“If not perceived by acute listening, ears may hear and yet remain deaf”
Tiruvalluvar’s verses by Tirukural, Tamil Nadu, India
In 2001, I wrote about my personal experience of the conflict in Kashmir. I reflected on a conference I had facilitated, organised by the Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace in New Delhi. The conference brought together Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu) and Muslim women, and was an attempt to initiate an honest conversation between the two groups and foster dialogue. To bring two unwilling sides to sit and listen to each other was unthinkable, at a time when no such spaces existed. Pandit women had lived through a decade of exile; forced in 1990 from the Kashmir Valley to live as refugees in one room hell holes, deprived of their ancestral land. The Muslim women brought stories of a changing landsape, and of violence that had continued to wreak havoc on their lives. Both felt violated, humiliated and betrayed.
A year on from the conference, the group met again, this time in the Kashmir Valley - the epicentre of the conflict. The women named the group Athwaas (a Kashmiri word meaning ‘holding hands'). The diversity of Athwaas was representative of the wider conflict dynamics in Kashmir. It is perhaps then that the seed of peace leadership was sown. The Athwaas group later fragmented due to external pressure that created internal divisions. But, ten years later I would go on to set up the Yakjah Network, a leadership platform for young people, and an evolution of the work done by the Athwaas group.
Between 2000 and 2010, peace processes, agreements and ceasefires were failing due to weak policies and a lack of trust. The local political units, parties and groups were trying to outplay each other, and division was growing. Extremist ideologies, radicalisation of young people and violence were increasing, and the response from the state was more violence.
The Yakjah network
It was during these despairing times that I started reflecting deeply and began to recognise that an emerging generation of youth leadership had the potential for filling the peace and security void. Young people, I thought, had better chances of going beyond their fixed identities. That is when I founded the Yakjah Reconciliation and Development Network, to enhance youth leadership in peacebuilding, and promote diversity, justice, reconciliation, accountability and transparency. I drew from my learning at the women’s group in terms of what worked and what didn’t, and an initiative for transcending identities was born.
The Yakjah programme (which means ‘being together’) focuses on transcending politicised identities and supporting the social transformation of youth and their journey to peacebuilding. The network is based on awareness, meaning that individuals are at the centre of transformation and leadership. In a culture of division, confrontation and violence, it opens a space for non-partisan, unbiased, neutral approaches that unifies people through the values of compassion, cooperation and care.
For at least 20 years, peacebuilding has not been a popular approach to enact social change. It still hasn’t been able to capture the political imagination for strategic shifts. In Jammu and Kashmir, like many other places, the focus has been more on furthering military aims rather than finding political solutions and creating platforms for dialogue, transforming relationships, and fighting inequality and injustice.
Today in Jammu and Kashmir, after the Abrogation of Article 370, old structures have been dismantled, and the former state has been reorganised. New structures are being carved, and it's crucial that besides political strategies, policies, constitutional amendments and military interventions, a humanitarian approach for healing begins. We cannot build the new on the foundations of past mistakes. Leadership has to replace impunity and separatist narratives with compassion and dignity for all. The process of rebuilding for justice and peace has to involve everyone.
Over the years, I have been drawing upon various examples around the world to understand the phenomenon of leadership and develop tools related to it. In the remainder of the article, I explore four types of leadership I see as most critical for peace.
Some of the resources below are used at Yakjah for leadership workshops. They are not exhaustive, however they do give us insight into different kinds of leadership. One powerful resource is Invictus, a 2009 film about Nelson Mandela that explores how dignity in leadership has the potential to help people to reach their highest potential. It is a kind of leadership that paves the way for restorative justice and reconciliation, reimagining relationships for greater peace. As a mentor and facilitator, I often use clips from the film during peacebuilding workshops to demonstrate through a real-life example how to develop and cultivate leadership that unifies communities separated through hate, ‘othering’ and injustice.
Nelson Mandela’s leadership in the post-apartheid period emerged from a vision of unity between all races that had been segregated through a political system. When a political system perpetuates a culture of hate, segregation, division and inequality, a political vision is required that stems from courage and goodness, in order to right the wrongs. When regimes deny people their legitimacy as equal citizens, it demands leadership that uses creative imagination to reconcile and build partnership. Mandela’s personal belief and conviction for forgiving his ‘enemies’ was the guiding light that shaped his philosophy as an elected leader of the ‘new South Africa’. A dialogue in the film emphasises his philosophy: “Reconciliation starts from here. Forgiveness starts from here. Forgiveness liberates the soul, it removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon. Our enemy is not the Afrikaners. But they are our fellow South Africans. We have to surprise them with compassion and generosity. There is no time to celebrate petty revenge. We have to rebuild the nation''. It takes a generosity of spirit to lend dignity to processes of reconciliation, recovery and rebuilding, and that is what Mandela offered through his astute leadership. When people are attempting to survive a broken and abusive political system, visionary leadership plays an important role.
Transition periods in regions riddled with conflict and hostilities are the most challenging. This is the time when communities are emerging from an era of terror, violence, mistrust, polarisation and political instability. As they rebuild, there is the chance to create a new culture of transparency, accountability, healing and social transformation. Post-conflict periods therefore require leadership that is deft, able to comprehend political realities, transcend personal, painful experiences, and envision a new collective reality. It is critical to lead with policies that usher in equality and justice. All those affected by conflict are not yet ready or prepared to make the shift willingly and accept the new power dynamics. It requires political acumen and a compassionate leader to inspire people to reach their own greatness.
