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Paris, March 2009

Peace: Walking is the Way

Analyse and comprehension of Peace processes.

Keywords: | | | India

Whatever I submit in this brief note has developed in course my experience with conflict and peacemaking in India’s Northeast. Although limited in many ways, I believe it has many lessons to offer in the larger context of peace research all over the world.

I. Official and Unofficial Peace Processes

I propose to begin with a distinction between two very different kinds of peace processes in operation particularly in the Indian context.

  • On the one hand, we may refer to those peace processes in which the state is directly involved in talks with any of the insurgent groups. Such talks meant primarily for bridging the conflicting interests of the parties involved in them, may or may not eventually culminate in the signing of accords.

  • On the other hand, we may refer to those largely invisible peace processes active mostly at the local level, which make coexistence of diverse – often rivaling bodies of people - possible. Peace is accordingly negotiated by the communities within the neighbourhoods and localities almost on an everyday basis. For want of better terms, we may refer to them as « official » and « unofficial » peace processes respectively. Unofficial peace processes are no less effective than the official ones.

These two sets of peace processes also reflect two very different ways of addressing conflicts.

  • The official peace process addresses them by way of reducing conflict situations to conflicting interests of the parties involved in them. The state and the insurgents are thus taken as two key players and peace is always defined as some form of a balance that is obtained between them. The balance in a sense implies the continuation of the same war ‘by other means’. The emphasis is laid on finding out solutions at the macro-level and the assumption is that the solutions reached at the macro-level will automatically lead to micro-level resolution of conflicts. The assumption works out only up to a certain point. Political conflicts are much more complex than what the conflicting interests of the parties involved in them, would have us believe. Each conflict represents underneath it a « cacophony of competing tunes ». With the hardening of positions of the parties engaged in conflicts, the competing tunes are pushed into oblivion. The surfacing of a conflict implies submergence of a wide variety of them.

  • On the other hand, the approach adopted in the unofficial peace process is to constantly negotiate with the ethnic divide that otherwise gets hardened whenever a conflict breaks out and make it possible for the rivaling communities of people to live together and coexist within the same village, locality or neighbourhood without indulging in violence, arson and bloodshed. This is based on the assumption that living within a society involves compromises to be made at every step and resolution of local conflicts. Unorganized popular initiatives also play a critical role in maintaining autonomy of the people from the insurgent and rebel groups on one hand and the state on the other. The rise of public as a critical force is a fairly recent development. On occasions, the critical public has been successful in forcing the rivaling parties to observe restraint. The examples of insurgent groups tendering apology for their actions also bear testimony to the growing importance of public criticisms as an autonomous force.

Civil society organizations associated with the official peace processes might have played an effective role in the official process, had they been able to develop some kind of synergy with the unofficial peace processes. Thus, the official and the unofficial run through two trajectories parallel to each other. Maintaining a critical threshold is essential for developing the synergy. If the civil society organizations are considered to be too autonomous, they are found to be unacceptable by the conflicting parties. When they are unable to assert their autonomy, they fail to represent the diverse constituencies and concerns existing in a society and are easily identified with any of the conflicting parties.

II. Redefining Civility

Let us now concentrate on the unofficial peace process. This is where differentiating between various kinds of peace becomes all the more necessary. Peace born of mutual indifference is also called peace but cannot be the basis of a viable and vibrant civil society. Often indifference is considered as preferable to intolerance. To have been intolerant, had people thought about it, would have been judged expensive, too much trouble, a bad investment, and in the end self-destructive.

Even good neighbourliness, often cited as the basis of peace, has its limits. Rights are claimed when they are or face the threat of being violated. What we get without making any claim is better called opportunities or privileges rather than rights. The claimants of rights are therefore in a necessarily oppositional relationship with those from whom they claim their rights. The claimants can hardly be neighbours to each other. One has to be a stranger in order to be able to voice one’s rights claims. A neighbour is always bound by the virtues and protocols of decency and neighbourliness that also restrain her from making the claims for fear of what Tocqueville describes as her « indiscretion ».

While a neighbourhood is governed by the imperative of living like neighbours that at the same time makes living in peace possible, civility is always defined with reference to certain impersonal rules (like the ‘categorical imperatives’ or the softer « rules of the people »). Civility is commonly regarded as the surest way to peace. The rules of civility are untrammeled by the interests and desires of those who are supposed to be bound by it. Neighbourliness, one must note, also allows a certain bending (not necessarily breaking) of rules if that helps us in ensuring our coexistence with our neighbours.

