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K.A. THOMAS

India,

By stepping beyond the confines of a religious mission concerned chiefly with formal schooling, Fr. K.A Thomas is building ways to support and develop the Mising people, one of Northeast India's remaining minorities that has yet to succumb to armed struggle and the politics of ethnic nationalism.

This profile below was prepared when K.A. Thomas was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.

INTRODUCTION

By stepping beyond the confines of a religious mission concerned chiefly with formal schooling, Fr. K.A Thomas is building ways to support and develop the Mising people, one of Northeast India's remaining minorities that has yet to succumb to armed struggle and the politics of ethnic nationalism.




THE NEW IDEA

Fr. Thomas is working to reverse the sequence of neglect, decay, and rebellion that has stymied the peace and prosperity of Northeast India's minorities. He is helping the Mising–who number one million and live in eight districts of the plains of Upper Assam–to resist the social pressures of their region and to find positive, peaceful solutions to the many problems they face. Working with young people, intellectuals, traditional leaders, village women, and school dropouts, Fr. Thomas helps Misings develop a stake in public life through community-building exercises. The goal is to root the Misings in their rich traditions and cultural ethos so that they are not threatened by other cultures in the region. While galvanizing this community toward action, Fr. Thomas is also showing the church and other social organizations a new way of working. Stepping out of the traditional mode of community service through schools, which mostly benefit the elite, Fr. Thomas is demonstrating a model of engaging the poorest of the poor. By inspiring other dynamic priests and liberal individuals to follow this model in other communities, Fr. Thomas hopes to replicate his idea beyond the Mising tribe and reach out to other marginalized groups. Once there are a sufficient number of individuals who have demonstrated the success and feasibility of organizing poor communities on the symbols of their own culture, the church will likely take notice of this working model.




THE PROBLEM

Even among those who subsist at the very margins of society–minorities, the rural poor, landless peasants–some groups are much worse off than others. The Mising, the second-largest tribe in Assam, is such a group. They arrived relatively late to the region and were forced to settle on poor agricultural land along riverbanks. The areas in which the Misings live are characterized by underdevelopment, poverty, floods, lack of communication, and educational backwardness. A sense of dislocation from the Indian state generates conflict and unrest among the people of the Northeast, and the Misings are driven even farther away because of their status–lowly even among other northeastern minorities.

In addition to their socioeconomic woes, the smaller tribes (the Misings being just one example) look down on their own cultural traditions and accept the culture of the dominant groups. One finds the Misings copying the dominant Assamese language, dress, food habits, and lifestyle. This in itself is not harmful. Yet however much they try to copy the dominant culture, they never find acceptance and will always be regarded as "outsiders." Alienated from their own culture and finding no acceptance in the other, the community, and especially the youth, face extreme frustration. It is not long before communities start to react violently. In the northeast region alone, one can count around two dozen violent struggles.

It is to the Mising's credit that they have not yet taken up arms. But they do not receive credit–instead they are ignored as weak and insignificant. Government institutions that are supposed to assist them through development and education are mostly ineffective. Politicians respond to the larger populations, and the government tries to appease only those who pose a serious threat. The church, with its many schools and dispensaries, ends up serving those who have access to their services. Comfortable providing "safe" services to its limited flock, the church has yet to assert leadership in social development. Citizen organizations, with their project-based approach, end up preaching solidarity with minorities, but in fact do very little. Only a comprehensive approach to such communities–one with pride in their cultures–can help severely marginalized groups exist in such a hostile environment.




THE STRATEGY

To bring about change in the mindset of the entire Mising tribe, Fr. Thomas is working simultaneously to build up the culture of various groups within the tribal community. On one front he invites intellectuals of the community–scholars, writers, and others who are also opinion makers–to reflect on the situation of their community, both the positive and the negative, and begin a debate on various issues so that new directions can be provided. He has observed that "what the intellectuals think today the community will do tomorrow," and he believes that direction for the tribe must come from within its own ranks. Three annual seminars have been conducted where Mising scholars came together to present papers and discuss various tribal issues. Interest is growing, and Fr. Thomas is confident that this will become a regular event and source of pride for the community.

To reach other educated quarters of the tribe and sensitize them to the needs of the community, Fr. Thomas started a monthly newspaper in the Mising language (the only regular newspaper for the community at present). Called Anu Agom, or New Language, this is becoming a powerful medium to promote the tribe and provide a sense of identity. The editorial team is made up of local Misings, mainly teachers and other educated people who volunteer their time to run the paper. The newspaper started off as a bimonthly but has turned into a monthly by popular demand; it has now run 51 issues with a circulation about 1,000.

Fr. Thomas is aware that it is not sufficient to work only with the educated elite. In collaboration with local organizations in Mising areas, through existing village groups, and through direct contact, he is organizing women's groups, weaving groups, and youth groups. Realizing the dire need for dynamic young leaders to take the community forward, Fr. Thomas has recently started a leadership-training center. "Rising Star" offers a year-long training to 20 young Misings at a time, mostly school dropouts drawn from villages throughout Assam. It is unique in the sense that the center is in the hands of lay people with individuals within the church playing a supportive role. The trainees are given exposure and inputs on various issues and their community work skills are honed. Fr. Thomas has recruited experts and volunteers from various fields to handle the different modules of the year-long training that emphasizes the development of the trainees as human beings, as Misings, and as servant leaders of society. Beyond providing the trainees the best training that the field can offer, he links them up to outside support systems. Given their training and exposure, Fr. Thomas envisions that these "stars" will be agents for change in their community–able to support themselves with the skills they have received and also able to carry out various community-organizing activities to provide constructive and nonviolent leadership to their people.

To expand the reach of his work, Fr. Thomas is identifying people with whom he would like to partner. His goal is to have enough contemporaries within the church working with him and following his ideas that the church itself takes notice and changes its own approach to community outreach. While this will not happen overnight, Fr. Thomas is heartened by the response he has received from his peers thus far. He envisions a day when his work with the Misings will be able to provide a way for others who want to work with the "bottom of the pile" communities. His role then will be to train, share experiences, and help other individuals and groups to learn from the Mising experience.




THE PERSON

For Fr. Thomas, the transition from being an educator to a champion of marginalized groups was gradual. Never satisfied to remain within the four walls of any institution, whether he was heading elite Don Bosco schools or opening a village school in a new area, Fr. Thomas made sure that he got fully involved in the life of the neighborhood around him. In one assignment after another, he turned the mission schools into centers for social service, opened their gates, taught village children at night, and invited parents onto the school grounds.

These experiences led him to search for the best way to serve those who fall outside the purview of the church. He took himself off the church's professional track to free up more time to meet Misings and work with them. Though he was working outside the routine tasks of his order, his superiors approved his choice on two conditions: he would initially seek neither funds nor staff from the church for his work. Undaunted by the lack of resources, Fr. Thomas took up the challenge.

Two years ago, he started the Institution for Culture and Rural Development, an idea he had been nurturing since 1994. A superb mobilizer of resources, Fr. Thomas has proved to his religious order that it is not a lack of resources but a lack of will and a lack of creative ideas that hampers reaching out to needy communities. Today, Fr. Thomas serves on the highest level decision- and policy-making bodies of his religious province. He is effectively using his position to propagate his ideas for change–first within his order and then outside.




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