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June 18, 2012

Under the Banyan Tree

by Admin

Ms. Sushma Ramswami, Communication Secretary, Synod of the Church of North India and Vice President, National Council of Churches in India suggests some Indian analogues to Indaba

Kulta, nalayak, kahan ka paap hai yeh” (stupid, idiot, blot on the family, whose sin is it?).

These were the screams coming out of a house in Ratanjuli Cluster situated 34 kilometres away from Tezpur in Assam, a state in the northeast of India.  People from the area, including both Hindus and Christians, surrounded the house to find out what the matter was.  On probe it was found that Anjali, a member of the family, had locked herself in a room and had not come out of it for two days.  On probing further, the villagers found that she had been carrying a child for six months.  Since being an unwed mother bears a stigma, the boy she had been seeing had taken her for an abortion. As the baby was six months old, the doctor refused to perform the procedure, so they went to a private pharmacy, where she was given a medicine that caused the baby to die inside her womb.  Terrible pain and shame forced her to remain inside the room.

In the evening, as is customary, the male members of the village gathered under a banyan tree to discuss matters pertaining to the good of the village.  Anjali’s matter was discussed at length, and it was decided that some of the elders from the village would approach the boy, who was working in a neighboring tea garden.  When he did not listen to them they complained to the garden’s manager and asked him to suspend the boy.  After hearing the story the manager took immediate action and suspended the culprit.  Necessary arrangements for the girl’s treatment in the civil hospital were also made.

The matter did not end here, for the villagers were concerned about the future of Anjali.  A meeting of the villagers was called to finalize the matter with the panchayat (local governance committee), labor union of the garden and local leaders.  After discussing the matter thoroughly the villagers exhorted the boy to accept the girl as his wife and to arrange for proper treatment until she completely recovered.  They also told the boy that if they found negligence in the treatment or anything else, legal action would be taken against him.  Also, once the girl recovered, the boy had to have the marriage performed legally and produce a copy of the marriage certificate to the villagers.  The guardian of the boy also accepted the resolution put by the villagers.  Thus a life which could have been destroyed by fighting a case in court was settled through discussion under a banyan tree.  This is an example of Indian Indaba.

Forums for Consultation and Decision-Making in India

The word Indaba is new in the Indian context, but for the African context it is not.  In southern Africa it is a familiar term and a popular concept.  It communicates a mode of interaction with sense and sensitivity.

When we try to unfold the nature of Indaba, we discover that it resembles several models of group interaction in the Indian context.  In Bengal, for instance, addaa designates an informal discussion in a group.  Students in universities sometimes have felt included in deliberations only if they were in an addaa, which may have a less formalized agenda than an Indaba.  In other parts of the country, however, an addaa has the connotation of a drinking society.

In Punjab, in the northwest of India, people often gather on manji, or rope cots, under a banyan tree to discuss matters of common interest.  There the meeting is called manji, and there are similar gatherings in other areas of the country, though under different names. Such meetings are often male-dominated.  While the men are meeting and discussing issues pertaining to individuals, families and the community at large, the women folk are expected to be doing their family chores, cooking and the like. In the central Indian state of Maharashtra, however, women also participate.

In Maharashtra, sabha is another important model of group deliberation and decision-making, but it has a much more formal and legislative connotation.  For instance, the two houses of Parliament in India are called the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha (similar to the House of Commons and House of Lords in Britain).  At the local level, the panchayat, or village council of elders and other leaders, typically has a similarly formal decision-making function.  Of late, women have emerged as winners in panchayat elections and often hold decision-making positions.

The Nature of Indaba

There seems to be no formal term in English that can communicate the meaning and message of Indaba.  Although the term Indaba may be alien to the Indian context, its concept and sense are not, and in the Indian context we can understand what it is about.

Indaba is:

• Sharing on a topic/and or an issue in an informal get-together, where age and sex, and even number hardly matter.

• Encouraging and sometimes instigating others to take part in the sharing or discussion, so that gradually everyone shares and/or talks.

• Giving up the initial hesitation to talk, and gathering momentum to be part of the whole discussion.

• Honoring others’ views more than one’s own.

