North East India II: The Roots of Violence

Nov 4, 2013

Images of power are played out in body sculptures – one man lying on the ground, a second with one foot placed on the belly of the first; a third man is stand on a chair, his hands on the shoulder of the second.  How do you feel?  Who are you?

We’re tribals; we’re the one on the floor.  The one in the middle started the conflict and is pressured by the one above even as he puts pressure on the one below.  At the top are local and regional powers, including ‘third parties’, still willing to do the work of Empire, whether British or, as now, the invading, imperial, Aryan forces of Delhi, his hand on the ‘middle man’s’ shoulder, ordering, controlling the locals by proxy.  ‘Where does the real power exist?’  The one on top is not necessarily the most comfortable.  The face changes but the structure remains the same.  The one in the middle has his eye on a movement upwards.  As for the one on the bottom, it is on his body, his consent, that the whole structure is supported.  If he decides that this position is no longer in his interest and he moves, rolls out from underneath that foot, what happens?’

Rumours and Insults

non-violence training exercise

Keyhan has just told a story of a meeting of village Gaon Bara (headmen) which has been infiltrated by a journalist – the secrets of the meeting have been broadcast in the media and the group is angry, arming themselves reading to execute the infiltrator. Why is execution – or forced displacement or arson or bandh or bombings or massacre – considered useful in the multivalent struggles for land rights, political rights, cultural rights and a voice? Journalists are regarded poorly here, as vagrants and provocateurs, planting rumours, stirring up trouble, looking for the supplement to their eager income handed out by ‘third-party forces’:  how else to get at the power of the powerful but to eliminate their collaborators?

non-violence training workshop

Exclusion over inclusion

Our resource persons deliver long papers, occasionally stopping to inject colour commentary – ‘Of course, that one is not to be trusted:  He is ruled by his wife!’  ‘We are Mongolians,’ another insists loudly.  ‘Their fancy anthropologists may try and tell us that our language is Austral-Malay or something like that – but who cares!  We are talking about facts, not linguistic speculation:  we are Mongolians!  They are Aryans!’ 

Distinctions at every level are important in a constant struggle for one-upmanship.  By contrast, the messages elicited in the training’s experiential learning are creating bonds of shared struggle.  A game that has people ‘marked’ with stickers, their own ‘identity’ unknown to themselves, results in rich conversation about how we learn about identity, how we are taught to include and exclude.

Akum, for his part, indicates the power body sculpture to illustrate his point with respect to this own people: ‘For the Naga people, the bottom is the silent majority who want change but are not sure how to do it.  We know the power resides with the people but what is the first move?  This very structure is violent – and inherently unstable.   But we cannot resolve the injustice with which we live, we cannot do anything about the conflicts that divide us if we focus on our differences, exclusion over inclusion.’

Lateral Violence

Everyone seems to be talking the language of peace – from the top to the bottom:  peace talks, peace committees, peace peace but where’s the peace?  When the top is talking peace, it is usually meant to be directed at the bottom:  suffer peacefully, don’t wake up and everything will be peaceful.

Where does one intervene?  Bottom? Top? Middle?  Where do you begin the process of transformation?  And what concept of peace underlies your intervention? He draws a triangle, placing Delhi – the powers, including ‘third party forces’ – at the top.  At the bottom are representations of various tribal groups and organisations.  As long as the conflict happens horizontally, amongst these groups, one says, the real source of injustice and violence remains untouched, unchallenged.

Just outside the walls of this Christian mission compound, the air thrums with the rhythms, fragrances and colours of the Durga Puja festival.  The goddess is being paraded about in all of her manifestations accompanied by ancient rituals bent in recent years to commercial interests.  The music and ceaseless honking of vehicles – rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, lorries, taxis and private vehicles compete for the most colourful responses to the ubiquitous request to ‘please sound horn’! – will continue well into the night.

Missing Voices

Advice and plans to spend the week concentrating on listening and communication get lost in the urgency that pulsates in this room.  Passionate and compassionate listening to and playing with one another has issued in an audacious demand for action: they want action, they want structures and ideas to take back to their villages.  And so we move on, returning again to their real-life case studies, allowing them to give shape to the process of creating Peace Commissions that will be designed as permanent structures for violence de-escalation, conflict transformation, for building peace.

