Friday, October 31, 2008

spider and building peace - some reflections

1 November 2008

i took this picture in Karbi Anglong, an autonomous hill district in Assam, India. It reminded me of what John Paul Lederach was teaching about the need to learn from spiders' ability to design and innovate its web-weaving based on the context, coordinates etc.

The context of the work in Karbi Anglong was widespread rumors of impending inter-community attacks, which reminded people of their previous losses, their vulnerabilities and the insecurities experienced first in 2003 followed by almost yearly disturbances. In the area i visited many indigenous tribal communities such as Karbi, Dimasa, Boro, Garo, and Kuki reside and ethnic tensions is fairly a new phenomenon. Some analysts feel that "access and control" over the bio-diversity rich and fertile land as one of the key element of the conflicts in Karbi Anglong.

After several years of mass mobilizations for autonomy, and some years of armed struggle from among the Karbi and Dimasa communities, a new district emerged from the state of Assam. Armed groups still operate in the district and some have ceasefire agreements with Government of India. According to a recent study, Karbi Anglong ranks 23rd among the 23 districts of Assam in terms of poverty. i was shocked by the statistics and ranking. It brought back memories of stories of Amazon, other tropical forests and people residing in them. i began to wonder how is it that people who own these forests, the bio-diversity rich land and water resources came to be classified among the poorest.

i ask myself, "How is it that economic models and development models deny the rich tribals who live in ancestral domain end up sacrifcing the most precious of their resources to predators who strip them, mine them, pillage them and refuse to share benefits? How is it that they are legally stripped of their rights and entitlements? And a bigger question formed in my mind... Is it possible that what might be legal may not be always operate on priniciples of justice? What name do we have for such laws and such legal stuff?

Widespread corruption, deception and manipulation in the past has led to illegal land transfers from tribals to non-tribals (something that is proscribed by the Indian Constitution) over several decades, silently. Some argue that the rise of awareness about their rights, popular mobilizations for the protection of their rights as one of the triggering factors for third forces to create civil strife, leading to fractures in well-cemented relationships between communities spilling into violence and causing displacement from their lands. The relief and rehabilitation packages have been critiqued for being unjust in the sense that people who owned large tracts of forests and lands have after the conflict - been reduced to settling into small plots and farming on a few acres of land.

It is against this backdrop that the inter-community conflicts play out quite often displacing thousands of families, who fear to return to their ancestral domain after the violence. Cross-community relationships have eroded and inability to trust neighbors for security is a current issue. Unconformed reports from media professionals indicate that both the army and police have amongst them trouble-mongers who have been part of rumor peddling between villages about impending attacks. What was amazing was that the villagers were able to call the bluff in time, but only time will tell which villages will succumb to the rumors and arm themselves against another community. Another unconfirmed report suggests that the police which called for a "peace-committee meeting" ridiculed the villagers of coming to the meeting un-armed. They were asked sarcastically by one of the police officers if they had come to sing bhajans (hymns).

Against the backdrop of communal violence that is rampant in different parts of India, the presence of "communal" elements within the state's armed forces, police and administration is a big worrisome reality. This gave rise to another question, "What do we call such people who are part of the Adminstration, Police and Armed Forces who act with bias, are willing to see several thousands homless and destitute, for whatever gains they have in mind?"

In such a context as a peace-builder i begin to ask myself, "What coordinates are key, to work in such a context? What pedagogy will be effective in transforming the hearts and minds of those who are willing to abuse power and predate on people whom they were entrusted to protect and serve?

It has been my experience that there are many sincere, hard-working and socially useful and productive men and women who are honest and committed in all arms of the state, but there is sufficient evidence emerging that the states arms do have elements within it - actors (individual, groups or cartels) who are often motivated by greed for accumulation, entrenching themselves in positions of power and privilege that reminds one of the feudal past that preceded our transformation into a independent, democratic republic, with parliamentary democracy and all the procedures that come with it to ensure that elected and recruited members function to protect and serve the people.

Yesterday there were talks of "Right to Recall" as a means to pull out an elected member for failing to honor the commitments made to the state and people - failing to do the job one was elected to serve. Though Shashi Tharoor felt it would bring chaos, there were other luminaries with abundant experience from legislature and judiciary who felt that with some adaptations a suitable model will definitely assist in transforming the politics. On the Judiciary side the existence of colonial legacies of vacations, not filling up the positions, not creating enough mechanisms and resources has led to crores of cases in District Courts, lakhs of cases in High Courts, and tens of thousands cases in the Supreme Court. This gross inefficiency or lack of capacity to process all the cases is a big hindrance that makes millions of people in this country experiencing justice.

Another trend in the field of politics is the communalization and creation of enclaves and ghettos which has become the most favored approach among some actors in administration and legislature and it seems to be penetrating into the Armed Forces too (as recent investigations into some terror attacks indicate). Transforming politics, administration and military as well the civil society and regulatory institutions, businesses and public institutions is a felt need to overcome some of the crises that have been traumatizing the sub-continent.

It is in this context that peace-builders work along with social workers, development workers, human rights activists, social movement activists, religious institutions and actors, public-minded intellectuals, cultural activists, alter-globalization activists and theorists, and those working for transformation of societies and world so we can experience some equity, equality, freedoms, rights, respect, tolerance, justice, peace, and harmony. It is our right to taste such an experience. It may need much sustained efforts on all our parts but unless we do something about it, we are only contributing further to the problem by being silent or intellectually dishonest. If we are unable to read the signs of time and weave what must be woven with full awareness that a more peaceful and just world in not only possible or desirable but is the norm that must be established if we are to get off the slippery slope we are on.

the spider can inspire us to begin weaving our little webs, by teaching us how to take the terrain, formation, conditions, and functional requirements when designing its web. though complex its simplicity and functionality is admirable and i feel that John Paul Lederach had something going when he shared about learning from spiders. i am glad that the experience in Karbi Anglong has given reference points, evidences, facts, perspectives, trends and observations to understand the power of imagination and practice of vocation.

i feel that i have taken a few steps towards integrating practice and scholarship and it is a fun road to walk. the biggest gifts on this road is meeting with many inspiring people be it women farmers, village leaders, mission home staff, peace activists, human rights activists, musicians, journalists, social workers and others who bear gifts of inspiration, nourishment and signboards of hope and assurance that we are on the right road. i am greatly indebted to staff of Kroc institute for providing the intellectual arena for excercising the mind to read, reflect on data, information, theories, inconsistencies, models, engagements with non-like minded people who are situated in different strata of societies and the world. And without the experience of living in peace-house 1 & 2, all the changes that are unfolding in and through me would not have been possible in such time-frames. Thanks to all who have been part of my growth as a practitioner-scholar and supporting me in walking this road.

a spider however insignificant to the common eyes sure can inspire as people who observe them and learn from such an experience. thanks Lederach.

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