To inspire people in the midst of a raging conflict to support efforts to end the violence is a phenomenal task. It's during these times that effective leadership is able to steer people towards a common goal, whether it's about the idea of nation building as was the case in South Africa or as it was in the case of the Liberian conflict. In the latter case, the endless brutal violence, which spared neither Christian nor Muslim communities, had taken everything from the Liberian people.
It was then that a group of women from both communities, led by Leymah Roberta Gbowee, Nobel Laureate and Founder of the Liberia Women Initiative, and Vaiba Flomo, Founder of Christian Women Peace Initiative, and many other ordinary women: police officers, journalist and homemakers, played an instrumental role in building women's solidarity and interfaith harmony. They formed the Women in Peacebuilding Network and, by using strategies that have been successful in numerous ‘people power’ movements throughout the world, not only ended the ongoing violence but also negotiated women’s place in dialogue, in re-integrating their children back into the social mainstream and in monitoring the peace agreement. As mothers, sisters, and wives, they brought the authority of caretakers and the spirit of nurturers to their demonstrations. As observant Christians and Muslims, they represented the country’s major religions and showed a unity of purpose that transcended religious beliefs.
I first learnt about this Liberian women’s leadership in a women peacemakers colloquium hosted by Inclusive Security in 2007. They screened a riveting documentary film 'Pray the Devil Back to Hell’, on Liberian women’s remarkable role in mobilising women from all spheres of life to intervene in the ongoing civil war and end the violence. The film captures how ordinary women from Christian and Muslim communities took leadership roles in various capacities to influence clergy from both communities to become their allies in stopping the killings. I use it often as a resource for developing leadership perspectives within the Yakjah programme.
Personal experiences of pain, loss, injustice, abuse or humiliation tend to evoke responses that can trigger further cycles of revenge and hate. They can also break the cycle and pave the way for healing and transformation. Political leaders and vested interest groups exploit people’s feelings and use them for personal political gains, dividing people on the basis of their religious, ethnic, and caste identities. They use selective history, memory and experiences to polarise people and communities.
A powerful resource “My Land, My People”, the autobiography of the Dalai Lama, gives an insight into the mind of a leader, who in spite of great adversity in his life, gathered his ‘inner resources’ in order to lead. His shining leadership demonstrates how individuals can have the capacity to steer their own self and others towards reaching their higher self. As a stakeholder in today's Asian geo-politics, we find that the Dalai Lama’s compassionate leadership has enabled his people to evolve towards this vision for a democratic, equal and harmonising world order. He introduced timely reforms, built consensus and facilitated a unifying perspective for a greater good to emerge, beyond national boundaries.
Catastrophic events can change the course of history, and also see leadership grow in the space of potential disaster. An example that comes to mind of history changing course is mentioned in a book entitled, “Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego - System to Eco-System Economies', by Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer. I use it as reference for Yakjah’s healing and transformation workshops. The book mentions the Chernobyl crisis and President Mikhail Gorbache v’s response to it. The authors wrote, “Gorbachev realised that if the melted nuclear core had reached the groundwater beneath the reactor, Europe might have become an unthinkable wasteland”. Quoting Gorbachev they further write, “Chernobyl showed us the true nature of nuclear energy in human hands. We calculated that our most powerful missiles , the SS-18s, were as powerful as 100 Chernobyls and we had 2700 of them and they were intended for the Americans”. Chernobyl awakenedGorbachev to the reality of the horror they were sitting on. A year and half later he retired all of the Soviet Union’s nuclear warheads, which eventually led to the nuclear disarmament movement and turned the course of world history for a better and secure future.
When thinking of this example, it’s important to reflect on what brought about a shift from helplessness to a state of enactment, from chaos to clarity? What determines that individuals, institutions, societies, governments and systems operate from a space of wellness, wholesomeness and inclusion rather than lack, entitlement and retribution?
It begins when an individual forms a deep and sacred connection with one's higher self at a given moment of challenge or perplexity. That is when guidance and true leadership comes. It happened to Nelson Mandela when he first read the poem ‘Invictus’ in Robben Island prison. It happened to Leymah Gwobee when her child asked for a piece of doughnut, even when Liberia was exploding with violence. It happened to me when, a decade ago, I was facilitating a women’s dialogue in 2010. I asked myself, why did the group disintegrate, despite the fact that we had been listening to each other and working together for peace? The answer and the solution germinated from a space of deep listening, a state of stillness and mauna (a sanskrit word meaning contemplative silence) that guided my actions and helped me reflect on the challenges of the group. It is then that I reassembled my broken inner self, and recovered in order to establish Yakjah, a youth, peace and security leadership platform. It brings to the world of peacebuilding the powerful combination of cultivating compassion and consciousness for healing and transformation in societies ripped apart by violence, harmful rhetoric and hate.
The social field of peacebuilding is dynamic, evolutionary and complex. It involves a variety of actors, both adversarial and supportive. There are therefore no set guidebooks, blueprints, benchmarks or a linear trajectory for effective outcomes. Nevertheless, peacebuilding is strategic in nature and a political act aiming to bring balance in power and wider socio-political transformation from the individual to the systemic level. In today’s disruptive times, when the world is looking for solutions to climate change, ethnic conflict, violent extremism and disparities exacerbated by the pandemic, non-violent leadership is a crucial component for change. From the local to global level, what the world needs is leadership that demonstrates a compassionate heart and an open mind to honor everyone’s history, memory and story. This is how to build socio-political harmony and peace at all levels. What the world needs is inspiration that leads people from despair to hope.