#19 hope
Michael Gleich

God’s Rapid Response Team

Rebel groups in northeast India regularly clash. A supra-confessional peace team brings insurgents to the negotiating table.

The fury of the world, the archbishop says. It is a fury he wants to mitigate, to take on. But it is hard to know where to begin. “The best place to start is with myself, with my own faults. I have known hate, harboured prejudices against others, felt distrust. But before I accuse someone like Saddam Hussein, I have to ask myself: How are we similar?” It is a surprise to hear such unusual sentiments from a man of the church. We are tucked into the back seat of an SUV, our shoulders rub together when the driver takes a tight curve. Sometimes the cacophony of horns invades our space, drowning out the small man’s voice. The archbishop wears a simple, white cassock, topped with a burgundy stole draped over his shoulders. We talk about the skills a person needs to build peace. According to the archbishop, a peacemaker must know his or her own darkness. “Otherwise I can only see the shadows in others. In the aggressive people, the people bearing arms. This creates distance. I have to be close in order to listen. And to be heard.”

I am sharing a backseat with a man of the church who apparently does not divide the people of this world into good and bad. For him, accepting yourself, warts and all, is the most important first step. As we talk, I will come to realise that acceptance is one of Thomas Menamparampil’s recipes for success. For 20 years now, the 78-year-old archbishop and his comrades-in-peace have repeatedly managed to resolve bloody conflicts in northeast India. His efforts have even been honoured with a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. He has since retired, but he is still “Archbishop Thomas” to everyone who knows him.

I ask about his methods, his approach. How do you talk insurgents into coming to the table? How do you moderate dialogue between antagonists? How do you create solutions that are more than just words on paper? What starts as a conversation develops into long interview in stages. In the backseat of cars. In the cafeteria of a school for the blind. Interrupted by a badminton game with novices in the courtyard of a school for nuns. And a final meeting with his Joint Peace Mission Team members, the leaders of various Christian churches who take to the road when conflict breaks out. God’s rapid response team.

The central government has always viewed them with mistrust.

Their assistance is desperately needed in northeast India where a whole host of armed rebel groups are fighting for more autonomy for their respective ethnic groups. The issues at stake are land rights, job opportunities and political participation. The eight states that comprise northeast India are connected to the motherland by the narrow Siliguri Corridor known colloquially as “the Chicken’s Neck”. This small Indian enclave is bordered by Bhutan, Bangladesh, China and Burma and home to 45 million people, many with Tibetan and Burmese ethnic backgrounds, so they look different from their fellow Indians. The central government has always viewed them with mistrust, as potentially disloyal subjects. The situation in northeast India shares some similarities with Tibet. In both cases the occupiers came from outside, and the legitimacy of their claims to power – Delhi on the one hand, Beijing on the other – is controversial. Violence is used to quash rebel groups and martial law prevails. But unlike Tibet, the ongoing violence in India’s backyard takes place outside the public eye.

The archbishop and his Joint Peace Mission team first got involved in 1996. An open war had broken out between two tribes, the Bodo and the Santhal. The first were already living in the state of Assam when the second immigrated there over the course of the 19th and 20th century to earn a living picking tea. Land rights ignited the conflict, which also touched on political influence and financial sinecure. Armed groups set opposing villages on fire, plundered, and killed hundreds of innocent bystanders. 250,000 people fled their homes in panic.

Then the Bishop of Guwahati, Assam’s capital, Menamparampil visited the refugee camps. The rainy season had begun, and he saw old men crouching in the mud. He saw women who didn’t know where the next meal for their families was going to come from. He saw children wasting away. A nun told him, “Most of the little ones will not survive.” It was then, the archbishop recalls, that inspiration struck: Unity is the only way. He brought all the Christian churches together to form an alliance, something that had never been done before. Up to that point, every relief organisation had done its own thing in isolation, sometimes even working against each other. In a very short time, a few hundred volunteers heeded the archbishop’s call. Doctors, nurses, representatives of every denomination – Catholics, Baptists, Adventists – fell in behind Menamparampil and his rallying cry: cooperation, not competition! Every relief organisation did what they could do best: build houses, supply blankets, offer medical care. The man of the cloth did not yet realise that he had found his new calling.

