Archbishop leads anger-reduction mission in riot torn Assam

GUWAHATI, (JPM)  “We stand here representing thousands of children who are weeping in relief-camps. They will grow up mentally disturbed. We will be doing irreparable harm to the next generation in leaving them in that condition. Accumulated anger will have consequences. Our challenge is to reduce the collective anger of communities. We should give ourselves over to a mission of anger-reduction”, said Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil as he was addressing more than 100 representatives of the Bodo and Muslim communities gathered in St.Anthony’s School hall at Gossaigaon on 22nd September 2012.

It was the first time that the representatives of the two combating groups could meet together in such significant numbers within the conflict area. Several leaders of the respective communities were present. The Joint Peace Mission Team (Guwahati) and Inter Church Peace Mission (Bongaigaon) had been busy on confidence-building efforts in order bring the communities together. The Civil Authorities appreciated these efforts and sent a small delegation.

What surprised the Peace Teams was the confidence and expectation with which the representatives came. Both the Bodos and Muslims were placing high hopes in these efforts. Even a larger number would have been ready to come. The Peace Teams preferred a smaller a number at least at the first stage in order to facilitate informal discussion.

The depression in the camp is acute. With too little protection under heavy rain, diseases are bound to break out. Deaths have been reported. But an atmosphere for return has not come yet. Hence confidence-building, anger-reduction, prejudice-reduction…these  are the needs of the hour, pointed out the leaders at the Gossaigaon meeting.

Bishop Thomas Pulloppillil of Bongaigaon welcomed the participants  and expressed the fond hope these efforts for peace will yield encouraging results.

Voicing the sentiments and mental agony of the victims, Professor Samsul Haque of Gossaigaon College who had spent 18 days in camps said, “We have lost everything: our self-respect, mutual understanding, and traditional relationships. Community sense and social harmony have been ruined. It is a painful thing that there is no  trust even between the children of different  communities when they meet in schools. They mistrust one another. Even the rickshaws do not carry you if you belong to one of the communities in conflict, for fear that his own community would  attack  him or make him pay a fine of Rs 1000.00.”

“Without maintaining peace and harmony no society can survive. Communal harmony, peace and tranquility are necessary for economic growth as well. The present situation has brought untold suffering to the Muslims and Bodos alike,” he added.

Reports say that more than 100 people were killed and 4000 houses were destroyed during the ethnic clashes. The stories are terrible. Even where the houses were not burned, they were looted when the inhabitants ran for their lives to the camps, one of the participants said.

“Now  we do not meet each other in market-places.  We cannot sell our products. If we do not earn, we starve. We are afraid of one another. We are suffering from a fear-syndrome, always afraid of being attacked,” added James Basumatary.

“We need to have heart to heart  talks with each other.  This is the main concern of the people in the rural areas. Animals are free to move around. But we human beings are not free, because of fear. We have to make an all-out effort for peace,” he added,  greatly appreciating the courageous efforts of the Peace Mission Teams from Guwahati and Bongaigaon. “No one else can do what you are doing”, he said, addressing the members of the Peace Team.

Referring to rehabilitation, he said, “How can people live in those shabby protections with slushy floor in this rainy season? It is an inhuman situation. The refugees are told to move out of school buildings because classes have to begin. They have lost houses, property and agricultural crops. They have lost all hope.”

Professor Samsul Haque felt, the very social fabric has been poisoned due to the recent  ethnic clashes, which has stirred up anger in the entire Northeast region.

Different associations and different states in the country are taking out protest rallies against the so-called ‘foreigners’. Fear is being generated in the hearts of genuine citizens who are Muslims. They fear that they can at any time be dubbed a ‘foreigner’. Anger is being roused. The negative memories will necessarily pass on to the younger generation. Prejudices will be built up.

In the Muslim relief camps they have put up posters like, “We are not migrants. How do you identify  a migrant,” expressing the fear of expulsion from the state. Meanwhile there are reports that some illegal migrants have been arrested in different parts of the state. In Bodo camps are found equally provocative posters. Feelings keep rising.

Friendship visits to the camps from either side were suggested in order to reduce fear and suspicion between communities.  This could create trust among people. What cannot be done individually can be done together, said Lutheran Bishop Nityanand Borgoary, the Chairman of the Inter Church Peace Mission.

“The young generations have lost patience. We should not add to their emotional stress that would remain with them as a negative asset. A little act of kindness from either side can turn Bodoland into a land of peace and prosperity”, observed Mr Sunil Basumatary a High School teacher. According to him every expression of kindness will contribute to the changing of the heart of grievance-ridden people. A word of affection will have healing power.

In order to bring communities together Archbishop Menamparampil proposed organizing several confidence building programmes, including common cultural events. “ A message of peace must go out in various ways. Is it possible that we take out a Peace Rally on the streets of Gossaigaon? It will not be against anyone, but purely for Peace and Reconciliation. Would it not help to rebuild confidence? Or is it too early yet?”, he asked.

While the gathering welcomed the idea, there was fear about possible reaction from interested groups. The issues related to the Bodoland tragedy have become highly politicized. The whole of Northeast is agitated about the problem of ‘illegal immigrants’. Very few are able to look at the various dimensions of the issue objectively: the fact that there were Muslims in Assam from the 13th century, that there were migrants from undivided Bengal long before Independence, that Muslim population constitute a big proportion of the labour force in the Northeast, that their contribution to the economy is irreplaceable.

Professor Samsul Haque and Isaac Basumatary will follow up the idea of the Peace Rally, seeking the support of the public, and with an understanding with the Administration.

Archbishop Thomas said that he was amazed at the confidence that the representatives of the combating groups were giving to their Peace efforts in this period of high tension. “Violence makes big news. Peace is whispered in high confidence and in contexts of warm and intense relationships. But these whispers will turn louder than thunder-claps. And one day the world will know the difference”.

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