01 Februari 2009

Reconciliation in Practice: The Indian Experience

Tanggal 11 Februari 2008 Oase dan Forlog merencanakan suatu diskusi interfaith terbatas dengan Andreas d'Souza, mantan Direktur Henry Martyn Isntitute, Hiderabad, India. Berikut sebuah tulisannya mengenai rekonsiliasi.

Andreas D 'Souza
Reconciliation in Practice: The Indian Experience1


In 2000 I went to the wedding of Indumati. She was one of the first students to graduate from the tailoring class organized by the Aman Shanti project.2 We had hired Indumati to assist Asiya Begum, the tailoring teacher. The wedding was arranged in the courtyard of her house and extended into the road, which was cordoned off for the celebration. The bride and groom along with their respective parents and friends sat around the sacred fire under a canopy on a raised platform. The Hindu priest kept reciting verses from the sacred scriptures as he poured ghee (clarified butter) and sprinkled incense over the fire. Among those who were present around the pedestal and mingling merrily with the crowd were Indumati's Muslim colleagues and students.

A year later I went to another wedding. This time it was Asiya who was getting married. Like Indumati's it was an arranged marriage. This wedding was held in a rented function hall: men were assembled in one section with the groom seated on a throne over a colorfully decorated podium, surrounded by the qadi (judge) and the male friends and relatives. In another separate section sat the bride surrounded by her female friends and relatives. Among them were Asiya's Hindu colleagues and students.

Insignificant as it may appear, the mixing of the two communities on those happy occasions are part of the fruit of our efforts to bring the divided community of Sultan Shahi into better relationship. They are stories of change, not overnight change but change that comes from a long and painful process of healing injured feelings, of creating mutual trust, of rebuilding broken relationships. Ten years back this mixing would not have happened. The elementary school for drop-out children in the neighborhood, the tailoring and embroidery classes for young women, the medical clinic and periodic community health camps have attracted Muslims and Hindus over the years and has provided space for healing, for transcending boundaries erected in the name of religion, for building relationships. The project runs from a former Muslim house. The owner sold it to us because he was afraid of the Hindu neighbors and moved to a safer place. Situated as it is between the two communities, it has become a neutral ground for interaction, for learning each other's language, culture and religion. It is a small step in our efforts to understand what reconciliation means in practice. The bonds we see developing among Hindu-Muslim children and women and through them among their men is an indication that reconciliation is possible.

In this paper I will narrate a few stories that help illustrate some of the programs carried out by the Henry Martyn Institute: International Center for Research, Interfaith Relations and Reconciliation in Hyderabad, India. I will briefly refer to the violent riots in 1990 as the setting for the change in the focus of the Institute's activities and the revision of its constitution, which became the foundation for its projects aimed at reconciliation. It is my firm belief that reconciliation cannot take place unless our efforts towards it begin with an understanding of the root causes of violence and its endemic and spiral nature. What follows here is a case study of what reconciliation means in practical terms as well as a story of my own personal struggle to understand the meaning of reconciliation in a multi-religious, multi-cultural society fragmented by many forces. These few thoughts are offered with the hope that, however difficult and dangerous the demands of reconciliation are, we cannot ignore its call if we wish to contribute towards building a just and peaceful society.

From Evangelism to Reconciliation

The Henry Martyn Institute was founded in 1930 as an organ of the church for training missionaries to evangelize Muslims. In the 1960s and 1970s it was also engaged in interfaith dialogue, although it did not give up its evangelistic orientation. In the worsening context of communal misunderstanding and suspicion, of continuing riots often fomented in the name of religion, the Institute continued to change its focus and increasingly shift to interfaith relations and reconciliation. The story of this transformation is already well documented and I will not go into it here.3 This change necessitated a major revision of HMI's constitution and restatement of its goals. Its name also changed from the former Henry Martyn Institute of Islamic Studies.4 These were bold steps, although not everyone has agreed with this change in direction.5

HMI's revised constitution became the foundation for its work towards reconciliation. It indeed is a veritable magna carta, which defines the primary goal of the Institute to be "an expression of the Church's ministry of reconciliation". The constitution speaks about helping churches fulfill a unique peace-making role, of the need to study and understand Islam and other religions, to work towards the removal of misunderstanding and suspicion, to promote justice and peace, to collaborate with people of other faiths on common concerns. It became the spring board for launching various types of programs to promote reconciliation: the work with Hindus and Muslims in the slums, the training workshops in mediation and conflict resolution, the efforts to help empower like-minded groups in Kashmir, Bihar, and Manipur, some of the most troubled areas of our country, the women's interfaith journeys in which women from different faith backgrounds travel together to discover what interfaith means from women's perspectives.6 The focus on reconciliation is not a means to an end but an end in itself. A declaration that the aggressive method of proselytization based on an imperialistic reading of the Gospel passage known as `the great commission' (Matthew 28) has to give way to efforts at peace-building, liberating the captives, healing the sick, feeding the hungry etc. (Luke 4: 18).


