‘Ambassador of Peace’ calls for the ‘Ability to Listen’

The secret of success of any peace effort is the ability to listen, says the retired Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati. He was speaking on the occasion of receiving the “Ambassador for Peace” award for 2019 from the International Human Rights Council in a glittering ceremony held at India Islamic Centre Auditorium, New Delhi on December 9.

“Many think that volubility and vocabulary, a cute approach and a persuasive tongue will convince the parties in conflict. But far more important is a contextual understanding of their more serious anxieties in their complexity and depth. But ultimately, a ‘sympathetic listening’ to their inner agonies alone will open the doors for dialogue,” said the 83-old Church leader. “What we need to acquire most of all is an “ability to listen,” he says.

When discussions are rushed through and dictated decisions are pressed hard on the combatants by authorities, peace negotiations stumble, and dialogue makes little headway. But if concern for the anxieties of the affected parties and attention to their eagerness to shape a realistic future dominates the conversation, the horizon brightens up, hearts open out, interactions become fruitful, and realistic conclusions can be reached.

Archbishop Menamparampil with his Joint Peace Team had come to the rescue of two and a half lakh refugees in 42 relief camps around Kokrajhar in 1996 after an inter-ethnic conflict that had carried away hundreds of lives and destroyed thousands of houses.

More than 400 volunteers from places as far as Mumbai and Pune, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, had come to help, and had worked side by side with those from the Northeast itself for months on end, in close collaboration with the state government, providing food, drink, medicine, clothes and other necessities. Peace work was a continuation of this mighty effort, that came after prolonged negotiations and long eliciting of good will. The Governor and the Chief Minister had lauded this mighty contribution.

After that, the Peace Team was called to several places of conflict: Churachandpur, Imphal, Haflong, Diphu, Udalguri, Mendipathar, and Sarupathar in Assam and even Khandmal in Odisha, where major tragedies had caused the loss of hundreds of lives, and a very great loss of houses and enormous amount of property.

Asked why these events had not won national attention and international sympathy, the Archbishop said, “Unfortunately, when the affected communities belong to smaller ethnic groups and weaker sections of people, they fail to win the attention they deserve.”  “This is the greatest tragedy,” he lamented. But the misfortunes were not any less grievous for that.

Apart from direct involvement on peace issues, the Archbishop has written several books and articles on the theme of peace, reconciliation, forgiveness; respect for cultures, defense of traditional value-systems, etc. He has been present at conferences with such themes in the Universities of Wuhan, Nankai, and Hubei in China; Nairobi and Kampala in Africa, recently in Cairo in Egypt, Izmir in Turkey, and several universities in India itself.

Apart from sympathetic listening, the Archbishop insists on the importance of being sensitive to the memories of historic injuries that still may be harassing the communities concerned, in-built prejudices, and cultural distances. “In India we are suffering too much from these,” he says. “And in addition, let your opponent know that you respect him, even when you differ from his seriously.”

He also warns against getting discouraged too fast in the face of opposition from vested interests, political biases, or repeated failures.

 “The Gospel is all about Peace, about reconciling communities and bringing people together,” says Archbishop Menamparampil. “The joy that comes when peace returns is a joy that has no comparison. It is a joy that nobody can take away.”

Archbishop John Moolachira, the President of the North East Regional Bishops’ Council and the Archbishop of Guwahati, said that this award to the Archbishop Emeritus is a great honour to the entire North East.

Bishop George Pallipparambil of Miao Diocese too expressed his happiness over the award. Congratulating the Archbishop Emeritus, he said, “The Archbishop has been relentlessly involved in promoting peace in our region for the last two and a half decade. It is very fitting that he is being recognized and honoured”.

For someone who has spent more than two decades of his life in establishing peace among the broken communities across India, the “Ambassador of Peace” award is a deserving crown that sits perfectly on his humble head.