• Finding time to reflect retrospectively, which often leads to confession and paves the way for reconciliation and growth.

• Inspiring people to develop the skill of listening and learning from each other.

• Developing an understanding of where there is agreement and where there is disagreement.

• Drawing no formal conclusion or resolution of the sharing/reflection/discussion, and yet finding everyone satisfied.

Seventy-five percent of India is rural, and the concept behind Indaba exists in the form of meetings under the banyan tree, where matters pertaining to the lives of people living in the area are discussed.  Such gatherings have the spirit and the value of cooperation and trust to take decisions collectively and resolve conflicts between communities.  This is evident in the stories below, which illustrate how such gatherings inculcate feelings of togetherness and trust that can bring healing.

The Nanegaon Dalits’ Fight for Their Graveyard

The life of India’s outcastes, commonly called Dalits, is full of struggle.  Typically they work hard at very low wages to make ends meet in order to ensure their survival.  In this instance, Dalits who were Christian converts also had to struggle to ensure that after death they too could rest in peace, possible only if they could be buried with dignity in the land that was theirs.  A socio-economically weak group of people had to fight to reclaim their land, which was being encroached upon by the dominating class.

Nanegaon is a small village in Jalna district, about 52 kilometres from Aurangabad in Maharashtra.  Nanegaon houses about 100 Dalit Christian families who come from the Maatan, or Maang, community, which has been residing in the area for three generations.  Historically, the Maatan were looked down upon as outcastes and were forced to do lowly jobs like sweeping and scavenging.  They also supported themselves by broom-making and rope-weaving.

Today the picture has not changed much, for the Maatan Dalits still live in poor conditions, deprived of many amenities.  They are landless laborers who earn daily wages by working in neighboring farms and factories.  When work opportunities decline in their villages many are forced to migrate to towns and cities in search of livelihood.  Due to the apathy of the government and its policies, such communities have remained at the periphery of society.  Yet in spite of all hardships, these communities have remained devout in their faith and have pulled together in facing the challenges of life.

Some 150 years ago, the missionaries who started work in the Nanegaon area bought a piece of land out of which 3.5 acres was kept as a burial ground.  Over time its ownership passed to the local Dalit Christian community.  A couple of years back the dominating classes in the village started impinging on the property and gradually grabbed most of the land, for there was no boundary wall.  The Dalits were left with a mere one acre of land, and that too was being eyed by others.  The Dalits found it difficult to protest because they depended on the the influential higher-caste people for their livelihoods, and they could not match their power.

The Dalit Christian community sat together and discussed various options to solve the problem.  They realized that socio-economically they were at a disadvantage, for their livelihoods depended on the upper-caste people.  They also believed that confrontation would not be effective because they were few in number. So with a rights-based perspective, they went into a thoughtful process of uniting and sensitizing the entire community, creating awareness of the right to a dignified life.  Members were encouraged to wage a peaceful protest against the oppression and anarchy they were experiencing.

This community organization resulted in mobilizing a movement for the common cause.  To claim back their land that had been forcibly taken, all Dalits together approached the local government machinery.  They procured copies of government records and other documents that designated the exact area and proved their ownership of the land.  Proceeding in a legal manner, they succeeded in ending the encroachment on their land.  They also managed to get an official order to construct a boundary wall, as this would protect their land from further encroachment.

The results were not quick and the process was not easy, but over a period of time their Do No Harm approach enabled them to reclaim their land.  Head-on clashes would not have yielded results, but a series of talks to convince the encroachers to give back land bore positive fruit.  The community took the legal route to prove their ownership over the area and made the dominating class realize that their demand was just.  Thus, they managed to maintain good relations with the other class and safeguarded their livelihood.

Restoring the Pannasi  Water Supply

A long time back in the Bhandara District of Maharashtra, in central India, in an area included in the CNI Diocese of Nagpur, Pannasi village was carved out of Minsi village.  It houses all Shende families, and they are Mali (horticulturists) by caste and occupation.  In the beginning, a couple of families relocated themselves from Minsi and started residing on a hillside, cultivating the land for floriculture.  As time passed, more families joined them, and gradually the number of families reached fifty.  It was then that it became the separate entity known as Pannasi, for in Marathi, pannas means fifty.

