India has suffered religious and ethnic violence for centuries.Sushobha Barve’s citizen peace committees cut away its root causes.
The New Idea
Sushobha Barve demonstrates that communal conflict in India can be addressed through dialogue. Working in the most violence-ridden regions of her country, she engineers conversations that involve all parties in an exploration of the social and economic factors that led to their conflict, and leads them toward practical solutions. Paying no heed to those who doubt the power of discussion, she has helped feuding groups make and implement strong plans to end violence, recover from it, and avert it in the future.
Well-meaning groups have struggled for years to create successful community-level methods of dialogue and reconciliation for people in conflict. The distinctive success of Sushobha’s method turns on a simple insight into the nature of social conflict: communal violence doesn’t arise from religious or ethnic difference alone. Most such violence has its roots in the desperation of communities whose basic needs are not met over the course of decades or even centuries. Their grievances stew and intensify, eventually becoming “communalized” when blame for years of deprivation falls on an outside group. Sushobha helps to address these grievances before they recombine into ethnic or religious conflict.
Sushobha has devised highly successful citizen peace committees in places that have seen ferocious and enduring violence. These committees tackle both the material and psychological aspects of conflict. They emphasize to all parties that peaceful cooperative living depends not only upon common understanding and emotional relief, but also on jobs, stable supplies of clean water, and space for public recreation. Once in place, committees also set up early warning systems to detect the first signs of conflict and prevent it from spreading.
Sushobha plans to apply the systems and techniques she developed through years of work in hot spots like Kashmir, Malegaon and the slums of Mumbai to communal conflict in the whole of South Asia. She is now spreading her methods through programs for teachers, community leaders, police, and citizens throughout the region.
Images of communal violence and poverty in India are broadcast around the world, but newscasters and commentators almost never point out the connections between the two. If a group of Hindus attack and destroy a mosque, they describe the problems as purely religious. If a group of villagers have no clean water, they discuss The Problem purely in terms of poverty. Through it all, journalists rarely explore the roots of religious problems in desperate economic situations or delve into the tensions that emerge when people live in abject poverty for their entire lives. In those circumstances, even the smallest incident can become a cause for violent confrontation between neighbors.
Few programs in India acknowledge this link between poverty and violence, and even fewer engage the residents of slums and neglected villages in solving these problems. The police and other state agencies draw a clear line between securing law and order, which they view as their charge, and managing and preventing conflict, which they often view with disdain. In some cases these agencies have been willfully negligent, or even complicit in instigating and aggravating violence. When political pressures force state agencies to rehabilitate communities after a riot or massacre, they often make matters worse. Sushobha remembers an instance from 1989 in which a government agency was charged with re-housing hundreds of Muslims from a destroyed neighborhood in Bihar. The agency built a few large new houses, but no one dared to use them. In a district otherwise full of squat mud homes, they were clear targets for further violence.
Efforts that seek out justice in the aftermath of violence generally see their goal in strictly judicial terms. This severely limits the impact they can have on bringing emotionally charged conflicts to an end. Legal aid groups help victims take their cases to the courts, only to have complicated criminal and civil suits drag on for decades without relief. Not discounting the importance of judicial remedies, Sushobha points out that the artificial division between judicial justice and holistic reconciliation is closely connected to the deficient thinking that fails to connect poverty and communal strife. Without dialogue, and without substantial measures to address the basic needs of communities in conflict, judicial efforts offer little hope for bringing violence to an end.
Sushobha designs interventions to specifically target each phase of a conflict. Before violence erupts, she fosters peace committees to advocate for the basic needs of their communities and resolve the underlying tensions that could lead to bloodshed. In the midst of conflict, she recruits citizen leaders amid mounting violence to cooperate with state agencies and bring situations under control. And in the aftermath of conflict, as the streets seethe with resentment, Sushobha creates opportunities for broad public conversations and secures tangible commitments from the government to address poverty and speed recovery.
She gained her earliest experiences in violence prevention from reconstruction projects in the wake of Hindu-Muslim riots in the district of Bihar. The riots destroyed dozens of houses and left victims languishing in relief camps. Working with the Gandhi Peace Foundation and Lutheran World Service, she proposed that the key to reconciliation lay first in rehabilitating the local weaving industry. Without the work provided by this major industry, people would lack the resources to support their families, and they might riot again. Within three months, her advocacy resulted in a suite of guaranteed loans and cooperatives to help weavers to restart their work. During this time Sushobha also worked to assess the damage to houses and property, and organized teams of volunteers to help with rebuilding.