“We are dealing with people with fresh wounds to their souls.”

The coordinated efforts bore fruit. Most of those involved in the conflict were Hindus, Animists, or Muslims, not Christians. 300 tribes call northeast India home, a confusing crazy quilt woven according to an ever-changing pattern of settlement areas, threads of alliance, and political colours. In an emergency, the churches proved the only power able to deal with the quilt as a whole. The volunteers quickly brought the untenable situation in the refugee camps under control. This initial successful mission won the consortium of churches the complete trust of both parties to the conflict.

Menamparampil and his team were asked to organise political negotiations. Assam’s minister president signalled his willingness to cooperate and support their efforts. Pastor as peacemaker? Thomas Menamparampil carefully began feeling his way into his new role. What approach should he take? Negotiation sounded rational and peaceful. “But we are dealing with people with fresh wounds to their souls. Their loved ones have been killed. Friends are suffering in the camps. Even if we invite the more moderate to participate, many representatives arrive full of rage and hate,” the archbishop says.

As we talk, he perches on the backseat, spine straight, posture perfect. He pauses in his narrative to check emails on his tablet and smartphone. A wiry man, his gestures firm and confident, focused as he speaks even after four hours in the car. A man with great staying power. The winding road and changes in altitude have already set my ears humming. We started in Shillong, a green city 1,500 metres above sea level where the nights are cool. We are driving down into dusty Guwahati, home to a million people along the banks of the holy Brahmputra River where tropical temperatures rule the day.

“I’ll shoot ten of them for every one of us they have killed!”

This is where the battling parties, the Bodos and Santhals, were invited to the table in 1996. 30 people from each side arrived in separate buses, spent the night in different hotels. Any interaction would have been too risky. Menamparampil’s team talked to just one side at a time. During these first tentative meetings, their central focus is on pouring oil on the troubled waters. Hate narrows the heart. Hate obscures the vision. Hate blocks the ears. How, though, do you get people to open up again? “Certainly not by telling them to just calm down.” Bottled-up feelings simply erupt later on; they need to be granted space for expression, to be explored.

The negotiations were balanced on a knife’s edge. In the conference room, a man jumped to his feet screaming: I’ll shoot ten of them for every one of us they have killed! Is this sort of reaction allowed, can it be incorporated into the process? “No matter how hard it is, I try to listen. To feel the pain expressed, to understand, to be there for them.” Is peace-making perhaps about healing? The archbishop reflects for a moment. “Yes, I think listening without passing judgement is about healing.” He judging others as a form of violence in which the person judging places himself above the person he judges. Menamparampil focuses on empathy instead, empathy and an open heart. He seeks to create close connections to the people involved, “in areas where we have skills no other stakeholder does.” Ever the diplomat, he refrains from mentioning that the politicians and civil servants involved are useless in this arena. The people of northeast India view them as corrupt, and they have lost any form of moral authority.

I find his response, his focus on just listening, a little disappointing. In my mind, heading up peace negotiations required a mover and a shaker, someone who presented arguments, drover discussion, suggested tactics. Now he tells me his most powerful tool is simply being present as an active listener. “Of course!” the archbishop says with enthusiasm and emphasis. “People feel taken seriously. Trust develops and they are more open to suggestions. They are willing to take an intelligent look at reality. The next day that same man who wanted to kill ten for every person he had lost, the man who was granted space for his fury, was like a completely different person.”

“Peace is possible, you know. Sometimes it requires a small contribution from us.”

He is very clear that there was no preaching involved. Very few of the Bodos and Santhals invited to attend the dialogue pray to a Christian god. The archbishop convinced his peace team to stick to an earthly message over the next few key days. Look inside, they urged those assembled, and look at what this war is costing you. What you have lost. Then they hinted at what might be gained if the killing stopped. Your markets could reopen; you could ride the same buses again; your children could walk to school safely. The team’s mission was not official. But all Assam held its breath, waiting to see if the dialogue succeeded. The representatives invited to attend were carefully selected and people the other side also respected. Doctors, teachers, social workers. The moderates whose voices those armed and intent on violence were still willing to listen to.

