ETHICS OF PEACE AMIDST ETHNIC AND RELIGIOUS CONFLICTS

  • LAND OF SCENIC BEAUTY

I bring you greetings from India. I am very happy to be in this beautiful country –with coconut palms, rubber estates, tea gardens and the scenic beauty of this Island unparalleled in the world. I have thoroughly enjoyed it from the sky as my plane glided on to the Colombo airstrip.

I am delighted to be here – the country of the greatest Sri Lankan Cricketer Muthiah Muralitharan who broke Courtney Walsh’s record haul of 519 Test Wickets at Harare in Zimbabwe and went on to become the highest wicket-taker in Tests with 709 wickets in his kitty in the Test against England in Kandy on December 3, 2007.

This is my 5th visit to this Democratic Socialist Republic Island. My first visit was in September 1980 to promote South Asian Religious News (SAR News) and train reporters in the field for the news service.

My second visit was in May 1987 to meet my fellow Jesuits, the members of the Society of Jesus in Sri Lanka especially those in the mass media. I was then the Secretary of JESCOM – Jesuits in Social Communication in South Asia.

I visited Sri Lanka a 3rd time in Feb. 1988 to attend a meeting of the print media persons in my capacity then as the President of South Asian Catholic Press (SACPA) and a UCIP Council Member.

My last visit was to participate in the UCIP Sri Lanka meet in December 2001 and also to explore the possibilities of direct evangelization through correspondence courses on Jesus Christ and the Bible.

I am most happy to be back for the fifth time here among such loving and very hospitable people that you Sri Lankans are.

  • ETHICS OF PEACE

Today I would like to share with you my reflections and thoughts about our topic “Ethics of Peace Amidst Ethnic and Religious Conflicts”.

Shakespeare says, “The web of our life is a mingled yarn, good and evil together”. We can also truly say that ethnic and religious conflicts are a reality in some countries like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in our South Asian subcontinent. So it is appropriate that we reflect on the ethics of peace in this UCIP Refresher Programme.

There are religious conflicts among the Muslims between Shias and Sunnis in Pakistan and elsewhere. There are ethnic conflicts between the Muslims and Hindus as well as between Muslims and Christians in Pakistan. There are religious conflicts as well as ethnic clashes between Hindus and Muslim as well as Hindus and Christians in India.

  • ROOT OF VIOLENCE

The Father of India Mahatma Gandhi said that, the roots of violence are:

Wealth without work,

Pleasure without conscience,

Knowledge without character,

Commerce without morality,

Science without humanity,

Worship without sacrifice,

Politics without principles.”

  • CONCRETE REALITIES

To come to concrete realities, the communal conflicts between the politicized Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 as well as between Hindus and Christians in Orissa and Karnataka in 2008 are well-known in the whole world. Then, who can forget the over a decade long ethnic conflicts between the Singhalese people and the Tamils in Sri Lanka!

I need not elaborate on ethnic and religious conflicts as we all experience them in most parts of South Asia. Our challenge is to go to the root cause of these conflicts and reflect on how we as journalists and other mass media personnel can contribute towards establishing an ethics of peace.

  • WORK FOR PEACE

I think that it is Pope John Paul II who said that, “if you want peace work for peace”. How can we then work for establishing peace in our midst?

If we delve deep into the root causes of ethnic and religious conflicts, we will discover that genuine religions or ethnical differences are not the cause of these conflicts. There are certainly many different religions and innumerable ethnic groups or races in our South Asia. But the differences among the followers of different religions and races do not lead the people to conflict, to communal or ethnic clashes.

The followers of different religions and the members of different ethnic groups have lived side by side for centuries in India and elsewhere in South Asia. But the ethnic and religious conflicts in South Asia are a recent phenomenon – less than a century.

I believe that at the root of all so called religious and ethnic conflicts are some people’s thirst for power, greedy people’s hunger for money and unhappy people’s quest for name.

  • POGROM AGAINST MUSLIMS

Let us take the example of the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. Gujarat state has about a 14% Muslim population. Not many are employed in government or private sectors for two reasons. First, there is a strong caste-mentality against Muslims or strong anti-Muslim feelings in Gujarat and second, Muslims are educationally and socially backward and they keep to themselves.

