God’s Rapid Response Team

Archbishop in TezpurIn the unsettled northeast of India, numerous rebel groups are fighting the army for political autonomy and financial sinecure. The only power respected by all sides is the Christian churches. In crisis situations, the Catholic archbishop Thomas Menamparampil brings an interdenominational peace team and rebels to the negotiation table.

By Michael Gleich
Photos: Anupam Nath/AP/Peace Counts

“All of us are imperfect,” says the Archbishop. “Before we find fault with someone else it is good to look into ourselves and see whether we are equally at fault. I may be guilty of anger or unreasonableness, the very faults I find in others. I need to ask myself whether something of Saddam Hussein is also in me before I hasten to judge him. Where do I have to start, then? I must start with myself!” We are sitting in the rear of a cross-country vehicle. Our shoulders bump against each another while driving through tight curves. Sometimes the small man’s voice is drowned by the din of car horns outside. The archbishop is wearing a simple white cassock covered by a ruby-coloured cape. We are talking about the properties a person should possess when wishing to bring about peace. “One should know one’s own dark side,” says the Archbishop. “I must not be too quick to see the shadows in the others…even in the violent ones and those with weapons. If I take a negative view of others, it would merely create a distance between us. What I would like to do is to build up closeness with people so that I can listen, so that I can be heard.”

I am relieved to hear him speaking about his own limitations and weaknesses. Quite obviously, I was sitting next to a cleric who does not classify people as good or evil. He says it all starts with accepting oneself as one is, with all the unique differences. Acceptance, it turned out later, is one of Thomas Menamparampil’s formulas for success. In the course of 20 years, the archbishop, who is 78 years of age, has time and again succeeded at ending bloody conflicts in the northeast of India. For this commitment he has even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I would like him to explain which methods he applies. How do you succeed at bringing rebels together at a negotiating table? How does one moderate dialogues between enemies? Where do the solutions come from that are to be found not only on paper? It became a long interview, in steps. We talked while sitting on car seats, in the canteen of a school for the blind and also in the courtyard of a school for nuns, interrupted by a badminton match with novices. And, at the end, I also met his comrades for peace from the Joint Peace Mission Team, leaders of various Christian churches who go out together as soon as a conflict breaks out in any part of the region. God’s Rapid Response team.

Their services are urgently needed in the northeast of India, where numerous armed rebel groups are fighting for more political autonomy for their respective ethnic minorities. The eight federal states of the northeast are only connected with the motherland via a narrow corridor, the so-called “Chicken’s Neck”. It is an Indian enclave, which is encircled by Bhutan, Bangladesh, China and Burma and inhabited by 45 million people who do not look like most Indians in the mainland and are of Tibetan-Burmese descent. In the eyes of the central government, this has made them look suspicious and potentially disloyal since time immemorial. The situation there can best be compared with that of Tibet: in both cases, the occupying forces came from the outside, it is disputed as to whether the claim to power – here Delhis, there Pekings – is legitimate, resistance groups are forcibly suppressed and martial law prevails. However, unlike the situation in Tibet, where the world is watching, India’s backyard remains in the shadows of public notice.

The Joint Peace Mission Team came into existence in 1996 in response to a conflict between the Bodos and the Adivasis-Santhals which sent more than two hundred and fifty thousand people to take shelter in temporary relief camps. The Bodos are indigenous to the State of Assam while the latter communities had migrated to the region during the 19th and 20th centuries to as tea pickers. The dispute was sparked by perceived clash of land rights especially in forest-clearances, and also of political influence. Armed young men set the houses of opposing parties ablaze, ransacking entire villages and killing hundreds of innocent victims. About 250,000 people fled their homes to relief camps in panic.

Menamparampil, who at the time was the Archbishop of Guwahati, the capital city of Assam, rushed to visit the refugee camps. Many of his own flock had been affected. It was the monsoon season, the period of the heaviest rains. He saw the pitiful condition of 250,000 living in 42 separate camps spread over a vast area, with people using thatch or banana-leaves as roofs over their heads, hungry children moving round in slush and mud, helpless women unable to feed themselves or their children, and old men staring in despair. Sicknesses began to break out, and children to die.

