Practice and theory collide during a traffic jam

I visited my uncle in Malda last week, and he tends to fit the stereotype of the wise India elder. During our first conversation (I tend to think of them more as lessons, but…) he said, “Man evolved from monkeys, yes? Every day I pray that God will make man back into a monkey.” The state of violence that runs rampant in society has made him the classic cynic.

Part of the purpose of this trip is for me to learn about the intersection of justice and the life of faith. It was easy enough to find and make sense of while I was at Iona, because the isolation of that place and the rare air and rich history create the illusion that the fit is natural and smooth. (Obviously for the members of the Iona community, who live in the world beyond that island, the lines are not so distinct. For example, one member was forced to renounce his pacifist commitments when working for the World Council of Churches delivering food to the people of Biafra during the Nigerian civil war of the 1960s, when the military kept hijacking their relief trucks.)

While in India, my hope has been to learn about the application of radical Christian theology to lived experiences of oppression in India, by tribals in particular (the term used here for indigenous people, lest anyone think I’m being offensive). My last blog post highlighted one side of the challenge I face: some people on the margins don’t want to focus on liberation so much as finding peace and comfort in the spiritual realm (God knows this is true everywhere in the world). My other challenge is a slightly more subtle one.

My cousin Bujunda and his family took me to visit another cousin’s family in Mednipur. Before we even left, my uncle warned me it might be a bad idea to go to a place facing so much conflict and so many disturbances due to the Naxalites. The Naxalites are Maoists scattered throughout the northeast of India with particular strength among some tribals and some dalits. They’ve been hiding in jungles/forests and gaining power for the past 30+ years.

On the drive from Mednipur to Hazaribag (where I’m currently staying), we experienced a road block. Villagers’ rice paddies had recently been trampled by elephants, and when the government didn’t provide aid, they protested by shutting down a national highway.

The headline in yesterday’s paper was about 17 people (including 5 youth) being kidnapped and shot by Naxalites in retaliation for a land dispute involving about 40 acres of land in the state of Bihar. Today’s paper talked about the railroad tracks being blown up last night by Naxalites because one of their key leaders was arrested last week. Oh, and they’re texting death threats to the head of the state of Bihar.

Last night at dinner at my cousin’s family friends, they explained that part of the reason the roads in the jungle area are so bad is that no one will take the government contracts because the Naxalites demand payment for the contractors to do their work, or else…well, you get the picture.

When I was in seminary, one of my best friends and I were debating pacifism. He said it was easy to be a pacifist unless you watched the extent of the suffering of those on the margins in, say, southern Mexico. Once you had seen it first hand, you would be tempted to pick up arms with the freedom fighters, too.

Right now the conflct I face is that the resistence I’m witnessing doesn’t seem to be hurting the oppressor much at all, but it’s certainly hurting people with little to do with the problem (and yeah, it’s inconveniencing middle class people like me, who probably are a part of the problem, but the odds of us putting all those puzzle pieces together are pretty slim).

As I learn more about the challenges faced by tribals and dalits, challenges which sometimes threaten their very lives, my prespective will probably shift. But as someone a little nervous about whether her bus will actually make it to Kolkata safely, I’m in limbo right now.

Comments (4)

  1. Allan

    Sandhya,

    Thanks very much for an interesting post.

    I lit on the word “tempt” in your recounting of your friends’s views on pacifism in southern Mexico. Did he use that word (if you remember)? Did he / do you see it as temptation to sin, to be resisted, or are you just using it in a general sense?

    I don’t know anything about the situation in Southern Mexico, but it sounds from your recounting like in this case the Naxalites are at least as oppressive as the Indian government. Few other poverty-reduction measures are as effective as roads. Similarly, blowing up railroads inconveniences the “middle class”*, but it hurts the poor much more by denying them goods from outside. How many government rupees would be going to health clinics or schools, if they weren’t used for rebuilding railroads and hiring anti-Naxalite soldiers?

    Maybe there’s another side, but I see this as a lesson in why violent resistance is wrong even from a self-interested perspective, let alone a Christian perspective.

    * [I always think the term “middle class” is a lie in South Asia. If it doesn’t include the median, it ain’t the middle. I also think it’s a pernicious lie, with political overtones. I understand your usage, though; I’ve never gotten a South Asian to agree with me on this.]

  2. Sandhya (Post author)

    Yeah, but we measure ourselves by Britain and therefore America, so when we think middle class, we think “dishwasher, new car, own home.” Never mind the economic nuances. It’s a pretty good example of internalization, actually. 🙂

    You know, I happened to glance at a headline from September 23 just after posting this about police shooting 7 Maoists to death under kind of suspicious circumstances, and more than a few people think that the arrest of one of their main leaders was intentionally antagonistic, so there is more than one side, and when my uncle talked about praying we’d all become monkeys again, he said it with an awareness that the people with resources utilize them in profoundly punitive ways. Nonetheless, I agree that violence isn’t strategically wise any more than it’s moral. Try telling that to a middle class Indian regarding Kashmir, though….

  3. Danny

    My first thought on reading the title: The words “collide” and “traffic” should not be in the same sentence.

    But the post itself makes me aware that there are more serious challenges than avoiding traffic collisions. It is complex, and I too wonder just how far my own pacifism can extend under certain circumstances. To always act in ways of peace requires a tremendous amount of strength and faith, and if placed in an extreme situation, I’m not sure I’d be up to it.

  4. Sandhya (Post author)

    It definitely is complicated, huh? I actually met with a tribal theologian yesterday and had an interesting conversation with him. I talked about the MLK and Malcolm X camps during civil rights and said I had heard there are similar camps regarding indigenous rights. I asked if the church had landed in one or both camps (most tribals in India are Christian). He didn’t answer directly, but basically he approached the question more from a position of supporting change, which involves violence, or opposing violence, which means supporting the status quo. He said by and large the tribal churches hadn’t weighed in because they knew the current situation was wrong, so they weren’t going to speak out against the violence.

    It made me think about the choices we’re normally given: violence or subservience. Black liberation theology by and large remained silent about any violence in the black power movement because the theologians understood why the black community was angry to the point of violence. In central America, some liberation theologians took up arms with the resistence movements, and most at the least aided the resistence.

    Those are the only two choices the dominant culture uses. And unfortunately, in the short- to mid-term, it often works for them. (I just read a book about genocide in 16th century Mexico, 18th century Tasmania, 19th century Apacheria and 19th century German southwest Africa, so I’m a little cynical.) What’s going to work for the tribals?

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