Then, they are not welcome to live in flats and bungalows with people of other faiths. But the Muslims are hard-working and enterprising. So they find gainful self-employment like selling fruits and vegetable in push-carts in the streets and societies. There are also small merchants and business people running way-side hotels, restaurants and managing small shops, especially in the old city, selling all sorts of things.

Rich and poor alike flock to the Muslim shops and restaurants as the Muslims sell things at reasonable price without making exorbitant profits which are against the tenets of their religion – Islam. At the height of pogrom and curfew in Ahmedabad city in 2002 I heard two elderly gentlemen who joined me for a peaceful walk on the grounds of St. Xavier’s College, that “we cannot do without the Muslims in the (old) city as the merchants in our posh West area of the city fleece us with their exorbitant prices”.

Hence the perpetrators of the pogrom went after the big and small business establishments of the Muslims and they did succeed to a great extent to break the economic backbone of Muslims by burning down and otherwise destroying hundreds of shops, restaurants and other business establishments in Ahmedabad city and elsewhere in the state and also called on the Hindus to boycott Muslim shops and services!

  • THE GREATEST TRAGEDY

The greatest tragedy was that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and the law enforcing authority – the police – either tacitly approved the doings of the rioters and arsonists by turning a blind eye to their nefarious deeds or by positively supporting these trouble makers first in the crimes and then by not registering proper cases or filing inadequate First nformation Reports (FIR) to help the criminals to get away, as many did later.

There was a hue and cry against the police and state government apathy so much so, that after several years, the Supreme Court appointed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to bring out the truth and give justice to the victims. As people have lost their faith in the state administration and judiciary a famous case, known as Best Bakery Case, was shifted from Gujarat to the neighbouring Maharashtra State and there in the trial, for the first time, the victims got justice and the criminals were punished.

The anti-Muslim pogrom had the desired effect in Gujarat as the Chief Minister Narendra Modi was hailed as a Messiah (Saviour) of the Hindus or rather the Hindutva votaries and his party had a massive win in the subsequent state elections.

Then, according to many people Modi became an autocrat with absolute powers. But absolute power corrupts absolutely. Modi appointed his cronies in all positions of power and influence and surrounded himself with sycophants like IGP Vanzara who now cools his heels in Sabarmati Central Prison for murdering people in cold blood in several so called encounter-killings.

  • ENCOUNTER KILLING

The predecessor of Vanzara IGP, Mr. Sreedharan, IGP was superseded and dismissed by the Modi Government. But an upright officer IGP Sreedharan went to court and got himself reinstated with full honours at the orders of the Supreme Court. Mr. Shreedharan stated in a public meeting that there was no police encounter killings before or after IGP Vanjara term of office.

According to the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) “between October 2002 and April 2006 there have been at least 21 fake encounters in Gujarat”. The police-encounter killings have done away with about three dozen victims, mostly defenseless Muslims as criminals and terrorists (so called by them) “who were out to kill the Chief Minister, Narendra Modi!”.

Modi’s party BJP proclaimed Gujarat as a laboratory of Hindutva (politicized Hinduism) and threatened the minorities like the Christians and the Muslims with a repeat of the Gujarat experiment in states like Orissa and M.P. in India.

In a way, the organized attack on Christians in Kandhmal district in Orissa while a BJP was the Home Minister, was very similar to the Gujarat type of experiment. In the Kandhmal district of Orissa 86 Christians lost their lives and thousands of houses and places of worship, hostels and other Christian institutions were destroyed. Lakhs of Christians had to flee to the forests to save their lives and then live in camps without adequate amenities.

The fact that many Christians were not able to return and live in peace in their villages even after a year, speaks volumes of the intolerable situation in Kandhmal! The Muslims who fled from their villages in 2002 have had the similar experiences in Gujarat.

  • CONFLICTS IN SRI LANKA

In Sri Lanka the Singhalese dominated government has finally put an end to the two and a half decade long ethnic conflicts between the Singhalese and the Tamils which nurtured terrorism and caused the death of millions of its citizens. Many mass media persons along with thousands of innocent civilians were the victims of ethnic conflicts in Sri Lanka.

We have the case of Tissanayagam or Tissa to his friends, who was a columnist in the Sunday Times entitled “Telescope”. He was arrested on March 9, 2008 and then tried under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts (PTA) and convicted for 20 years after being 17 months in Jail!