We take a break. In an example of how he navigates his church’s network, the archbishop has used his smartphone to organise lunch for us at a school for nuns. A girls’ choir is waiting for us as we pull into the courtyard. Their voices rise in harmony as they welcome us in song. Next to me, the man in the cassock closes his eyes. As the song ends, he says, “Peace is possible, you know. Sometimes it requires a small contribution from us. Sometimes something huge happens, and then I know God has sent us a miracle.”

Menamparampil is a creature of words. He has written a number of books, and his essays reveal just how well-read he is. His sermons address a wide range of topics, bridges of words spun to span chasms. He feels there is a language for peace negotiations that promotes understanding, what he calls “soft language”. “We don’t demand, we suggest. We don’t argue. Instead we say: could you imagine… We don’t provide answers, we ask questions.” But is it enough? Yes, the archbishop says with simple conviction. Softness breaks down the hardness. Words need to flow like water. Gentle, but strong enough to bear you along on their current. Seeking the path of least resistance, and bringing all the parties involved along in their wake.

So how exactly does the archbishop define success?

The negotiations between the Bodo and the Santhals were a trial by fire for the Peace Team. It learned how effective immediately solving the smaller problems can be. Like when the police arrested a dozen innocent members of a tribe. The archbishop took to his phone to arrange for their release. Respect for him increased among the emissaries of the Bodos and the Santhals gathered in the conference room.

After a negotiation marathon lasting days, the two parties agreed on a few first steps. The killing had to end, along with the public hate speeches. Everyone formed mixed teams to prepare the ground for peace. No contract or treaty was signed, but the pact still held. A few isolated incidents occurred over the next few years, but the open warfare was over.

Since then the archbishop and his fellow peacemakers’ reputations as people who can help restore peace has preceded them. Kuki against Paite, Dimasa against Hmar, Karbi against Kuki, the northeast is home to many trouble spots. The Joint Peace Mission Team (JPMT) deploys immediately every time and is often able to intervene successfully. So how exactly does the archbishop define success? “When both sides agree that our intervention was helpful after the fact, then we have done good work.”

He strongly refutes my use of the word arbitration though. “Our role is much more restrained.” An arbitrator analyses a conflict and suggests possible solutions. This doesn’t work at all in the splintered, fragmented landscape of northeast India. “If I interpret the conflict and its causes through my own lens, ten people who see it differently immediately turn against me. Every tribe has its own version of the truth.” Any analysis has to come from the people involved as part of the dialogue, as do suggestions that might result in positive movement towards peace.

He raises it to his lips and kisses it with reverence. “The bullet that spared me.”

The archbishop puts just as little stock in internationally praised truth and reconciliation commissions like in South Africa. “Here in the northeast, the roots of a conflict can go back centuries. There is a huge danger of reopening old and ancient wounds. So instead we encourage people to look to the future, to imagine a positive future. It has to be more attractive than continuing the fighting.” In a business context, this approach might be referred to as ‘expected profits’. Parties to a conflict need very real incentives to inspire them to shift their positions.

This is especially true in a region that is as fractured as northeast India and only linked to the rest of the country by a narrow corridor. People here look different too, their facial features more Chinese than typically Indian. At university in Delhi, young people from the region are subject to racial slurs like “Chinky”, bullied as “slant-eyed”, and not infrequently beaten. India views the eight states that make us the northeast and the 45 million people who live there as a far-off appendix, an afterthought. Critics even describe it as more of a colony whose loyalty to the state is questionable.

The archbishop takes me to his office, more like a library with a place to sit. A blanket serves as a dustcover for the desk. He pulls open a drawer in which a small box is nestled with a rosary and a simple wooden cross. He opens it and removes a bullet. “We were on the road, hoping to talk to the village elders, and suddenly found ourselves between the two fronts. There were gunfights, volleys of shots exchanged throughout the night. The house we sought refuge in was also attacked. I picked up one of the bullets the next morning.” He raises it to his lips and kisses it with reverence. “The bullet that spared me.” He cherishes it like a relic.

His work is also a source of strength.

