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Conflict as Communal Violence; Conflict as Gift

6 years ago
Assam Political Map

In this, my first time in India since I spent part of a term here during post-graduate coursework 26 years ago, I am working in Assam with five tribal groups in conflict, part of a persistent pattern of apparently intractable violence.  In 2004, as then-staff of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, I attempted to join other colleagues who had been working with members of Naga insurgency movements in their struggle for intra-Naga reconciliation – but visas for that part of the country were hard to come by then.  What follows is the first of several reflections on our work together.

The photographs are graphic.  Four young men are stretched out on cots, the hair of each matted in blood, their heads resting in blackening pools against white sheets. They are Bodo youths, brutally ‘hacked to death’, says Upendra Narjinary (a pseudonym), by Bengali-speaking Muslim ‘miscreants’.  Their July 2012 killings sparked multiple clashes in Kokrajhar District of Assam, escalating from village to village and resulting in almost one hundred people killed, 400,000 displaced, entire villages razed to the ground, with echoes as far away as Mumbai, with violent protests against what was seen as anti-Muslim hatred.  Tens of thousands remain in 238 squalid camps, despite high-profile visits a year ago by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, high level government ministers, Bharatiya Janata and Congress party leaders, L.K. Advani and Sonia Gandhi, respectively.

Bodo village burned

While the Bodos feel the threat of the loss of their land to what they see as illegal migration across porous borders with Bhutan and Bangladesh, the Bengali-speaking Muslims are claiming their heritage as pre-partition citizens and refuting accusations of lynching, arson and forced displacement – pointing to a ‘third party force’, the shadowy RSS and its various agents and lackeys, as instigators and beneficiaries of ongoing inter-tribal violence.  But they’re not here to speak their piece.

Assam training

While one Muslim had signalled his intention to come to this training in ‘Conflict Transformation and Peace-building in North East India’, he does not show.  Perhaps just as well. His voice would have been lost in these presentations qualified late in the training by one of the seminary prof participants as ‘one-sided’. This is now an all-Christian group and an all-tribal group.  Not only that, it is an all-male group.

The group divides into pairs, each with someone they do not know or know well.  Over the next several minutes, they listen to one another talking about themselves, where they’re from, their tribe – and something they enjoy doing that isn’t work – in preparation to introduce the other.  To much hilarity, they then take up paper and magic marker to draw a picture of the other – with their non-dominant hand.  Introductions take awhile as the men wade into these waters of experiential learning, laughing, suffering the correction of their indignant partner, adding details, adding credentials, that seem important in this room of belligerent parties.

workshop participants share outcomes

‘So why did we do it this way?’ asks the trainer.  ‘Wouldn’t it be easier just to introduce ourselves? ‘

‘We had to sit with a stranger.  Maybe even our enemy,’ ventures one brave soul.

‘We had to listen. And sometimes we didn’t get it right!’  More laughter.

And what about the laughter?  What does it do to us, to our bodies; did you notice?


soldiers with weapons

Another resource person come to offer his views, speaks of the ‘non-existent’ conflict between the Rengma Nagas of Karabi Anglong and what he calls the ‘down-trodden, poverty-stricken, confused’ Karbis.  Though the Rengmas have been agitating for their own district in Nagaland and the Karbis have received a fraction of the funds from Delhi needed to provide the most basic of infrastructure, health care and education and both have formed insurgency movements to protect their land ‘from time immemorial’, our speaker focusses more on the impact of ‘mind control’ and manipulation on the part of poorly-paid journalists subject to persuasion from – a ‘third party’ force.

Emzara - a small statue on a makeshift altar.

In June the press reported that the Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers had issued an ultimatum to the Naga Rengma Hills Protection Force, demanding that they surrender, handing over all arms and ammunition by 6 July and agreeing to support the former’s demands for statehood.  The result was fear-filled flight into relief camps.  In the meantime, the federal government has begun to convert a 1600-kilometre strip of Karbi Anglong land into tiger reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and elephant corridors.  Delhi has not sought free, prior and informed consent and thousands of villages are watching initial waves of relocation from traditional territory.


Emzara was carved in the Philippines, but I have given her a North African name, meaning Mother of Life.   She is kneeling, weeping, praying – and she is expecting.  I introduce her to this group of 35 men:  she is you; you are Emzara.  You are pregnant.  With my hands I describe a round, protruding belly and affect a late-term waddle around the circle, making eye contact as I go.  Looks are exchanged across the circle; some nervous giggles.  You are pregnant; I am just your midwife.  What issues from this belongs to you; the DNA is yours, not mine.  Yes, I have an important role to play in helping us to create the space to do risky things, space in which labour can happen. But the child is yours because the labour has been yours, the wisdom gestating for a very long time.