While neighbours are unlikely to be rights-bearing citizens, civility censors the claims of those who cannot couch them in the rights language or whose claims cannot be voiced in the same language and hence makes their utterances impossible. On being asked to show her proof of ownership to the land she has been living in by the side of a canal in Calcutta, Arati Dasgupta – a destitute- argued that this was where she was born, took bath and grew up and « sky and air » are for everyone to enjoy and no one would be able to take them away from her. The argument did not cut much ice with the state authorities who had come to evict her in a bid to widen the canal and save the city from chronic floods. Dasgupta’s is by no means a solitary example. Civility is not only a principle of rights, but also one of exclusion.

I propose to redefine civility only in a minimal sense – not in the sense in which we speak the morally strong language of principles while making our rights claims – but as simple moral commitment to the claims made by others. Conflicts have a tendency of throwing this language out of circulation – if it ever exists in the first place in most of the societies of South Asia. In the absence of such a language, dialogues between conflicting parties can take place not so much on the basis of an already established language of ‘public reason’ but more on the basis of our collective quest for one - our realization of the morally uncertain nature of our claims. Dialogues between otherwise conflicting claimants can take place only on what a perceptive Bengali commentator calls « the shifting ground of morality ». There is hardly any roadmap to peace. Peace is not a roadmap but a collective commitment to walk together on an eternally uncertain road. As the famous Bengali adage would have it, it is our commitment to walk that also shows us the way.

Similarly, what we articulate as our claims cannot be absolute. That we have every right to voice our claims does not mean that we have any right to force them on others. We have to understand that there is no given and a priori language in which conflicting claims are or can be negotiated. The moral uncertainty of our claims calls for a moral commitment to those of others.Moral commitment to others is a tribute to our own moral uncertainty.

III. Peace Initiatives

Conflicts call for mediation by the state and become official insofar as our claims harden into conflicting positions and are found to be otherwise irresolvable. As a result such conflicts leave every society without any alternative. We reach a dead end. The problem with much of contemporary peace activism is that it looks for new and autonomous peace constituencies outside the given society mired by conflicts. We are constantly encouraged to think that if we are unable to answer the questions we are confronted with, we need first of all to change our questions. Thus, much of our peace activism today is focused on the task of changing the agenda and subsuming the conflicts under such common concerns as those of livelihood, human development and governance. But this has not been helpful and the question of peace cannot in the ultimate analysis avoid the uncomfortable issues of democracy and justice. In the words of a rebel leader, “Peace is not the absence of war. It is not just the absence of human rights abuses either. There cannot be peace without justice.” Peace does not consist in the perpetual deferral of war and justice.

We see peace constituencies – emerging not in any de novo way - but precisely from within the confines of an already shattered society. Such a society has only to look inward and discover for itself the potential peace constituencies for itself. Peace is not established through a set of abstract principles – « Abstract Universality » as philosophers would call them. We on the contrary refer to what may tentatively be called concrete universality. Concrete universality does not emanate from any a priori principle but from a host of initiatives that transcend national, communal and ethnic frontiers, which although remain by and large unorganized and sporadic, are undertaken in extremely adverse situations without the preconditions created for them. These initiatives however small and sporadic they be, are undertaken in spite of the fact that the rules of the people including rule of law, popular sovereignty and human rights are routinely transgressed and violated.

The actions and initiatives probably do not stand the test of any of the established procedures of public reason and argumentation. But they are flashes of concrete moral action, which in their own possible ways try to transcend the frontiers of bounded solidarities. These actions are fragmentary and hence do not necessarily organize themselves into the terms of any consistently woven moral and philosophical project. Our moral actions are not always informed by any grand project.

Much of the concrete universality comes out of the strategic nature of our interactions in which we posit one of our identities against the other and negotiate our space through a veritable maze of bounded identities without being imprisoned to any of them. This co-presence of multiple identities provides us opportunities for critical reflection on each of them, sensitizes us to their respective partialities and all this comes out of our realization of the limits that each of these – left to itself, imposes on us. Modern self is not reducible to any of them for it understands the limits of each of them. The universality viewed in this light is both moral and strategic for an identity is invoked and deployed only insofar as it has its value as a means of containing and resisting the hegemonic and homogenizing influence of another. Moral life today is the art of living on the edge for it gets crystallized through the very act of crossing the frontiers. Concrete universality is an object of dialogue and negotiation.

IV. Key Mediating points

We illustrate this point by way of referring to women’s peace activism in India’s Northeast. While conflicts and violence invariably take a disproportionate toll on women, an extraordinarily violent and militarized society chokes almost all avenues to peace resistance by them. Hence the language these women speak is stereotypical “woman’s language” – the language of motherly love, care and affection; but this they speak with a public anger in a public place and in ways they were never meant to be. In a conflict-ridden society, motherhood gives her the agency when nearly all other alternatives are closed. As an activist puts it, “When mothers speak, society listens.” Maternal care provides one of the few ‘entry points’ for peace initiatives.