My colleagues and I in the Institute have struggled to understand and 'translate the meaning of the word "reconciliation". What does this Christian term mean when used as a focus for the life and activity of our center? From a Christian theological perspective it refers to the belief that we were once friends of God, through transgression we became alienated; the sacrament of confession, general or private, and the absolution that follows bring remission and reconcile us to God by restoring the broken relationship. The Bible, especially Paul, speaks about it as something already accomplished by God through Christ's death on the cross. Christians are called to be messengers of this 'ministry of reconciliation'. Dictionary definitions of reconciliation reflect a Christian understanding. There is first a state of friendly relationship followed by alienation. Reconciliation is the mending or restoring of this broken relationship.

In October 1997 thirty-one women and men from various Indian regions, backgrounds, faiths and commitments met for five days in Orissa for a workshop on Reconciliation in the Context of Communalism and Casteism from the Perspective of the Oppressed. After much reflection, discussion and struggle, the participants adopted the following as a working definition of reconciliation:7

In the context of existing oppression in India, we understand reconciliation as a process of struggle of the people to bring together estranged persons leading towards transformed relationships and structures based on justice.

Reconcilation in Practice: In the Aftermath of a Riot

Back in 1990, the old city of Hyderabad was severely affected by riots that lasted almost three weeks. During and immediately after the horrible communal clashes I spent long painful hours in the hospital and on the streets and had seen the consequences of politically orchestrated violence:8 the mutilated bodies of children, men and women, the burnt houses and shops, the starving crowds confined to their homes during days of curfew. I can still remember the sea of black veiled women surrounding our relief truck, waiting for a little rice, or the long lines of children waiting patiently in the scorching sun for a few biscuits. I listened to agonizing stories of violence and suffering, and wept with more than one of the victims. It was a terrible time.

Mending a broken relationship with God seems easier than restoring broken trust in the immediate aftermath of a riot. I remember an old couple stretching out their hands in front of me asking, "with whom should we be reconciled? Our only son is gone...". They were poor, crippled by old age; their son had been killed on the street through no fault of his. Who could bring back life that was so brutally taken? Who would care for them in their old age? I realized that reconciliation couldn't happen without addressing the issue of justice. But who can restore justice in a riot situation when the oppressor remains unknown?

Hyderabad has a long history of Hindu-Muslim conflict, which has left indelible scars in the hearts and minds of people. Every fresh riot fuels the anger and hatred and desire for revenge. I experienced the power of hatred in the Osmania hospital during the 1990 riots: Three young men rushed their dying father to the emergency ward. His belly was slit from side to side, intestines spilling out, and a stream of blood marking the passage as his body was carried in. He was declared dead by the surgeon upon arrival. The youngest son coming out of the ward saw a member of the Aman Shanti Forum doing voluntary relief work in the hospital.9 The bindi on her forehead signaled to him that she was Hindu.10 He lunged at her with a cry "I will kill them" so violently that six police personnel could not contain him. His grief over the death of his father had rekindled in him anger and hostility towards the other community and a desire for revenge. In the heat of that moment no soft talk about reconciliation would have helped. His hostile and violent behavior towards a woman who had nothing to do with the killing of his father is typical of many riots in our cities.

Some members of the Aman-Shanti Forum joined the in trying different programs to bring the divided communities together: one Friday we all fasted and in the evening gathered to break our fast and pray for peace; women froth both communities jointly cooked food and around three hundred of us ate together; we started a tailoring unit for Hindu and Muslim women. These were small projects aimed at bringing reconciliation through re-established relationship. But our efforts seemed totally inadequate: the wounds were too fresh, the hurt too deep. No one was willing to either forgive or forget the past. I was frustrated, and so were many of my friends. It was evident that deep-rooted hatred and desire for revenge cannot be removed without a long process aimed at inner transformation.