A medically trained nun, after making a round of the camps reported to the Archbishop: “Most of the little ones will die.” The Archbishop says that those were the words that drove him to get directly involved. One cannot sit around and watch hundreds of babies dying! He had a whole lot of diocesan administrative work pending. But before a life-and-death situation he had to re-draw his priorities. He took his residence in the affected area to attend to the needs of people in 42 relief camps for 4 months. A team of 400 volunteers (including doctors and nurses) came from places as far as Mumbai and Pune and from the neighbourhood. The newly formed Government of Assam was caught unprepared when the tragedy took place. They welcomed the collaboration of Church leaders.

At the first stage what was urgently required were food and medical assistance. Church groups were rushing round with these assistances to more than 42 camps spread over an area some 100 kilometres square. Meeting some of the Church groups on the road, Archbishop Thomas suggested that amidst so much human suffering it is good that the Churches avoid any appearance of competition and join hands together to help to all people in need in a coordinated and even manner. The suggestion was gladly accepted by all the Church leaders without any hesitation. This was a great step forward and a significant change from an earlier tradition of uneasy relationship among the Churches. From that moment, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics and others began to work together for relief and in a complementary fashion. The difference in effectiveness was immediately noticed. The contribution of the Churches with food, medicines, clothes, house utensils, blankets, etc. turned out to be an impressive contribution at a moment when the Government machinery was experiencing great difficulties. Both the Governor and the Chief Minister of Assam thanked the Church organizations repeatedly for the invaluable assistance they were rendering.

It was at this stage that some of the people in the camps began to ask the Church teams whether they could do something for peace as well. The Church leaders had not thought of that possibility, since they were not sure whether their initiatives in that direction would find acceptance among the affected people most of whom were not Christians. When more and more people began to urge Archbishop Menamparampil to try initiating a peace process, he sounded the opinion of the other Church leaders. They were all enthusiastic. The Government was supportive. People expressed their willingness to cooperate. So, it turned out that this was the first peace initiative of the Joint Peace Mission Team of Northeast India.

However, it was not easy to bring representatives of the two communities in conflict to the negotiating table. The actual fighters would not readily think of giving up the fight. Politically motivated leaders would be more interested in profiting from the anger on both sides than solving the problem. The Archbishop suggested bringing together non-controversial leaders on either side, socially important people who are respected on both sides, whose opinion would carry weight even with actual combatants. Some people with vested interests like actual fighters or politically motivated individuals would make their way into the negotiating team and would insist on hard stands on either side. But the sobriety and balance of the other members whom the peace-team itself had chosen would help to of proposals for realistic solutions.

However, there is no denying the fact that there was accumulated anger both sides. What should the approach be? “We were meeting people with fresh psychological wounds. People whose close relatives had been killed and with friends who were suffering in the camps. Even though we had invited more moderate persons, many delegates were full of anger and hatred, people who were ready to kill a few on the other side and die” the Archbishop says.

“As part of our strategy, at the first stage we concentrate on anger-reduction”, says the Archbishop. “We listen and listen and listen. We have done this also in the camps during the relief operations. We do not judge. We do not preach when the anger is high; on the contrary, we show interest in the cause that inspires and motivates them, the injustice they say they are suffering from; we show sympathy for their actual grievances. Most of all, we try to enter into the people’s pain, their inner agony, their sense of loss of dear ones, of their house, their property”.

I do not consider listening to be highly spectacular. I expected the leader of a peace-team to be more active: with eminent skills for reasoning, discussing, negotiating; in other words, a man of action. And now I hear that the strongest tool is compassionate presence. “Your presence itself must have a message” exclaims the Archbishop. “You will have to keep cool even if during the discussions a man jumps up and shouts: ‘for every one of us that they killed, I will shoot ten of them!’ Even in such occasions what I must try to do is to understand his inner pain than sit in judgement on his aggressive emotion.”