Who bears the impact of the violence and failed attempts at peace?   Who are those who make up the majority of those displaced, whose homes are razed, whose children are killed?  You are saying you want Free, Prior and Informed Consent before the government expropriates land for tiger reserves and elephant corridors; what about the free, prior and informed consent of all those affected by the violences of men?  Nothing about me without me, you say; how does that apply to your process of engagement with your own communities in the creation of bodies tasked with peacemaking?

Their designs gradually appear on the white boards and flipchart papers, this week of new ways and ideas giving way to well-practised ways and notions of who should be a part of this.  Their Peace Commissions are tied to a particular outcome (end illegal migration from Bangladesh, for example) and the people named are Christian and male – all of the village head men, Secretaries and Vice-secretaries of various NGOs, students, Autonomous District Councils, political leaders, church leaders, legal advisors; some of the groups add:  ‘representative from Women’s Council’.

Another design is brought alongside the ones they have created for comparison and discussion.  This one equally rooted in situations of protracted violence; also created with no reference to national and regional power structures.  Sponsorship for the structure is neutral, owing nothing to anybody.  A Process Committee is formed, its task to talk, engage, visit homes and institutions and ask questions.  Families, all members of families, are invited to present their views.  It takes time and it takes patience, stirring up real conversation between and amongst communities and community members, conversations that challenge traditional forms and structures of power, assuming ‘nothing about me without me’… Circles, rather than hierarchies take shape with outward-moving arrows of engagement and inward-moving arrows of feedback.  There is a buzz in the room as they compare and contrast.  The results are provocative:  the Process Committee appoints twenty people, half Karbi, half Rengma (or Garo and Rabha, Bodo and Muslim), half of each half are women, four are youth, four are elders, each of them accountable to circles of women, youth, elders, of organisations, political, religious and civic.  Information flows both ways, ensuring well-informed decision-making and decision-making that is tested in the concentric circles to which they are accountable.

Ahas! are going on around the room.  One says, This is not like a table of negotiation where only the interests of those at the table are heard and taken into account.  And often, he continues, they feel no responsibility to go back to the people, to both listen and to tell – the leaders/head are severed from the people/body.  We can sign all of the agreements we want – but people won’t go along with it because they have not been a part of it!  Another adds:  an informed citizenry can identify misrepresentation, censorship or misinformation!

We have role-played and laughed out loud, pushed and provoked, played games, experiential learning games that teach more from within than from without – teaching about inclusion and exclusion, the messages we receive about ourselves from our earliest moments, constructing us into what we become, convinced more of our uniquenesses than of our commonalities, of our superiorities than of our likenesses.   Before moving to final noticings and evaluation, there is time today for one more thing, not usually placed at the end:  a gender fishbowl!

The chairs are arranged in two concentric circles, the participants are numbered one or two.  One group fills the exterior circle, one the interior circle.  When it is explained to them how a gender fishbowl works – and that those in the middle are now cast as women!  a piece of news greeted with looks of surprise, discombobulation and laughter – they begin to answer the first of two questions:  What is the ideal woman in your culture?

Surprisingly, or perhaps not so much – as we have spent a week of profound exploration and questioning and relationship-building – several of the men take the lead in the familiar list of tasks expected of women around the world:  child-bearing and -caring, tending to the fields, fetching water, making meals, keeping house and children tidy and meeting the needs of the husband.  The ‘woman’ who is facilitating her ‘sisters’’ conversation – Tekka, by name – moves onto the next question, something like:  ‘Is there anything wrong with this picture?’

Two of them start off the complaints, escalating around the circle – beginning with having to carry the full load of house and children and then switching to a focus on being left out, decisions and actions that take place – whether in the family or the community or the tribe – without their being consulted.  Perfect.  But then one piously reminds her ‘sisters’ that the man is the head of the house and that our roles are complementary…  She gets some flak on that.

Before long, they shake themselves free of their roles and consider their words; the men on the outside offer their noticings and more ahas! register in faces around the circle.  They heard their sisters. A week ago, I walked this circle, as I have walked so many other circles, using the image of pregnancy and midwifery to clarify who was doing the labouring towards peace.  But this circle was not mixed, with women, mothers, onto whom the discomfiture of such a metaphor can be deflected.  Yet here we are, here they are, in labour.


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