My encounter with Vargese opened a small window into the troubled old city. Vargese is a member of the Montfort Brothers. a Catholic religious congregation whose main mission is education. He invited me to Moosa Nagar, a slum thickly populated by Muslims and a few Hindus. Adjacent to it is Kamal Nagar, housing mostly Hindus interspersed with Muslims. The communal tensions there were high, the self-styled leaders exploiting the situation for political and economic gains. Together with Vargese and his organization, People's Initiatives Network (PIN) I began efforts to bring the two communities together by organizing such projects as a tailoring center for women. Two Catholic sisters from another religious order joined the project. They and Vargese chose to live in the slum and started a school for children in a rented room. With funding from HMI and organizational support from PIN we began a cycle rickshaw and pushcart cooperative for jobless young men. HMI also funded evening classes for high school dropout children. Vargese, the sisters and I went from door to door raising issues of hygiene, of common programmes to alter the condition of the slum, of getting pure drinking water. Brother Vargese was interested in development. My heart was in reconciliation. We put our energies together. Development for reconciliation became our goal. With tremendous energy from PIN and collaborative support from HMI, the face of the slum began to change.11 People were maintaining cleaner surroundings; there was less communal tension. After five years of working together. HMI moved on to its own development project in Sultan Shahi, while PIN spread to many other slums along the Musi River. These were years of rich learning: how to transcend barriers of hostility and begin to build relationships. I also learned something about the nature of violence itself.

The Spiral Nature of Violence

Violence begets violence. Every act, whether physically expressed, verbally spoken, or manifested through a gesture, creates a reaction. The spiral nature of violence was brought home to me as a group of us were driving on a national highway out of Hyderabad. Truck drivers are some of the most dangerous persons on our two-lane roads: they are aggressive and heedless of traffic rules. The unspoken rule is that bigger the vehicle, the greater the rights. It is difficult, even dangerous, to drive on a road used by truckers especially at night. The tragic consequences of aggressive driving are evident all along the route: broken trucks, crushed smaller cars, upturned lorries with their contents spilt on the road. On this particular trip, two scenes attracted our notice. In the first, two trucks lay wrecked on either side of the road. The impact of their head-on collision was so powerful that the vehicles and their contents were thrown off to opposite sides of the road. In the second scene a woman's body lay in the middle of the road, her head covered with leaves and the space around her marked with mud bricks. She was a victim of someone's rash driving.

When we discussed these gruesome scenes, I learned that most of the truck drivers do not go through a formal driving school. Instead they learn driving by serving first as a cleaner. They become a driver only after years of humiliating, often abusive and aggressive apprenticeship under the driver. It seemed the suppressed violence of those years manifests itself when the victim himself becomes a driver. Then he bequeaths the same legacy to his own apprentice.

M.J. Akbar, a noted Indian journalist, speaks about the legacy of violence as he describes in a graphic way the aftermath of riots in Jamshedpur, Bihar:12

... the wounds of the heart festering, and hate oozing from the eyes like malignant pus that will communicate all that it touches... In the recesses of the hospitals lie the dead, in hideous shapes, and each of them, each man, woman and child, has written a will in the presence of a hundred witnesses, and the will says that each member of the dead person's family receives a legacy of hate, an equal share each; and this legacy has no limits, no boundaries...

Akbar's words confirm what I said above about the spiral nature of violence. Whether it be the young man at the hospital or the truck driver on the road, or the Hindus and Muslims who killed each other in the riots -all have left a legacy of hate that in turn leads to desire for revenge erupting in more violence. It is like a pebble thrown in the center of a lake. The smallest ripple caused by that stone would create more ripples. This is what I mean by the spiral nature of violence.

To stop violence we must address the inherited tendency towards violence that all of us carry within us. Often we are not conscious of its existence; it manifests itself when least expected. For example I vent my anger from a frustrating day at office on my spouse or my children or myself. That violence is endemic to all of us seems self-evident. Despite good intentions to remain calm, we often burst out angrily. Such outbursts may not be bad in themselves; even Christ got angry and chased the merchants from the temple. Although anger need not always be suppressed, we should be conscious of how, when and against whom it is expressed. The internal wounds inflicted by even a violent gesture affect the other and are then passed on. Only by tarring our own nature can we hope to become true agents of reconciliation.

The roots of conflicts and riots in our cities are to be traced to the endemic, inherited and spiral nature of violence. In the Hyderabad context it is the layers of hurt, unhealed wounds that surface with the least provocation. It may be a small stone thrown at the house of a neighbor, a piece of dirt cast into the courtyard of a temple or a mosque. The deep festering wounds left by history explode with vengeance and the conflagration takes place.

To change these, to heal centuries-old wounds, we need a process of struggle that is hard and even dangerous.

Inter-Faith Prayer?