I read about Tissa in an article on the internet. The author of the article says, “A Sri Lankan journalist who also happens to be Tissa’s personal friend said to me on condition of anonymity ‘The verdict was a huge blow to Tissa. It confirms what we, his close friends, had long suspected it was a political trial…’ Many other journalists have been tortured and have fled the country.”

The same internet article has also quoted a journalist editor whom I met at Kathmandu during a UCIP Refresher Programme there in November 2007. The quotation from Kanak Mani Dixit, Editor of HIMAL SOUTHASIAN says,

“Sri Lanka is evolving as a regressive country when journalists are killed and imprisoned with impunity. When journalists are treated with extreme injustice, it does not take long for demagoguery to bring down the rest of society… South Asian journalists must come together to speak up for a free media in Sri Lanka.”

  • HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS IN INDIA

In India too there are a number of recent cases where journalists have been detained, questioned and even jailed for their reporting on human rights violations or for questioning government policies as well as for exposing corruption of the higher ups in different state governments and in the executive wing.

While we are concerned about these human rights violations of journalists and others in our South Asian countries, let us come back to our basic theme and the question ourselves: How can we as journalists contribute towards an “Ethics of Peace amidst Ethnic and Religious Conflicts”?

  • SEVEN CONCRETE SUGGESTIONS

I have seven concrete suggestions here to make.

  • ACCEPT RELIGIOUS AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY AS A REALITY

FIRST, accept intellectually and emotionally the reality of religious and ethnic diversity in our midst. We see the reality that the people are different from us in a myriad ways such as religion, race, language, region of origin, culture, family upbringing, education, travel, colour of the skin etc.

When we accept these differences as facts of life and part of our human existence we are on the way to tolerance and welcoming the differences. We say, well begun is half done. But for many people these diversities are a threat and they prefer to remain in their own familiar and secure environment without venturing out of their mental or physical ghetto. But without being afraid of the diversity we need to dare to come out of ourselves and make an effort to mix with people who are different from us.

It was difficult for me when I came first time to Gujarat as a young man to mix with people different from my language and culture. It was difficult for me when I went to London to study journalism to mix with non-Indian and non-Asians. It was difficult for me to mix with people of many races and of many nations when I went to study in the Gregorian University in Rome with students from no less than 100 nations.

But my training and the conducive atmosphere helped me everywhere and soon I found myself like a fish in the water mixing with people different from me, in colour, race, language, culture and religion, etc.

Today I can proudly claim that I feel at home in any part of the world with the people of all imaginable diversities. My studies in different countries and my long association with UCIP and my international travels have helped me immensely in this feeling at home with all sorts of people and cultures.

  • RELIGIOUS AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY NOT A THREAT

SECOND, we ought to learn that religious and ethnic diversity is not a threat but an enrichment. From personal experiences I have learned that diversity has been an enriching factor to my personal development and vision of life. When we go out of ourselves and mix with people of different religions and ethnicity, we mutually enrich each other. When we deal with people who are very different from us at a close level then we enrich others and others enrich us.

So through our writings and the use of other means of the mass media including the electronic media we need to promote breaking barriers of religious and ethnical differences. We need to promote dialogue with people different from us and foster dialogue with all sorts of people.

  • EXPLORE WAYS AND MEANS TO ESTABLISH PEACE

THIRD, we must explore ways and means to establish peace between the people of different religions and ethnicity. It is a reality that due to diverse reasons conflicts exist among the people of different religions and ethnicity.

There is suspicion and mistrust of people different from one’s own religion and ethnicity. As long as we remain away from the people of different religions and ethnicity our prejudices, mistrust and ignorance about others remain intact within us.

But these walls of prejudices, mistrust and ignorance of others can be removed by taking positive steps to intermingle with them. We need to take interest in the people of different religions and ethnicity by learning about their religions, culture, ethnicity, etc. In the process of learning about others we enrich ourselves with deeper understanding and a broad vision of life. We also enrich ourselves by cultivating friendship with the people different from us in religion, culture and ethnicity.

  • PROMOTE JUSTICE AND INTER-RELIGIOUS AND INTER-ETHNIC HARMONY

FOURTH, we ought to promote justice and inter-religious and inter-ethnic harmony. Often religious and ethnic conflicts come from the injustice meted out by one religion to another or one ethnic group to another. In such a situation we need to go to the root causes of the conflicts and do our best to remove or remedy them.

