GUWAHATI, India (UCAN) — A Catholic archbishop says a great step forward took place at a Church-initiated meeting when Muslim leaders agreed to make peace with Bodo tribal people in Assam state. About 20 key Muslim leaders attended the Feb. 5 meeting, which Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati described as an “unbelievably great breakthrough.” The meeting in Guwahati, Assam’s commercial capital, aimed to forge peace between the Bodo and Muslims in the northeastern state.
It was held as 45,000 people from both communities sheltered in government relief camps amid continuing reports of sporadic violence, despite the deployment of army troops and peace efforts by the state and various groups.
At least 50 people died in October 2008, when Bodo and Muslims clashed and burned each other’s houses in Udalguri and Darrang districts.
After the Feb. 5 meeting, Archbishop Menamparampil said Muslim representatives accepted the proposal “to avoid any further instance of violence.” They also agreed to establish a joint Muslim-tribal peace team.
According to the Salesian prelate, “a clearly good start has been made,” even if much work still remains. “The conflicting groups are eager for a settlement,” he commented, adding that government involvement would be important.
The prelate also said the Bodo leaders agreed to avoid provocative statements that could incite violence and to cooperate to bring about peace, reconciliation and rehabilitation.
Tensions between the two communities started after Bodo people claimed to be the area’s indigenous inhabitants and said Muslims were migrants and should leave.
Tezpur diocese covers the affected districts. Some priests have reported that the violence has also affected Christians. Three Catholic tribal villages near Muslim-majority areas were burned down, and Muslim mobs killed three Catholic tribal men, Tezpur diocesan sources said.
An archdiocesan official spoke of “great anxiety” among Church people when the peace initiative was announced, because they were not sure of the Muslim response.
“But they came in strength, including teachers, professors and other socially important people,” he said. “The Muslims were happy this matter was taken up in a religious atmosphere,” he added.
“It was an attempt at the impossible,” Archbishop Menamparampil acknowledged, admitting he was very anxious before the peace meeting started. Participants’ positive response reassured him.
The prelate had visited the affected area on Dec. 1 on behalf of the Joint Peace Team of Northeast India, which he initiated 12 years ago. The team works for peace in the violence-affected region.
Archbishop Menamparampil, chairman of the Office of Evangelization of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, has worked in northeastern India for the past 40 years. His team has worked for peaceful settlements to several ethnic conflicts in Assam. These include clashes between the Bodo and Santal in 1996; between the Kuki and Paite in 1998; and between the Dimasa and Hmar, and between the Karbi and Kuki in 2003.
UCA News February 10, 2009