Faith helps. I have travelled to a number of war-torn regions in recent years to document the work of peacemakers. I have noticed that many take their energy and power from a spiritual source. It helps them bounce back from the failures that are an unavoidable part of any effort to promote peaceful conflict resolution. They cultivate trust in a higher order, secure in the knowledge of the basic goodness of creation, and of people as well. Here Thomas Menamparampil is no different. He points to a life-sized image of Jesus hanging on the wall. “He challenges me each and every day. He took on the world’s suffering. I want to cultivate closeness. Bear a little of mankind’s burden. This provides me with a never-ending source of powerful motivation. I transform suffering into action, into concrete involvement.” He finds inner peace through prayer and meditation. His work is also a source of strength: “Working together with peace-loving people recharges me. I call it ‘Christ in action’.”

In his youth, he wanted to be a missionary. He is the oldest of twelve. One of his sisters became a nun, three brothers entered the priesthood. He credits his ability to interact with people without passing judgement to his father: “I never heard him be derogatory about people with addictions or from other religions.” Anyone who has ever seriously tried to separate what we see from how we see it knows how hard it is to refrain from judgement. Thomas Menamparampil sees himself as a man on a mission, but not one who vilifies the so-called unbelievers. His focus is on setting a good example, enticing people to join him in his efforts. He is the first to admit though that being and doing good does not always work as he would like it to. The archbishop finds some comfort in the words of Saint Paul: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” Contradictions are simply part of the human condition.

Eleven people were killed, around 10,000 forced to flee.

According to Thomas Menamparampil, vanity is the greatest hurdle a peacemaker must overcome. The process is put at risk by those who seek the limelight and strive to distinguish themselves for their brilliant ideas. He admits he is not completely devoid of pride in his own accomplishments. Unasked he tells me about the dozens of schools and hospitals he founded during his time in the church. But his fellow peacemakers in the Peace Team describe him as “exceptionally humble and serving” during negotiations. Their success can only endure if it is not attributed to the Peace Team, but rather the emissaries of the parties to the conflict. Then they can call peace their own and look good in the eyes of their people at home, who still need to be won over. An ideal result in a less than ideal world.

The archbishop takes me to a Peace Team briefing in the centre run by the Baptist church. Catholic Menamparampil seems right at home here. He is in charge of today’s meeting. Along with his experience, his age lends him a certain authority. Seniority counts for something in India.

The briefing covers the current conflict regarding the border between Assam and Nagaland. The two states cannot agree on what territory belongs to whom, a conflict that goes back to the sixties. Open fighting broke out two years ago. 14 villages were destroyed, the livestock driven off. Eleven people were killed, around 10,000 forced to flee. The archbishop immediately travelled to the refugee camps. When he returned, he said: “When political leaders clash, it is the simple folk who suffer.” The Adivasis, India’s indigenous people, have been the most negatively affected, though Nepalese immigrants and members of the Bodo tribe have not emerged unscathed.

Over tea and biscuits with his colleagues as they try to determine the best way to go forward, the archbishop says, “the most important thing right now is to limit the conflict geographically.” He uses a rubber band as a metaphor: If you pull on it from all sides, the problem simply expands and its impact widens. The problem may have originated as a dispute between two villages, but political interests could turn it into a tribal war. The Adivasi against the Bodo. This must be prevented at all cost. “Problems become small when you make them small,” Menamparampil says. The Peace Team decides to talk to the village chiefs and help them understand that their interests are different from the political agendas of those tugging at the rubber band from behind the scenes.

After the meeting, I ask the archbishop if there will ever be lasting peace in northeast India. It won’t be easy, he says. So many different groups who are splintered, divided, sworn enemies. The conflicts are complicated and entrenched. “If we were musicians, I would say we are playing it by ear, not following a written score.” The Peace Team responds when it is called, reforms according to the respective conflict, and speaks with one voice regardless of religious affiliation or creed. I ask why this is down to the churches and not the politicians. At this point, the clerics gathered around the table turn taciturn. They ask that I not quote them on any aspect of politics. They do not want to endanger their mission. It can only succeed if they remain strictly, steadfastly neutral.

Although he is a notorious eternal optimist, the archbishop sends me on my way with the words: “We will not run out of missions any time soon.”

Photo: Michael Gleich

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