A few years after her work in Bihar, Sushobha saw similar problems surfacing in the huge Dharavi slum area of Mumbai. She brought representatives from each conflicting group together in conversation and found that at first, each would blame the other for their problems, then criticize the police. But once past blame, their grievances all came down to concerns like the lack of job training programs and recreation areas. It became clear that a major part of the conflict came from large groups of frustrated young men with nothing to do, roaming the streets and looking for fights. Sushobha won a grant and began to set up training programs in computing and other vocational skills, and to establish sports grounds in which adolescents of diverse backgrounds can play together.
These early efforts formed the seed of what is now a comprehensive network of programs to prevent violence in Dharavi. The nodes of this network are the citizens’ committees for peace, mohalla committees, founded in 1993 in the aftermath of tremendous violence in Mumbai by Sushobha and her colleagues in order to build partnerships among communities and the police. She trains committee members in detecting and negotiating conflict, and in advocating to the government for the needs of their communities. Sushoba finds in every conflict situation at least one tangible project that can bring citizens and the state together to address an underlying source of conflict. This cooperation introduces new opportunities for public participation, turning people’s attention to constructive activities and creating opportunities for trusted citizen leaders to emerge.
Sushobha’s programs win attention and support for job training programs, health care systems, and other needed social programs by defining poverty as a security issue rather than a simple question of social development. As they intervene to ensure that people can live in dignity and prosperity, Sushobha shows that her programs also reduce violence. Much more than simple arguments about the state’s obligation to provide for underprivileged groups, her efforts build momentum for needed relief programs by tying them closely to existing government interests.
She is refining her model for conflict prevention in Malegaon, a city in Maharashtra that has endured some of the most persistent and intense communal violence in India. Although the city is large, it has no water supply, hospitals or public toilets, and its largely Muslim population faces discrimination on a daily basis. To address the endemic violence occurring in streets and homes there, Sushobha builds partnerships among citizens, government, and police, forming peace committees and pressing for economic and social development in the troubled city.
In recent years, she began to develop a program for the regions of Jammu and Kashmir. In those areas, political conflict has exhausted many people to the point of utter helplessness. The conflict in Jammu and Kashmir taps strongly into unresolved enmity over the partition of India and Pakistan, a major factor in all disputes between Hindus and Muslims in India. She has initiated a number of dialogue partnerships there, in particular, between Hindu and Muslim Kashmiri women, in the hope that she can convince the remaining Hindus to remain and rebuild rather than fleeing the area. She has also established dialogues between Kashmiri women and those in other parts of India; between Hindus in Jammu who fled Kashmir and those who stayed behind; and between persons on the Indian and Pakistani sides of Kashmir.
By proving the success of her programs in regions of eternal conflict, Sushoba builds the strength and credibility to spread them across India. She established the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation to build a firm academic and practical base for her methods, and she has begun to write and publish handbooks on building dialogue between Hindus and Muslims for eventual use throughout the country. Indeed, as her programs in Kashmir attain ever more success, she is enthusiastic to bring her model beyond the borders of India to the other parts of South Asia that also suffer from endemic violence.
In 1984, Sushobha found herself travelling by train from Mumbai to Madhya Pradesh. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had just been assassinated by two of her Sikh guards, and hostility towards Sikhs was running high among the Hindu population. She saw her fellow passengers attacked. They fled, and later she traced some of them back to their homes and listened to their stories. Victims and witnesses alike were profoundly affected by the violence they experienced. Talking to them, she worked to understand how and where the cycle of violence could be broken. So in 1989, when some 120 Muslims were massacred at Bhagalpur, in Bihar, she went there, sat down and listened to victims’ stories, and ended up staying until 1992. “It was here that I began to understand the need for a holistic approach to helping the victims of violence,” she remembers. “Holistic rehabilitation means that victims get physical, economic and psychological relief. The tendency has been to work on one aspect alone.”
When in December 1992 Hindu extremists demolished the Babri Masjid, and Mumbai was rocked by a series of bomb attacks, she went and convinced some citizens to form a peace committee with the governor as its chair. She quickly decided to concentrate her efforts on the Dharavi slum, which at that time was still in the grip of impending violence. Sushobha was uncertain if she would succeed, but a sense of urgency and commitment pushed her forward. After successfully intervening in one place, she realized the need for teams of citizens to continue the work. To fill this need, she founded the first in her now extensive network of Mohalla Committees.
Sushobha attributes her sense of moral commitment to end violence to her family upbringing. She recalls that her parents taught her as a child to have the integrity and courage to speak up for her convictions. Her home also built her sense of common humanity and personal sacrifice.