In Gujarat after the pogrom against the Muslims in 2002 there were efforts through the mass media and by other means calling people to forget and forgive and live in harmony. I was flabbergasted when a Christian writer joined the chorus of “forget and forgive” and wrote an article in a weekly newspaper without knowing the reality.

The Muslims who fled their villages were not allowed to return to their villages and rebuild the houses unless they withdrew the cases against the perpetrators of the heinous crimes against them!

  • GLADY’S FORGIVENESS

The call to forget and forgive is one thing and justice to the victims is a totally different thing. But they cannot be totally separated. There is no lasting peace between conflicting parties without justice. A person can forgive but he/she cannot forget personal traumatic experiences. Can Mrs. Gladys Staines ever forget the fact that her husband and her two sons were savagely murdered in their sleep in a station wagon!

The world press and other mass media have reported that Mrs. Gladys Staines and her daughter forgave the gruesome murders of her husband, Australian Missionary Rev. Graham Stewart Staines and his two sons. They were burned to death in their vehicle in which they were sleeping by fanatic Hindutvawadis led by Bajrang Dal activist Dara Singh. The criminal had earlier led more than one attacks against the Christians in different places!

Mrs. Gladys Staines forgave the criminals who killed her husband and two sons Philip (10) and Timothy (7) on January 22, 1999 night.  In the court case, which followed, I think that the criminal was condemned to life imprisonment.

It is to the credit of Mrs. Staines and her daughter that they continued for some years serving the lepers in the leper asylum which her husband has established and served the lepers for years. Later Ms. Staines went back to Australia for the sake of her daughter’s education. But she, who forgave the criminals unconditionally, continues to visit the Leper asylum and help the lepers there.

  • DEFEND HUMAN RIGHTS

FIFTH, defend human rights. Every human being has his/her human rights like the right to life, the right to food and shelter, the right to respect etc. These basic rights of a person are trampled upon by the powerful, and then the victimized person is bound to react and revolt against the persons in authority and the system.

It is the duty and responsibility of those in power that the persons under their domain get their basic rights. We cannot have peace and harmony without the people getting their basic human rights. No amount of suppression and punishment can put down a person or a race without granting them their basic rights.

People saw the Pakistani citizen Ajmal Amir Kasab shooting and killing innocent people in the Taj Hotel in Mumbai on November 26, 2008. We have the photographic evidence of his crime. Yet, respecting the criminal’s right for defense, the government of India arranged a criminal lawyer to fight for Kasab and defend him.

Here the Indian Government and the lawyers who volunteered to defend Kasab are examples of upholding the value of human rights. I am happy to note here that more than one lawyer came forward to defend the criminal Kasab though there were mob-protests against providing any defense to Kasab.

  • FOSTER DIALOGUE WITH THE PEOPLE

SIXTH, foster dialogue with the people of different religions and ethnic groups. The beginning is difficult. The icebreaking is hard. But, where there is a will there is a way.

The primary requirement for dialogue with people, who are different from us, is an open, unprejudiced mind and a loving heart. We may have our opinions about different people. One can write clearly and legibly on a clean slate. But if one is to over-write on a slate covered with writings, it will neither be clear nor legible.

Our openness like a clean slate prepares us for a fruitful dialogue with all sorts of people. The diversity of people does not become an obstacle or a threat but their diversity enriches us as we in turn enrich others. In dialogue the different partners grow together coming closer to one another. We learn a lot from each other.

  •  FORMATION IN ETHICAL VALUES

FINALLY, let us educate and form ourselves in ethical values and professional writing. We live in a world of globalization and electronic communications. Various cultures and different religions encounter each other more and more.

In the heart of this encounter there is an authentic desire for peace and at the same time there are also prejudices, misunderstanding and ignorance of each other. We see also misconceptions, intolerance and discriminations around us in the name of culture and religion. It is in such situations that we need to form our ethical and moral values to guide us.

Our ethical values should be so formed and so cultivated that they should help us to promote understanding where there is misconception and ignorance, to transform discrimination into tolerance and acceptance of all people. And finally let us cultivate open and generous hearts that welcome all and embrace all.

To be able to do all these we also need to be well qualified and thoroughly formed in our chosen field of mass media communications. Then, we will certainly be able to contribute more than our share to the ethics of peace amidst ethnic and religious conflicts. (3569 words)

(THE END)

Changed on: 16-08-2019

Next Change: 01-09-2019

Copyright Fr. Varghese Paul, SJ – 2019