“I know it is not easy for me. But I also know that peacemaking has something to do with healing? Yes, listening without judging has healing power.” Of this the Archbishop is perfectly convinced. He considers that a hasty act of judgement can be an act of violence, because the person who judges places himself above the person who is judged. Menamparampil prefers to be considered wrong or ineffective for a while, to allow time for the person to feel guilty on his own. He elicits, as it were, self-accusation. And this happens too. “Someone breaks down when he meets with people of understanding and sympathy and confesses that he has been wrong all along. But immediately adds ‘But see what our opponents have done to us’, as though that justifies his violence. You may hear similar words from the other side too.” This strategy of leading to self-realization through empathy and open heartedness is what the Archbishop calls ‘the Pedagogy of persuasion’.

It is this proximity to the people “that gives Church leaders an advantage that administrators do not always have”. What the eternal diplomat does not say: this applies all the more to politicians and officials who are regarded as corrupt by the people and have lost all moral authority.

We are passing by the famous Umiam (Barapani) late that provides a wonderful scenery. The Archbishop takes up the theme of the dialogue between bitter combatants, “In most cases we have to begin by dealing with each group that has come for negotiation separately, about 30 each on either side. On the second or third day they may be in a mood to come together. But even then we have to be prepared for an unexpected outburst with someone exclaiming even as we reach conclusions ‘Do you think I have come to make peace here. I have come to fight’. It is not easy to cool down such a person’s anger. But since we have been concentrating at the first stage on dealing with emotions, anger, changing moods, and not on ideas and proposals, there are always some people in the group itself that can help us”.

As we drive ahead we notice that most parts of the Shillong-Guwahati road is rough and is being repaired. From time to time we are thrown up on our seats, as we land in ditches and drains. “When emotions are down,” says Menamparampil, “we can concentrate on real issues, and invite people to open up for an intelligent view of reality. This man, who wanted to kill ten but was given the space to express his outburst of rage, is a different person the following day.”

We are passing through areas that have witnessed many instances of violence. Thomas Menamparampil, a pastor, was dragged by circumstances to make himself a peace-negotiator. He has slowly adapted himself to this new role responding to the pressing challenges of the day. He sits bolt upright on the back seat during our conversation. When not speaking, he checks his emails on the tablet and smartphone. He is a wiry man, with decisive gestures and a concentrated manner of speaking, even after four hours of driving. Someone with a lot of stamina at 78. My ears are ringing from the curvy trip and the differences in altitude. We are coming from Shillong, a green city located at 1500m above sea level, where it becomes chilly at night, and are driving down toward dusty Guwahati, the city of two million inhabitants on the holy river of Brahmaputra, where tropical temperatures prevail.

The Archbishop continues, “The most important thing we do is ask just one question: ‘Will this manner of addressing your problems, the path of violence, help you? Will it help your cause? The law will be against you, the civil administration will be hard upon you, your opponents will be looking out for the earliest opportunity to hit you back. Your community may be strong in one place, but the others strong in another. You will be hit where you are weak. Your people may be well prepared at one moment, but not at another. Your children need to go to school; you will need to go the fields, to the market. Will this method of violence help you, help your cause, or help the future of your community, or will your movement lose its respectability before the public, lose its image, and fail to gain sympathy of society as a whole?’”

In this respect, Archbishop Thomas’s approach seems to differ a great deal from those adopted by other peace-makers in other parts of the world. He “We always invite the parties concerned to look to the future, to their common destiny, the inevitability of the fact that they will have to live side by side together also in the days come. We do not encourage them to look back and renew their painful memories, nor to assign responsibilities for the wrong done. We have not yet found our way to such excellent experiences as those of South Africa. We have only heard about them (the way of Truth and Reconciliation). We do not hold that those methods are wrong. But experience has taught us that referring to the past hastily or insensitively can hurt, and that old wounds can be renewed, mutual accusations may begin again. On the contrary, we have noticed that once the first stages of the dialogue are over through our help, people move on to the second stage on their own: self-accusation, apologies, repentance, asking pardon. The collective mood changes. Some come to the point of asking each other: ‘Why did we fight at all?’”