Including Pannasi, there are three villages under Minsi Gram Panchayat, and they all get their water supply from Minsi.  (A gram panchayat serves at the village level whereas a nagar panchayat serves a city.) In May 2008, Pannasi’s water was stopped.  Some of the villagers went to the gram panchayat and enquired about it.  They were told that the pipeline was closed for maintenance and that the supply would resume soon.  Months passed, but nothing was done and the severity of the water problem increased.  Women from Pannasi walked daily a distance of 3-4 kilometers to fetch the pots of water they needed for their households.  Some of the villagers used bullock-carts, bicycles and motorbikes to transport water.

In March 2009, Manav Haqq Sangharsh Samiti (MHSS, meaning Human Rights Committee) a people’s organization and partner of the Nagpur Diocesan Board of Social Services in the Church of North India, started its intervention in the area.  While interacting with the community members, the MHSS members realized the acute water problem that people were facing for months at a time.  When they tried to find the root cause of this problem, they learned that the water supply was deliberately cut by Minsi because it felt the Minsi locals were not getting enough supply.  MHSS tried to reason and solve the problem amicably by bringing together communities from both villages, but it did not work out.

The representatives from Pannasi in Minsi’s gram panchayat could not do much to restart the supply.  The local governing system had a strong hold of Teli (oil merchants) and Kunbi (landlords) communities which are considered to be high castes.  They dominated the proceedings in the general meeting and sidelined the Pannasi issue.

MHSS mobilized the community in Pannasi and empowered them to unite to acquire their right to water.  There were some people in Pannasi who were indifferent to the process, and their involvement was casual.  They thought they would benefit even if they did not participate actively in the struggle.  But the MHSS brought the Pannasi residents together and led them in their struggle, guiding them to take this matter to Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Bhandara District. The villagers in large numbers went to the District Office.  The CEO promptly responded to the people’s appeal and asked the concerned department to take necessary action.  Minsi Gram Panchayat was also directed to cooperate.

In the first week of July 2009, mechanized crews reached Pannasi village and began the maintenance work on the water system.  Within a month the water supply was restored.  In order to strengthen the village’s position in the gram panchayat, Pannasi village plans to prepare more Mali members to serve as their representatives in the local governance system.  To establish a bond with other villagers they plan to have common celebrations of religious festivals, initiate and organize cultural programmes and build trust so that they can participate in each other’s social and political struggles. It is also thought that one common water scheme for all the villages would maintain harmony.

With the help of the elders at the sabha, the community in Pannasi was empowered to unite to acquire their right to water.

Indaba in the Bible

If people getting together to share joys and sorrows, excitement and frustration, memories of yesteryear and plans for the tomorrow are the main focus of Indaba, then there are ample references to Indaba-type consultations in the Bible.  Certain biblical narratives can be considered in the category of Indaba if examined carefully.  For example, the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) provides evidence for a kind of Indaba.  Genesis 11:1-4 suggests that the people of the whole world were part of an Indaba as they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens.”  They moved together, they talked together, they planned together and then they took a decision together for what they considered their wellbeing.   This “good” was to retain their name and identity: “Let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

There is a trace of another Indaba in the succeeding verses, Genesis 11:5-7.  Here we find God in a divine Indaba in which God speaks as a plural person: “Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” Here God, depicted as a plurality, talked and took a decision against the human Indaba.  In this story the divine Indaba can be identified as a counter-Indaba to that of the humans.  The divine Indaba superseded the human Indaba, and thus the human Indaba faltered (Genesis 11:8-9).

The New Testament provides examples of people coming together to sort out issues. Acts 15 provides the story of the Jerusalem Council, which was held chiefly because Christian Hellenists in Antioch had baptized uncircumcised Gentiles, and because other Christians (the mainly Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians in Jerusalem) believed that was wrong. But the disagreement was not only about circumcision.  They were debating whether Gentiles had to adopt Jewish customs before being baptized.  Jewish Christians believed it was right to impose their own customs and culture on the Gentile Christians.  This is a mistake which some missionaries of all nations have made and are still making.