When I became Director of HMI in 1992, the eight staff members were all Christians, except two Hindu office attendants. Over the past decade we have intentionally sought to attract an interfaith staff. Today of the thirty members more than half are Muslims and Hindus. It was HMI's practice to begin the day's work with prayer. As the staff began to change, I started to feel uneasy about the form of our morning prayer-gatherings: the reading of a Bible passage, a short reflection, followed by a prayer that starts with "Our Father" and ends with: ”… in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ". How do we pray together in an interfaith context? How does a Muslim participate in a prayer addressed to Jesus? What does reconciliation mean when it comes to the core aspects of our spiritual lives? Do we change? Do we compromise? For some, to deviate from a Christian pattern of prayer means a betrayal.

For almost a decade we have been struggling to understand what prayer means in a multi-cultural, mufti-religious setting. At times the temptation has been strong to say. "Okay, let's give up and begin with a cup of tea instead!". I was not willing to' give up, though. If I am serious about taking the message of reconciliation to our troubled streets, the struggle begins at home, in the institute where I work, in my heart. Peace needs to cone from within if reconciliation is to be translated into lived experience.

The form that we have adopted at HMI is not perfect, but is often empowering as each of us takes a turn to lead the morning devotion in our own style. Thus we listen and are moved, for example, by the profound reflections on a Quranic passage by one of the Muslim colleagues, by a recitation of a Sanskrit sloka "tamasoma jotir gamaya" (lead me from darkness to light) by a Hindu member of the staff, or by the melodious chanting, "laudate Dominum omnes gentes" (Praise the Lord, all people) by a Christian faculty member. The variations in our expressions have been spiritually enriching for many of us. It has made space for diversity: for my Hindu colleague to break a coconut and apply tilak (saffron powder) on my forehead, or for a Muslim to ask the community to pray for an ailing father or spouse. In my growing understanding of what reconciliation means, I have come to realize that spirituality has no barriers.

Forgiveness as a Pre-Condition for Reconciliation

One necessary condition for reconciliation is the ability to forgive on the part of the victim and the desire for forgiveness on the part of the oppressor. I realized how difficult it is to bring estranged persons into relationship by a disturbing incident that occurred in the new city of Hyderabad. The relation between Christians and Muslims in the country has been on the whole friendly at least outwardly. There have not been many newspaper headlines signaling open clashes between the two communities. However, most Christians are totally ignorant of Islam, its beliefs and practices, and have profound prejudices against Muslims. Muslims, on the other hand, often distrust Christians especially organizations like HMI that have missionary histories.

In August 1997 there were headlines in the cspapers and TV broadcasts describing the Muslim-led assault on the Principal of Rock Memorial High School and vandalism of the school precinct., including desecration of some religious statues. Rock Memorial is a Catholic-run school situated in a predominantly Muslim locality. Of the more than thousand students at least 70 percent are said to be Muslims. The anger of the Muslim community was roused by disrespectful references to the Prophet in the Moral Science textbook for the 9"' grade.

The Christian community was highly offended by the attack. All Christian schools were closed for three days, public processions were organized, the bishops and clergy demanded immediate apology from the Muslim community.

They pressured the Government to punish the culprits under the threat of closing down all Christian schools. Muslims on their part expressed anger and demanded apology from Christians for the offence to their Prophet. Newspapers carried front-page reports of attacks and counter attacks, fortunately only verbal.

The roots of conflict in this case go deeper than what appeared on the surface. A few facts help demonstrate this. For example, the textbook in question has been in use in many Catholic schools. Rock Memorial School had used it for half a dozen years. Why did the conflict come at this particular point? Moreover, the communities involved had been in relatively good terms. In fact, most Muslims in Hyderabad prefer to send their children to Christian schools, well respected for their educational standards. There is real scramble for seats during admission time. Why then this conflict that led to almost a riot situation?

A close analysis of events revealed a few political agendas. The upcoming annual feast to honor Our Lady of Good Health brings huge crowds to the church where the school is located. This provides an opportunity for many small vendors to do good business. One version of the story is that a few weeks earlier the parish priest-who is also the school administrator-announced that unlike in previous years the space for stalls would be auctioned off to the highest bidder. This would make it difficult for the traditional entrepreneurs, most of whom were Muslims, to do their business. A related dynamic was that two Muslim political parties were vying to win over Muslims in the area. These deeper issues were important factors contributing to the violence. In HMI's work on this issue we learned that we must go beyond surface issues if we want to work towards true reconciliation.

Since 1996 as part of its efforts to bring estranged persons into friendly relationship, the Institute has invested in learning and training others in third party mediation techniques. Teachers, government officials, police officers, pastors and ordinary lay people have gone through this training. HMI's Peace Cell has also successfully intervened in a few conflicts. Seeing the tense atmosphere that the textbook conflict caused, HMI invited a select group of Muslims and Christians to come for a series of meetings - first separately and then together. Both communities were well represented and were of one opinion about the causes for the conflict. They made a number of suggestions for follow-up actions, including inviting the parties directly involved to come to the mediation table.