The strongest challenge that the Joint Peace Mission Team of Northeast India has found is to lead the parties in conflict to some measure of mutual accommodation. “Our peace-team never suggests the ultimate solutions. That is for the groups concerned to work out by themselves. We do not want either of the two groups to feel that we have betrayed their interests in some central concerns of theirs. We do not insist in which area each party should compromise. We may whisper, but it is they who decide. We do not ask them to be indifferent to their central concerns. That would be too much. Only they can decide where to make the compromise. We concentrate on trying to show that some form of compromise in certain areas of their life together is necessary, inevitable.”

The Archbishop feels that this is the toughest part of the dialogue. “Compromise is not easy”, he says. He knows from experience. Spokespersons from either side seek to make proposals. Some take a tough stand. Then, slowly, through general discussion proposals are re-worded, changed or rejected. New ideas are introduced, issues are thrashed out. “It is at this stage that we try to lead people to move on from emotions to reasonableness, realism, practicality, fruitfulness.”

Since the peace-team tries to draw people with moderate opinions into the discussions, great-minded persons who feel a responsibility for society for the future, some sort of consensus emerges. Among such persons the team includes people who ‘think’ and have a vision of the future, like teachers, professors, doctors, social workers. The Archbishops says usually what the groups come up with is an appeal, and a few mildly worded suggestions. They are so phrased as not to give the impression of imposing ideas or rules. In fact, they are meant to create a new mentality in the parties concerned, to invite people towards the development of a new attitude and a new set of relationships.

Now the stage has come for taking this appeal to the respective communities in the villages. “Experience shows,” says Menamparampil, “that anger in conflicting groups comes down a little when they hear that some of their members are going to meet at a peace-encounter. The anger comes down further when they hear that their representatives reached a few conclusions. If these men have been carefully chosen and are generally respected in society, their appeal carries a measure of moral weight.” The effort is often backed up with a peace-rally, occasionally a cultural programme together. These work like magic. Minds are transformed.

In spite of all this effort, the JPMT has found that peace does not come automatically. There are always people who would like to defeat a peace-initiative for their own interests. A single violent incident can set the clock back to where efforts began.

Meantime we have reached the plains of Assam, and we take a break. Via smartphone, the Archbishop organises a lunch in a school for nuns. In this manner he navigates through the network of his Church. While driving onto the courtyard, we are met by a choir of girls. While they are singing a polyphonic welcome, the man in the cassock closes his eyes. When the song ends, he says: “You know, peace is possible. Our contribution is small, but it is greatly needed. Something surprising happens all of a sudden, the mood changes, a sense of common belonging comes into existence, and then I know: God has wrought a miracle.”

This is the miracle that we were working for: No more killing; no more public hate-tirades, happy exchanges, common gatherings. It is over a period of time that people gradually begin to show their commitment to peace. Time heals emotions. Stray incidents are considered stray incidents. Normalcy returns.

The success of this first peace venture of the JPMT, made many people invite the team into other situations of conflict: Kuki-Paite , Dimasa-Hmar, Karbi-Kuki; Garo-Rabha, Naga-Adivasi and others. It is true, Church leaders are busy with their own pastoral duties, they cannot forget their communities and their assigned religious tasks. But they make themselves available to the best of their ability. “When peace returns to a situation,” the Archbishop says, “We feel rewarded. We do not worry about recognition, we do not worry about making our contribution widely known. People’s benefit is our reward.”

When I describe his work as arbitration, he vigorously wards off: “Our role is much more modest, humble. Our style is merely a pedagogy of persuasion. We do not pretend that our analysis of a situation is perfect nor that the solutions that we propose are the best. But we keep searching and learning from each other, changing our approaches, admitting defeat and waiting for a while; but never giving up. After all, every tribe has its own memories, its own interpretation of events, as also every country, and every civilization. There are over 300 tribes in the Northeast, that need to harmonize their interests and visions for the future. The trouble is that they know too little about the economy of the future and how to prepare themselves for it. The Church leaders only seek to help.”

