In many conflicts the larger “players” in a conflict get locked into the cycles of recrimination, retaliation, and violence. Smaller groups at the margins may just try to keep their heads down and try to survive. As the old African proverb says, “When the elephants fight the grass suffers.” So the grassroots margins just hope to make it through one way or another.
But there is another action that can be taken by some at the margins, a transformative action. Margins can sometimes create the safe space for the conflicted parties to meet to explore peace or raise the voices that aren’t locked into political positions to find the way to resolution.
We are seeing that in a recent conflict in the northeast Indian state of Manipur. The government has been dealing with restive ethnic minorities, particularly the Nagas. I’ve worked for almost 20 years among the Nagas as well as in Manipur with the Nagas, Kukis, and the dominant Meiteis. I have friends in all these groups. Because of a government proposal to create new districts that break apart some of the ethnic communities from larger districts the Nagas especially have protested. A blockade of a major highway was launched leading to the torching of many vehicles. A Naga insurgent group killed Manipuri policemen. The tension and violence are ratcheting up.
A coalition of students from northeast India studying in Delhi held a candlelight vigil about the crisis. Muslim students played a key role. Muslims are a smaller group in Manipur, not major players in the conflict. The students presented some ideas not favoring either side but opening up some options that find a way respecting the concerns of each side. The margins in this conflict are providing a space for creative and constructive thought.
I saw this same dynamic in Bosnia after the war there. The major conflicting groups were Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslims. A peace and reconciliation group in Sarajevo was held together by Jews and Protestant Christians. The Protestant and Jewish communities are both very small in Bosnia. They weren’t major participants in the conflict that tore apart the country, so they were able to be trusted as they created the space for dialog and exploring the ways toward peace.
It’s exciting to see people or groups at the margins become agents for hope and healing.