the friend online
19 January 2007

Conciliation work in Nagaland
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realising that. This enables us to do something and to do it well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for grace to enter and do the rest.
- Archbishop Oscar Romero

I had been sent the Archbishop Oscar Romero quote some months ago by a friend, and on my return from Nagaland in October I dug it out and pinned it to my desk. It allowed me to breathe and take stock of the journey I had just been on, and to ease my sense of being overwhelmed by how violent conflict can often appear to be too complex to handle. Writing this reflection is another part of the 'taking stock'.

In brief, I was travelling as part of a team of four representing QPSW's Naga Conciliation Working Group, a Quaker group who have been invited to travel to the region for the past six years. Nagaland sits on the southern edge of the Himalayas within North East India, and lies next to the border with Myanmar. It is a mountainous region, covered in lush green vegetation akin to a tropical rainforest, and the climate is cool due to the altitude. The Naga people themselves belong to the Mongoloid race, and the population in the region is around three million, with other displaced Nagas living in the border regions of Myanmar, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur. The Nagas are made up of a reported thirty-two tribes, most of whom have their own dialect, Nagamese being the common language spoken between them. More than ninety per cent of the Nagas are Baptist Christian, having been converted by the American Baptists in the late 19th century.

In very simplistic terms, the conflict in Nagaland is a struggle for autonomy and independence from India. During British Rule the Nagas believed that there was a commitment by the British that they would return the Naga Hills back to the people when they left. This did not happen, and when the Nagas declared their independence to the United Nations on 14 August 1947, the day before India's declaration, it went unrecognised and Nagaland was handed over to Indian rule. There has been a violent conflict ever since with tens of thousands of people being killed in the region. During this time there has also been a rise in internal violent conflict between the different political factions over who represents the voice of the Nagas. Since 1997 there has been a ceasefire agreement with the Indian government and one of the political factions, and talks between the two have been ongoing for the past nine years.

In 1999 the Sri Lankan-based Quaker Phil Esmonde was approached to run a conflict resolution workshop in Thailand at which one of the political/military parties from Nagaland was present. The aim was to encourage the search for a non-violent solution between them and the Indian government. Following this a Naga Working Group was formed by QPSW in London in 2001.

The guiding principle of the groups is to 'seek to work in ways that recognise the spiritual realities that touch us all. This involves holding a deep respect for all whom we meet'. As such, the group's purpose is to witness and work towards building trust among all groups so the conflict can be resolved non-violently and with all the voices acknowledged. I joined the group in January 2006, with a background in peace research but with very little 'hands-on' experience of Quaker conciliation.

Testing times
The Quakers work with the concept that faith is a prelude to action, seeing 'that of God' in all, and in their conciliation work the silent worship prior to or after Meeting with groups or individuals allows the team the possibility to see these 'spiritual realities' in situations that can be bleak and harrowing.

It was on this final note that I was most tested whilst listening to the armed political groups in Nagaland. How could I see 'that of God' in people who are fully prepared to resolve their conflicts through varied methods of violence? Didn't I have a line to draw? To my gratitude my richly experienced travelling companions kept me grounded, and more than once reminded me of the work and philosophies of the late Quaker academic and activist Adam Curle who had extensive experience in Quaker conciliation work in places such as Nigeria, Sri Lanka and India.

In an obituary about Adam Curle, that had been fortuitously emailed to me a few days after my return home, a quote by Adam was included where he was responding to the question 'How effective is it to make peace in a militarised world?'

His response was:

'I have often been asked how we handle the fact that peacemaking involves having a relationship, often a close relationship, with people who are committed to violent solutions to their problems. Do we tell them we disapprove of what they are doing or urge them to repent and desist? And if we don't then how do we square this with our principles? For my part I reply that I would never presume to criticise people, caught up in a situation I do not share with them, for the way they are responding to that situation. How could I, for example, preach to the oppressed of Latin America or Southern Africa? Nevertheless, I explain that I do not believe in the use of violence as either effective or moral; my job is to help people who can see no alternative to find a substitute...'

Humbling words that certainly regained my perspective and put my ego back in place. So on reflection I think what did sustain me throughout the visit was i) the yearning from civil society groups for an end to a culture of fear and violence and a deep desire to be sent new ideas and ways of thinking about how other societies make the transition from violence to peace; ii) travelling with a team of Quakers who were richly experienced in this work, who sustained each other, and who knew that they couldn't do everything, but what they could do was something, and do it well.

Sarah Alldred, Hardshaw East MM


This week's .pdf
In this week's online edition... rss edition

International Edition: Multifaith and hope in the West Bank
Jane Garrett, Leeds MM & Jenny Bell, West Somerset MM
International Edition: a visit to the West Bank
Alan and Pauline York
International Edition: Promoting non-violence in the West Bank
Gerald Conyngham
International Edition: Report from the Middle East
Franco Perna
Countries of the Week: Israel & Palestine

Conciliation work in Nagaland
Sarah Alldred, Hardshaw East MM
News round-up
Green living may not be so simple – or is it?
Andrew Hughes Nind
Edward Hoare & Judy Kirby
Silence and patience
Susie Paskins
Why gay people should be welcome in churches
Stephen Cox
A portrait of George Fox
Simon Webb
John Hamilton: politician with a heart
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