often memories of historic injuries remain alive in people’s hearts, and negative stereotypes of each other may haunt the minds of the two contending groups. In such cases, every peace-agreement is a truce. Hostilities may be renewed at any time. But the inwardly committed peacemaker finds renewed strength and motivation in his personal convictions. He is ready to begin all over again. He gets busy with the healing of historic memories and the demolition of stereotypes one by one. For he believes in the justness of his cause and knows that ultimate success is his due. If he is believer, he sees God working out everything for good in every event of his life. We remember Martin Luther King’s speech about his dream, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and sons of former slaveholders will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood”. May be that dream found fulfillment in the victory of Barack Obama.
18. One last learning for the benefit of 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’…he will have absolute trust in the power of prayer. This is the source of his 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 and join hands together and strive on to create a better world. He remembers that peacemakers did not always succeed, that some lost their lives, and that their accounts often read like a tragic waste.
But he is sure that nothing is lost in God, that peace comes in its own good time, that there are many ways in which God makes people ‘beat their swords into ploughshares’. He is immensely happy if he plays a small and humble role in it.
- Experiences of Prophetic Peace-makers
May be at this stage, it is good to turn our attention to the inspiring examples of certain prophetic personalities who contributed a great deal to the cause of peace. In the 1980’s Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew his forces from Eastern Europe and told the West that he had deprived them of an enemy. Vajpayee’s bus trip to Lahore thrilled millions of Indians and Pakistanis and brought the nations closer. Everyone remembers Mahatma Gandhi’s message of non-violence, and the skill he manifested in struggling for justice for his people in the most peaceful manner. Following his example Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, and Aung San Suu Kyi adopted a peaceful style of dealing with complex social and political problems. Names like Vinoba Bhave and Baba Amte are remembered for their contribution to peace and service to deprived people. The Dalai Lama’s unfailing smile and stubborn refusal to hate his ‘enemy’ continue to inspire us. Albert Schweitzer used to say that all human beings “should sacrifice a portion of their own lives for others”. In that consists the chief secret of peace.
Every community has its own heroes/heroines of peace. It is good for each of them to keep alive the memories of such glorious persons for the rest of humanity and hold them up for imitation. This is done not with the intention of presenting them as superior to the heroes of any other community, but with an eagerness to share what is best in one’s tradition with everyone else. Hence, I conclude this paper making reference to a few committed citizens who were perfectly convinced that the core message of Jesus was about peace. It is also an invitation to the members of other communities to present to the world those prophetic persons in their own tradition who kept reminding their society of the need to work for peace.
The Gospel of Jesus does not speak of peace occasionally; peace is not just one of the themes among many others, but the central message and the chief concern of the entire Gospel. On nothing else does the Gospel speak more explicitly and more frequently than on peace. The committed citizens whom I am going to refer to were convinced Christians and they thought that following Jesus was identical with becoming peacemakers. Not forgetting that all human beings are easily inclined to anger, they would invite people to untrain themselves for war and violence. They would remember the prophecy of the great seer Isaiah, “Nation shall not lift sword against nation nor ever again be trained for war” (Is 2:4). They would take seriously the words of Jesus, “Peace I give you, my peace I leave with you” (Jn14:2),
Jomo Kenyatta was a hero of forgiveness. He said, “I myself suffered for long, but I promise you I am not bitter. I ask those of you who still have hatred in your hearts to cast it aside. We cannot build a happy and progressive nation as long as man harbours ill-feeling about the past” (Frost 155).
In recent times, Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest, emerged as a prophet of peace in the US. He kept challenging the conscience of the nation when his country was fighting a full-fledged war. He inspired hundreds of thousands of people to pursue the Christian vision of a world free of violence. Beginning with his opposition to the Vietnam War in 1968, he continued over a quarter of a century to remind his contemporaries of the disastrous consequences of War and Violence. He would passionately cry, “We are not allowed to kill innocent people. We are not allowed to be complicit in murder… It is terrible for me to live in a time where I have nothing to say to human beings except ‘Stop killing’… We are where we started. Thou shalt not kill; we are not allowed to kill. Everything today comes down to that … everything”.
Fr. Elias Chacour, who had lived through decades of violence in the state of Israel insistently tried to persuade his fellow Arabs of the futility of war, “We have tried violence. We have tried wars. We are sure that wars will bring wars…I am sure. It’s a vicious circle. It is the logic of violence. We know where violence leads. Even if we are not certain where we are going with non-violence, let us try it”.
It is unbelievable that so many of us can be passive and indifferent before the enormous human tragedy of ongoing violence in the world today. That is what made someone say, the indifference of good people is more shocking than the malice of evil-doers. We cannot remain uncommitted until we ourselves are direct victims. This is how Niemoeller, a Lutheran pastor, described his failure to respond to Hitler’s growing aggressiveness in time, “When the Nazis came to get the Communists, I was silent. When they came to get the Socialists, I was silent. When they came to get the Catholics, I was silent. When they came to get the Jews, I was silent. And when they came to get me, there was no one left to speak”. A powerful confession in all humility. He realized that non-involvement in peace efforts was complicity in violence.