Though I think I have done my homework for this, my second trip to India after 26 years (the first time during my MDiv coursework), I am struggling to keep up with the acronyms, the political and legal structures that were meant to be a boon to this excluded, ignored-by-the-Raj part of India, the overlapping narratives of ethnic-based struggles for rights, for services, for land, for representation, for a voice, for power.

houses on fire

Phengpiga is particularly intrigued by Emzara, placing her on the floor in order to get a good photo of her.  He is Rengma. Brilliantly articulate, he is willing to take risks, to volunteer, to role-play way outside his comfort zone, to volunteer – in a culture where to do so is regarded as self-promotion and arrogance.


whiteboard for training

The Garos and the Rhabas occupy both sides of the Assam-Megalaya border. The Rabhas of Assam are politically organised under the 1952 Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution – which accords limited autonomy to the hill tribes of the North East.  Each scheduled tribe is then granted political power through the creation of Autonomous District Councils.  The Rabhas of Megalaya, however, do not have such status and have been agitating for change, frequently calling for bandh – a much-feared form of political protest, the greatest brunt of which is borne by transit workers, small business owners and shopkeepers who are expected, like everyone else, to withdraw their services in response to the call, to stay at home.  Recent bandhs have often turned violent as organisers set opposing tribes’ businesses on fire, stoned non-compliant workers or faced phalanxes of police.  The Garos have opposed the Rhabas’ demands at least partly because of their methods, with blockades cutting off Garos from Garos.


What is conflict?  What words come to mind when you think of the word, ‘conflict’?  The words fly across the circle:  Hatred.  Anger.  Misunderstanding.  Fighting.  Damage.  Isolated.  Mistrust.  War.  Violence. Enemies. What do these words all have in common?  The answer comes quickly:   They are all negative.  But isn’t conflict more than that?  An indicator of something that needs addressing, a wrong in need of righting, an opportunity, a gift.  It invites us into curiosity – to wonder why; compassion – to ask the question; courage to hear the answer.  It invites us into self- and other-awareness, into the possibility for transformative relationships.  It invites us onto Holy Ground.


The Garos and the Rhabas occupy both sides of the Assam-Megalaya border. The Rabhas of Assam are politically organised under the 1952 Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution – which accords limited autonomy to the hill tribes of the North East.  Each scheduled tribe is then granted political power through the creation of Autonomous District Councils.  The Rabhas of Megalaya, however, do not have such status and have been agitating for change, frequently calling for bandh – a much-feared form of political protest, the greatest brunt of which is borne by transit workers, small business owners and shopkeepers who are expected, like everyone else, to withdraw their services in response to the call, to stay at home.  Recent bandhs have often turned violent as organisers set opposing tribes’ businesses on fire, stoned non-compliant workers or faced phalanxes of police.  The Garos have opposed the Rhabas’ demands at least partly because of their methods, with blockades cutting off Garos from Garos.


What is conflict?  What words come to mind when you think of the word, ‘conflict’?  The words fly across the circle:  Hatred.  Anger.  Misunderstanding.  Fighting.  Damage.  Isolated.  Mistrust.  War.  Violence. Enemies. What do these words all have in common?  The answer comes quickly:   They are all negative.  But isn’t conflict more than that?  An indicator of something that needs addressing, a wrong in need of righting, an opportunity, a gift.  It invites us into curiosity – to wonder why; compassion – to ask the question; courage to hear the answer.  It invites us into self- and other-awareness, into the possibility for transformative relationships.  It invites us onto Holy Ground.

There is a dialectic going on in here, a flow, an ebb and flow – at one moment, the room seems stricken with griefs and grievances; faces manifest the impact of the charge or insult, no matter how gently lobbed; at the next, the seating arrangements to which they keep returning for safety and the distance they represent dissolve into the single Mongolian village they also understand themselves to be.

Later, out on the basketball court, they line up along one edge, 18 on each team, strategizing for the ‘ankle walk’:  all eighteen will move across the court to the other side, their ankles touching that of their neighbours at all times! The mid-morning sun is blocked by the boys’ hostel, leaving the court in merciful shade. Their plans in place, a few practice runs attempted, they return to their line.  One, two, three:  Go!  Eighteen men each, their arms linked over the shoulders of the one next to them, concentrating, laughing – and team one gets sent back to the starting line:  some ankles became disconnected!  Team two is making steady progress across the court – and using a novel method:  with Panger calling out one, two, three, four, five… at even intervals, all 18 men are jumping in tandem, somehow keeping ankles together across divergent heights, weights and ages!  A shout goes up!  They have won. More dissolving happening, fluid, yielding to their common humanity.

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