Menamparampil is a man of words. He has written articles and books on culture, values, peace, prayer. His essays bear witness to great erudition and in his sermons he covers a broad range of topics. He says there is also a style that promotes peace both in negotiations and community relationships. He calls it “The soft language. We do not demand, we suggest, we whisper. We do not argue but rather say: can you imagine that …. We do not provide answers but ask questions and elicit reflection.” Will that suffice? Yes, says the Archbishop, the soft breaks the hard. Words should flow like water. Soft but healing. Going around resistances. Taking all participants along on the journey. Buddha used to ask questions, Socrates too. Did not Jesus himself elicit answers from stubborn hearts?

Inter-community troubles are not new in the Northeast. “We do not want to renew old wounds. What is important is to develop a new vision within the changing scenario: the new economy, migrations, inter-mixing of people, people shifting from agriculture to other occupations, shifting political equations, equipping people for new jobs, preparing the rising generation for a transformed tomorrow.” People from the Northeast will have to make a future in other parts of the country as well. They need prepare themselves for the future shape of things.

At every stage the Archbishop has emphasized that the JPMT has avoided issues that are politically loaded, and worked for peace among tribal communities. When any community sought to strengthen their political demands (for a district, state, or even independence) with violent activities the peace-team has limited itself to urging a democratic approach and non-violent ways. The Archbishop says that they never intended to emerge as another power-centre in competition with the civil authority nor other NGO’s. “We happily work with everyone in the same field of activities, we never claim to be more effective or more successful than others. We always compliment others’ achievements. But everyone knows that our contribution will surely be there”

The Archbishop leads me into his office. He loves books. It is more like a library with seating. A blanket protects the desk against dust during his absence. He admits that peace-making is not his central work; it is praying and preaching. He was pulled into this work of peace-initiatives and is happy that he has contributed in a small measure: lives have been saved, normalcy has returned to tense situations. He likes to remember the risks he has taken on occasions. He pulls open a drawer. Among other holy objects he has preserved a bullet that could have killed him during one of his peace negotiations, or it could have killed some other innocent person. “I picked it up from the courtyard of the house where I had stayed previous night.” He keeps it as a relic to remember innocent people who lost their lives in that conflict.

When asked whether a religious appeal plays a role during peace-negotiations, Archbishop makes a distinction. In cases when the representatives of the groups in conflict are of various religious loyalties one needs to be careful about hastily introducing religious themes. The initiative must not look too sectarian or part of a proselytization effort. “In mixed groups, we appeal to their concern for the common good, sense of fairness, eagerness for a happy future. In India, a religious appeal in a non-sectarian way is generally welcome. If the two groups happen to be Christians, the Church leaders spend considerable amount of time basing their arguments on the evangelical message and leading them in prayer. It is unfortunately true, even people who believe in Christ’s message of love fight, but they can also be led to reconciliation.”

“Yes, it is indeed Faith that sustains the peace-worker. I have noticed that Church leaders with spiritual resources are most committed to taking risks in the cause of peace. They remain, steady, consistent. They persevere in spite of difficulties. They do not go into despair because of misunderstandings, slow success, lack of success, or repeated failures.”

Thomas Menamparampil insists that it is faith that enables the peace-maker to see goodness in the other person, other people, even in the wrong-doer; in a bad situation. A person of faith in fact sees goodness in all Creation, in the natural processes, in all mankind, in human processes, in social evolution. The Archbishop points to a life-sized image of Jesus on the wall, saying, “He is a daily challenge for me. He took on himself the suffering of the world, the agony of humanity. I want to be near him in this respect too; I want to share his burden a little, to the best of my ability. Such a thought provides me the strongest motivation, motivation that renews itself again and again. I must transform this suffering into action, into concrete commitment.”

He says he finds inner peace in prayer and closeness to God. This is what he calls the ‘Mysticism of the Brief Moment’, short raising of one’s mind to God in the context of active service to his people. “Interacting with peace-loving persons also helps to recharge my batteries”, he says. “We must notice Christ active in human beings of creative thinking and committed living as well, no matter to what convictions they belong. I call it ‘Christ in Action’.”