Another example is found in the various accounts of Jesus’ last night with his disciples in the four gospels.  The act of giving and serving is stressed. Jesus is the leader but he acts in vulnerability: he offers his body and blood for the disciples and for the life of the world.  He lets Judas go, although he knows betrayal is at hand. He washes the disciples’ feet. Jesus shares his anguish with the disciples in various ways.  They confer about who the betrayer might be, and Peter professes his undying loyalty.  Jesus prays for the disciples.  Was this Indaba successful? Well, it certainly bequeathed to us the Eucharist that is at the heart of our worship life, and Jesus’ prayer is a permanent gift about what it means to be “in Christ”.  On the other hand, it did not prevent the disciples from scattering shortly thereafter.  Like any Indaba, its record was mixed!

The Listening Cell in the Church of North India

The Indian analogues to Indaba that have been cited arise from the historically rural context of life in India.  Yet India is becoming increasingly urban, with Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai qualifying as megalopolises on a global scale and many smaller cities have several million inhabitants.  In this environment it is important that urban Christians develop patterns of common life that both draw on traditional patterns and respond to urban realities.

On the above premise, after becoming Moderator of the Church of North India in 2006 the Most. Revd. Joel V. Mal presented his address at the first CNI Executive Committee (the senior executive body of CNI), and it was received with deep appreciation. The address generated discussion and noted the following points:

  • That the Church Union was achieved and inaugurated on 29November 1970 is a gift from God:
  • Despite trials and tribulations during this long united journey for 35 years, it was acknowledged that the journey has been rich and vibrant and God was with us.
  • For the onward journey to be smooth the Church needs to get back to the basics and be always ready, like soldiers in barracks—fully prepared.
  • Before we engage in our journey together we need to find out together what is ailing us and what it ailing others, and then find medicine for that.  It is going to be difficult and painful to be honest with ourselves, others and God, but there is no other way.
  • The Church of North India as it is here and now should proceed to look at itself critically.  This self-examination will help all to participate more fully in the church’s life and work.

After much discussion it was decided to establish a “Listening Cell” at the church-wide synod level.

Salient among its terms of reference were:

  • It shall endeavor to undertake a process of introspection to address issues that are hindering the growth and development of the life and work of the church.
  • It shall facilitate listening to the voice of the people of the CNI and create space for understanding, fellowship and reconciliation.
  • It shall examine matters of conflict in order to decide whether there is any possibility for negotiation and reconciliation.
  • The Listening Cell shall function within a time frame and submit periodic reports on the outcome of its work to the Executive Committee.
  • While dealing with matters pertaining to a diocese, it shall make efforts to visit the diocese involved and talk to the people concerned.

The Listening Cell had just one meeting, at which many grievances were shared by members of congregations and by one staff member of a synodical board. However, the Listening Cell did not see the light of another meeting and the effort lapsed, essentially because the criticisms that were voiced were considered too sensitive and volatile.  In this situation we see that the church had the vision and courage to launch an Indaba-type effort, but it had not developed internal mechanisms of trusting responses to handle what the consultation process might bring to light.


This reflection has recounted several instances in which Indian Christians have activated indigenous models of consultation and decision-making in situations of personal and socio-economic conflict, both within their communities and with other communities.  A particular instance of church-wide listening and consultation has also been narrated.  The study has cited conceptual models from within Indian society that are analogous to the practice of Indaba, and biblical instances of Indaba-like consultations have been explored.

The challenging question before us as the Church of North India is this: Are we a listening church, or have we over time become chiefly a bureaucratic multinational organization?  Seen as the mission of Christ, the church is for the people, of the people and by the people.  While the Lord’s command remains a top priority for members of rural congregations in India, we in the urban setting seem to be preoccupied with bureaucratic realities.  If people in rural congregations can sit together and sort matters out, why can’t we at the national level have the spirit of reconciliation to try and build a just and peaceful society?


1Case studies in this essay are drawn from the experience of the CNI Synodical Board of Social Services.

2Minutes of the 77th Meeting of the CNI Executive Committee, held 7-8 February 2006.

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