As democratic politics in its pure and autonomous form is a rarity, the kinds of mothers’ movements we experience here will have to be distinguished from the paradigm of pure motherhood that deliberately avoids any kind of political commitment or intervention on their part and insists only on some form of emotional communion with their children « long absent », « disappeared » or simply « missing » from homes, irrespective of the political cause they have been fighting for. The mother, according to this paradigm, makes a clear distinction between her biological and emotional bonding with children and her children’s political and ideological commitments. She only longs for the return of her children whom she has been missing for long, whether the political cause they have been fighting for is realized or not.

We however see in women’s role as mothers the key mediating point where democratic politics and ethnicity/nation meet and affect each other in many unexpected ways. Of course motherhood is not the only way by which women situate themselves as democratic subjects. There are many other ways too and certainly pure democratic politics conducted through ‘rational deliberations’ by equally ‘rational’ and self-interested individuals is perhaps one of them. But, the metaphor of motherhood currently in circulation in the region is fully political and seems to have consciously stayed away from the paradigm of pure motherhood by way of committing the mothers to the justness of the cause their children have been fighting for, organizing and mobilizing them accordingly and thereby constituting them as equal and democratic subjects. It is this commitment to the cause that not only makes motherhood political but critically connects ethnicity to democracy in altogether unexpected ways.

For a political mother, the very act of caring the children is simultaneously an act of defiance and protest. Maternal care thereby becomes political. This requires a deliberate act of breach and transgression of motherhood ironically in the very language of motherhood. When the mothers in Manipur bared themselves in protest and invited « the Indian army to come and rape them » in front of the Kangla Fort – the headquarters of the 17 Assam Rifles – the paramilitary force that was accused of having raped and killed (may not have been in that order) 32-year old Thangjam Manorama in custody on 10 July 2004, they basically intended to turn the shame on the rapists and a “drama” was required to be enacted to throw off the everyday language of shame, stupor and victimhood - a mother in the region is so much used to. Mothers are never seen in their nakedness. Every culture evolves its ways of excising sexuality of the mothers from public discourse and acknowledges it only at great pain. Discussing the sexuality of one’s mother is always held as a taboo. Every culture therefore has its ways of desexualizing motherhood.

Every protesting woman on that day was claiming herself as Manorama’s mother. Thus, the politics that secretes out of the metaphor of motherhood turns pure motherhood on its head. It disentangles motherhood from any given module of biological relationship between a mother and a child and thereby de-contextualizes itself. Every woman is held as a mother – potential or real - and there is a mother in every woman. It does not matter whether a Naga dies or a Kuki (in the context of fierce Naga-Kuki conflict in the early 1990s); it is important that a mother has lost her child. Pure motherhood remains obsessed with only one’s own biological children and is oblivious to what happens to the children of others who may have been killed by one’s own children. Even an aggressor’s mother is bound to shed tears for the mother of the victim and vice versa. Concern for all victims implies a certain transcendence of the narrow ethnic boundaries and a collective concern for all people whose lives have similarly been blighted by rape, torture and intimidation cutting across the national and ethnic divide.

Women in peace politics are often required to be pure and clinically sanitized so as to be completely autonomous from that of the ongoing ethnic movements. Such a purist view fails in appreciating the complex relation between ethnicity and democracy. Women’s democratic struggles are in many ways embedded in ethnicity and ethnic movements and the success of their struggle depends not so much on their ability to stand alone (for that seldom happens in any society) but very much on how they steer and navigate their way through the conflict between their identity as mothers and their other identities as members of some particular communities and nations.

Insofar as our social life is renegotiated at the site of motherhood, we begin to make a break. Accordingly the fundamentals of democratic politics get constantly redefined. Justice thus becomes - not what a group or community perceives it to be and engages others in a conflict in its fight for it - but how a new moral collective is imagined and sought to be brought into existence albeit through an uncharted course – an order that has a place for everyone including the conflicting parties. Motherhood for instance is the key mediating point between conflicting groups and communities - in which justice implies not only being motherly to one’s own children but also to the children of others. Justice is not what we accomplish but how we renegotiate our social relationships while trying to accomplish it. It is not a matter of creating a world in the image of some abstract principles. It has always a family air for it is after all a matter of renegotiating the familiar relationships in an unfamiliar way.


  • The author of the file is : Samir Kumar Das, Professor of Political Science, University of Calcutta.