Menamparampil says, he greatly desired to become a missionary from the time he was very young. For him, it meant continuing the work of love that Jesus initiated. He was the oldest of twelve siblings, one of them became a nun and two others priests. He credits his father with showing him how to meet people without passing judgment on them: “I never heard my father speak of others in a derogatory manner, neither about trouble-makers in the village nor about people of another religion.”

And yet we must admit that it is difficult not to judge others, especially when we find them at serious fault. Thomas Menamparampil sees himself as a ‘missionary’, nothing more; but not as one who threatens people of other convictions with fire and brimstone. All he claims to do is to keep trying to do what is good. He knows he fails often. He points out how even St. Paul admitted : ‘I do not do the good that I want to do, but find myself doing the evil that I do not want.” Contradictions, says the archbishop, are a part of being human. But sincere effort should never be missing.

The Archbishop insists strongly that vanity is the greatest danger to a peacemaker. If you push yourself into the foreground and try to display your skill as an outstanding strategist with ingenious remarks and cute decisions, you jeopardise everything. While it is true that Thomas Menamparampil is not devoid of pride when looking at what he has achieved− without being asked, he tells me about the 50 schools and 5 hospitals he has founded in the course of his Episcopal ministry, seeing them as symbols and instruments of peace and also fruits of peace− his colleagues in the peace team describe him as “exceptionally humble and serving” during negotiations. He is extremely grateful to his team members, leaders of the various Churches in Northeast India, for their sense of unity among themselves that they have built up and their commitment. He seeks no special recognition independently of them.

However, he emphasizes, that successes can last only if the peace-makers do not claim the glory for the peace that has come as though it came from themselves, but the members of the conflicting parties feel that it was through their effort that peace has come. Only then can they call the peace their own, they develop a vested interest in peace, they gain a good standing with their own people back home, who still have to be convinced.

After the harassment of Christians in Orissa a couple of years ago, the JPMT visited the communities and camps and organized a three-day peace-training course for the youth of Khondmal area (Orissa). The programme was much appreciated. “Groups in Sri Lanka also have been inviting us to come to their place to conduct a programme on ‘healing of memories’. We do not feel confident to undertake such a bold initiative for reasons of distance, travelling expenses, lack of acquaintance with the local language and culture.”

The Archbishop takes me along to one of the meetings of the Joint Peace Mission team at the Baptist Mission. Menamparampil, who is Catholic, seems to be perfectly at home in this ecumenical setting. Today he is leading the meeting. Apart from his experience, his age also gives him authority, as seniority is respected in India. The topic under discussion is the current conflict in the border between Assam and Nagaland. These two states are unable to reach an agreement regarding the actual location of the border. This is a dispute that dates back to the 1960s.

A few months ago a serious conflict took place on those bordrs. Fourteen villages were destroyed, the livestock were driven away, eleven people were killed, and about 10,000 fled their villages. The Archbishop and his team rushed to the place of conflict at an early date. Upon his return, he says: “When political leaders clash, it is the simple people who suffer.” The Churches are doing relief work. Most severely affected, once again, are the Adivasis, the indigenous communities of India, but also the Nepali immigrants and members of the Bodo community.

“The most important thing now,” says the Archbishop to his colleagues, who are deliberating on a united approach over a cup of tea and biscuits, “is to handle the problem within limits of the present conflict area by getting the local leaders involved. Or else it may spread and go completely out of hand.” He uses the image of a rubber band: if people pull it in all directions, the conflict will grow and have disastrous consequences. Grievances are local, but vested interests can turn them into an inter-tribal conflict: the Nagas against the Adivasis. This must be prevented.

After the meeting, I ask the Archbishop whether there will ever be lasting peace in Northeast India. “In these fast changing times it is difficult to say. That is why the peace-maker has to be like a musician who plays by the ear. There is not likely to be a script in the near future.” The peace-team responds to actual needs, adapts its strategies to the occasion, speaks in united voice transcending confessional borders. As for getting the larger civil society involved, the Church leaders say they do what is possible at a given time, but take care not to get directly involved in the political dimensions.

Upon parting, though a notorious optimist, the Archbishop says: “No doubt, we will still have to go out on our mission many more times.”