However, HMI was unsuccessful in bringing them together even for a first meeting. Frustrating as it was, I realized that reconciliation could not happen unless both parties in conflict are willing to be open for the possibility of healing.

Some Concluding Words

As stated at the beginning of this paper I have narrated some stories to highlight what reconciliation means in practice. I began with a reference to the happy coming together of Hindus and Muslims as a result of HMI's reconciliation efforts. I spoke of HMI's background and of the change in its constitution, which has become the foundation for many of its efforts towards reconciliation. I referred to our struggle to define the meaning of reconciliation and to translate that meaning into action - particularly in the aftermath of 1990 riots. I also described HMI's attempt at interfaith prayer in its morning devotions and its efforts to resolve Christian-Muslim conflict.

While trying to capture on paper a decade's experience in practical ways of peace building I have come to believe that true reconciliation cannot happen unless 1, as an agent of reconciliation, am committed to personal involvement in a process that aims at bringing peace. This process is long, difficult, at times frustrating and even dangerous. I have learnt that to be successful in bringing peace to others I must begin with myself, with an insight into the endemic, inherited and spiral nature of violence. I have also realized that reconciliation cannot happen unless both the victim and the victimizer genuinely desire to be forgiven and to forgive, which requires a long process of inner healing and transformation. It is also true that the restoration of lasting peace is possible only when issues of justice are addressed adequately. For healing the inner wounds does not happen with empty words.

I must admit that the way to reconciliation is strewn with hurdles that sometimes seem insurmountable. It demands commitment and prolonged struggle. To me as a Christian and to HMI as a Christian organization the mandate is clear: "blessed are the peace-makers for they shall be called children of God" and so is the model: Christ whose death on the cross brought reconciliation. To be a messenger of reconciliation means to be ready for the cross.


1. This paper was first written for a conference on Religion. Conflict and Reconciliation organized by the Free University of the Netherlands in April 2001.

2. 'Aman' and 'shanti' are, respectively, the Urdu and Sanskrit words for peace. It is the name of a reconciliation project funded and managed by the Henry Martyn Institute with the cooperation of the local community at Sultan Shahi in the old city of Hyderabad.

3. See Diane D'Souza. Evangelism, Dialogue, Reconciliation: The Transformative Journey of the Henry Martyn Institute (Hyderabad: Henry Martyn Institute, 1998).

4. The change of focus from Islamic Studies to Interfaith Relations reflects the Indian context where Christians are only a small minority amidst people of many faiths, among whom an overwhelming majority are Hindus. We have come to realize that to concentrate only upon Muslim-Christian dynamics is socio-culturally untenable. The Institute still remains strongly committed to promoting the respectful study of Islam in its academic wing, and offers courses on Islam and related languages at various levels.

5. Christians in India and abroad have criticized the Institute for abandoning its original goal; a partner church has been reluctant to fund programs because they are not 'evangelistic'. One member of the faculty resigned and went to teach in an 'evangelical' Bible College because he felt that the institute was no longer 'Christian' in orientation.

6. A succinct report on the first Women's Interfaith Journey is available on request.

7. Their attempt to translate the word into their respective languages was less successful: they found it difficult to convey the dictionary meaning of the word.

8. This was during the stir for the demolition of the disputed mosque in Ayodhya when tension between Hindus and Muslims was extremely high. It is believed that making use of this situation. a section of the ruling party in Andra Pradesh, of which Hyderabad is the capital, started riots in the old city. Their intention was to create an issue of law and order in the city in order to get rid of the chief minister. Their modus operandi was such that it refueled mutual suspicion among Hindus and Muslims leading to communal violence.

9. The Aman Shanti Forum was a voluntary movement that I helped to organize consisting of people of various faiths committed to taking action for building inter-religious peace. It came into being just prior to the 1990 riots and was very involved in relief work and in post-riot activities.

10. A bindi is a marking that a Hindu woman traditionally applies to her forehead as a sign of being married. Today many women also wear it cosmetically.

11. One of the direct outcomes of collaboration between PIN and HMI is the development of leadership among women. A number of women went with us to the inner parts of the old city during the riots in 1996.

12. M.J. Akbar, Riot After Riot (London, Penguin. 1980). pp. 15-16.

Ref.: Journal of the Henry Martyn Institute, Vol. 21, n. 2, July/December 2002, pp. 94-96.

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