By Eisha Sarkar
During one of our sessions at Pax Populi Academy, Muhammad Qasem Jami asked me if I could teach him something about conflicts and how to resolve them. As a journalist, conflicts take up most of my professional space and time. Conflict makes news; it makes large-font, big bold headlines. Jami’s question led me to introspect. Could someone who was always looking for conflicts teach something about resolving them?
Since I needed context, Afghanistan was my starting point. I had read historian William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan which discussed the events that led to the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) and The Great Game between the Russian and the British Empires in the nineteenth century which created the setting for all subsequent wars in Afghanistan right up till the US-led invasion in 2001 which ousted the ruling Taliban. While much has been documented about the wars in Afghanistan, little do we know about the traditional methods of resolving conflicts in that country – the methods peacemakers could fall back upon, when the world’s peacekeeping community is busy elsewhere.
After sifting through many websites, I came across a very resourceful paper by Ali Wardak titled, Jirga – A Traditional Mechanism of Conflict Resolution in Afghanistan (University of Glamorgan, UK) and enthusiastically shared it with Jami. “There’s a lot more about the Pashtun jirga in here. In Herat, we have shuras – a group of white-bearded men (the village elders, not very different from the Indian Panchayat) – who help resolve disputes between people,” he noted. Jami then went on to highlight the vocabulary and phrases in Wardak’s paper he had not heard/used before.
During our next session, he made a brilliant presentation about conflicts and conflict resolution in personal and professional spaces. He stressed on STABEN:
Source of conflict
Time and Place that serves as a setting to solve the issue
Behaviour and identifying the problem with it
Emotional reaction to the issue/behaviour
Need to end the conflict by finishing off the required tasks
“Hopefully, if you do all of this, you will not need to go to a third-party or a jirga or a shura,” Jami chuckled. “The key to it is forgiveness,” he added, “Refusing to forgive someone is like drinking poison in order to defeat your enemies.”
Then I asked him the difference between conflict and competition. He was a bit confused. I said, “I’ll give you an example. When you play football (soccer) by the rules, it’s a healthy competition to score the most goals and win the match/tournament. But when one team starts playing foul, tugging shirts, tripping players, intentionally harming the other team, the competition turns into a conflict. In a conflict, one side is always wrong and wants to damage the other. You may win the match in the end but it will have cost you your reputation. Some players on your team might even have been red- or yellow-carded for playing foul.” “Wow! What an example!”
Encouraged, I discussed with him Sun Tzu’s definition of conflict in Art of War, a situation where two rivals must continue investing to prevent their opponent from winning and how costly these ‘wars of attrition’ are for both winners and losers. I cited the civil war in Afghanistan in the early 1990s as an example. It surprised him: “You do know a lot about my country!”
I closed the discussion with Kautilya’s Arthashastra, one of the oldest treatises of statecraft and economics in the world, which is as relevant today as it was in 2nd century BCE. With it, I introduced to Jami four words from Sanskrit: saam (reconciliation), daam (compensation), dand (punishment), bhed (divide and rule), the four-step conflict resolution strategy in diplomacy. He shouted over his microphone: “You’ve taken me back to 2nd century BCE!” “If you look at Syria right now, you’ll find all four put into action,” I responded.
A very interesting journey through history and geography, ancient wisdom and current affairs, languages and cultures, the traditional and the modern, my student and I travelled together.