The longer violence rages, the deeper the injury it inflicts on our collective psyche. Mac McCrackin, a Presbyterian minister, used to say, “The more the war goes on, the more vindictive it becomes. The means we use determine the ends we reach, and nothing has proven that so much as war. If you are defending human rights and life, then you shouldn’t get into a situation where you will destroy life. Not only will you fail to destroy the enemy of life, you will yourself become life’s enemy”.
Many have lost confidence in peace initiatives. So many peace talks have taken place. So many peace rallies have been held. But things have not got any better. We can be tempted to give up. There were times when Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, used to feel discouraged during his peaceful crusade against apartheid. He would say, “…sometimes there are moments when you are in the depths, or you have to say to God ‘God I am tired’. At those times I throw myself into the strain of faith, and I am carried in the prayers, and not just of those on earth”. How inspiring!
“We are tired of weapons and bullets”, a peasant wrote to the Catholic Archbishop Romero of San Salvador. “Our hunger is for justice, for food, medicine, education, and effective programmes of fair development”. Archbishop Romero, himself an ardent champion of justice for the poor, was never tired of repeating, “Violence resolves, nothing, violence is not Christian, not human”. However, once violence takes roots in a society, peacemaking becomes an uphill task. The path seems to lengthen the more you walk on it. You are more likely to see failure at every step than success. We have little choice. “The choice is between non-violence and non-existence”, as Martin Luther King once said. If we do not listen to the voice of wisdom and the whisper of our conscience, our worst fears will come true.
As things are today, fighters are many and peacemakers are few. But we continue to hold on to hope. As the Catholic Archbishop Dom Helder Camara of Recife and Olinda (Brazil) used to say, “Today, as always, humanity is led by minorities who hope against all hope, as Abraham did”. May be that is what the Joint Peace Team of Church leaders in Northeast India has been seeking to do. It has made a useful contribution to the cause peace in times of tension during the ethnic conflicts at Kokrajhar in 1996, at Churachandpur in 1997, and at Haflong and Diphu in 2003. However, we cannot really say that instances of direct ethnic conflicts have come down in the region. Thus the task is not over. Many tensions still remain. We need to trust in the strength of ideas, the persuasive power of that inner voicethat speaks to us, and in the help that comes from God. Public leaders are the custodians of a trust. Their mission is precisely this: give public utterance to the inner voice that speaks to everyone, saying, “God’s plan for humanity is Peace”.
I end this paper with an inspiring quotation from the well-known psychologist Freud, “The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing. Ultimately, after endlessly repeated rebuffs, it succeeds. This is one of the few points in which one may be optimistic about the future of mankind” (Sigmund Freud).
May the soft inner voice that prompts peace to us be announced on the housetops, and may joy and serenity return to the hills and valleys of Northeast India!
References and Other useful Readings
Der Post, Laurens van, the Night of the New Moon, Hogarth Press, 1970.
Donnelly, Doris, Putting Forgiveness into Practice, Argus Communications, USA, 1982, pp.ix-x)
Frost, Brian, The Politics of Peace, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1991
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander, Repentance and Self-Limitation of Nations, From Under Rubble, Collins, 1975, p.106).
Troyat, Henri, Tolstoy, Penguin, 1967
Wilson, Edmund, to the Finland Station, Macmillan, 1972
Other Inspiring Quotations
In a letter to the Viceroy, Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “I cannot intentionally hurt anything that lives, much less human beings. Even though they may do the greatest wrong to me and mine. Whilst, therefore, I hold the British rule to be a curse, I do not intend harm to a single Englishman or to any legitimate interest he may have in India” (Fischer, Life of Gandhi, pp. 280-1). He made friends among those he hurt (workers in the Lancashire cotton mills).
Kenyatta, “..We must also learn to forgive one another. There is no perfect society anywhere. Whether we are white, brown, or black, we are not angels. We are human beings, and as such are bound to make mistakes. But there is a great gift we can exercise, that is to forgive one another. If you have done harm to me, it is for me to forgive you. If I have done harm to you, it is for you to forgive me. All of us, white, brown and black, can work together to make this country great” (Frost 156).
Desmond Tutu, “We come here not to engage in recrimination, not to engage in accusation and counter-accusation… We come to stand under the judgement, all of us, of the cross of Christ… We must ourselves be reconciled. The victims of injustice and oppression must be ever ready to forgive. That is a gospel imperative. But those who have wronged must be ready to say, ‘We have hurt you by this injustice… We are sorry. Forgive us’. And the wronged must forgive” (Kenneth Kaunda, Kaunda on Violence, ed.Colin Moris, Collins, 1980).
„Sharing the faith implies no superiority complex. It does not stand for an eagerness to conquer. It does not take on a tone of triumphalism. Rather, it stands for your eagerness to serve. It proves that your love is genuine. You love God and his wonderful plan of salvation for humankind; and you love people and would like to share with them the greatest treasure you have. For this cause you are willing to lay down your life as well.“ (Christ in the village, Thomas Menamparampil, 2013).