India: Justice as a healing force — An Interview with George Pulikuthiyil

India: Justice as a healing force — An Interview with George Pulikuthiyil

Rev. Fr. George Pulikuthiyil is the Executive Director of Jananeethi, a Kerala, India, based non-governmental organisation advocating human rights throughout the country as well as in the region. In this interview, he has elaborated the area he worked in last few decades.

We need strong funding support for these developmental plans. My dissociation with the church has closed all my avenues for resources. Lots of negative campaigns had gone worldwide.

Interviewed by Nilantha Ilangamuwa-Jul 9, 2017

Jul 10, 2017

( July 9, 2017, Kerala – Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) “To my information, there are around 3.5 million NGOs in India and according to reports, over 70% of them are fake. I understand those “fake” organisations never file necessary documents to the government, no proper auditing, no properly constituted governing body, no annual returns, no audit reports etc.,” Reverend Father George Pulikuthiyil, an eminent human rights defender told the Sri Lanka Guardian in an exclusive interview.

Rev. Fr. George Pulikuthiyil is the Executive Director of Jananeethi, a Kerala, India, based non-governmental organisation advocating human rights throughout the country as well as in the region. In this interview, he has elaborated the area he worked in last few decades.

Excerpts of the interview;

Question: Father, tell us about your story? How did you start the Jananeethi and how far you have achieved the aims of the organisation?

Answer: I was ordained a priest in Catholic Church in the year 1981. I had lofty ideals of my priesthood and the prophetic role each priest had to perform in the community. I was good in public speaking, theatrical arts, sports and athletics. I had proved myself a successful organiser as I was assigned by authorities to different missions while a scholastic in Bangalore. Naturally I had ambitious plans to dedicate myself for the renewal of the religious life in Catholic Church. That was precisely the reason why I did not take up a teaching job in one of the leading colleges in Kerala as was suggested by my provincial superior. My first appointment was as the Director of an inter-religious cultural centre at Cochin, Kerala. The first three years of my priesthood was there. I enjoyed my work and I do believe I had performed very well as those years are recorded as the glorious period of the institution.

RE-DEFINING THE CIVIL SOCIETIES IN ASIA is our new initiative where we at Sri Lanka Guardian will bring the broader perspectives on the civil society organisations in the region.

But priesthood disappointed me. My expectations of priesthood and the real life within the enclosure of the religious house were mutually opposite. I was totally disillusioned and confused. I had only two options. Either I should quit from priesthood, or should remain and try to change from within. I preferred the second. Because leaving priesthood would invite much social stigma. It would have several ramifications that would damage my family, my relationships, my public image and my future. I knew that Catholic Church in Kerala was a mighty organisation that it would not allow anyone to challenge its structure and image, how-so-ever meaningless it has been.

So I remained with my religious congregation, but changed the course of my priestly functions. Most of my time I was with people’s movements, got involved in social and cultural activities. Whatever I had planned to do within the religious sphere, I started doing for the benefit of the open society. I took lead in several movements that would oppose corruption in public offices, unethical practices in business, violation of civil liberties and forceful land acquisitions taking away the livelihood of the ordinary people. My popularity disturbed the local bishop and he started complaining to my provincial superior that I was influenced by communist ideals and that I was challenging authorities etc. The bishop formally banned me from all catholic institutions including churches. Finally, in 1987 I suspended my activities for time being and left for Mumbai to take up a degree course in law. In 1990 I came back to Kerala, started practice of law in Kerala High Court from 1991.

I wished to become a lawyer not to make money or fame. I wanted myself to be the defender of the defenceless, to be the voice of the voiceless. I had all formal permissions and approvals from my provincial superior to pursue law and to practice in the court. My legal services (I call it my mission), as it was part of my priestly& prophetic commitments, was given free of costs. And it was intended primarily for the poor, the weak, the vulnerable and the marginalised. It was pro-poor and victim-centered. In 1992, Jananeethi was registered as a Charitable Civil Society Organization under civil law, a platform for secular collective of human rights defenders, eminent jurists, retired judges, professionals, social activists and students of law and social work.

In short time there was lot of public talk about my services and many poor and oppressed persons, mostly women and those living with disabilities, visited Jananeethi seeking redressal of their grievances. Much of their complaints were against big establishments including church institutions. Naturally, I irked the clerical entrepreneurs and religious congregations that started complaining to my then provincial superior against my “harassment”. He asked me not to disturb church officials and church institutions but can proceed vehemently against the laymen. I told him that when a bishop/priest/nun was wrong, he/she was wrong. Law applies to all. All are ‘children’ of God, and all are equal before law. He then told me, “we as clerics and church personnel never do wrong. We should stand united. I don’t want you to challenge our people. You shall not do it.”

I refused to accept his logic. I told him that was not the Christ-ian way of looking at things. I had to disobey him. I raised my conscientious objections, but it was not intelligible to him. He served me three warning letters. I politely disagreed with him and held my conscience as always right. Finally, my congregation formally and arbitrarily dismissed me from the religious congregation where I lived 25 years as a priest, and another 15 years as a scholastic. Now, God alone can dismiss me as I am not under anyone else in His name.

I continue my work in Jananeethi though there are personal limitations of age, health and loneliness. But I still remain in my priestly and prophetic commitments being translated in my service to the people. My colleagues in Jananeethi are my family and congregation. They are honest, committed and unbiased. Jananeethi has no religion, no caste, no party politics, no profit motive. We work for the freedom, dignity, equal rights, livelihood, human rights, civil liberties and environmental protection with like-minded people and groups beyond borders.

Jananeethi has completed 25 years as a change maker. Much before the Supreme Court of India directed high courts and district courts to conduct Mediation and Settlement of disputes out of courts in 2002, Jananeethi had initiated the same from 1991. Jananeethi created the first Litigation-free Village in India in the year 2000 at Thichoor, in Kerala. Parliament of India passed Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act in 2005, but Jananeethi had commenced the same service from 1993 for victims of domestic & sexual violence. Psycho-legal therapeutic services of Jananeethi for ‘healing justice’ still remains unique and innovative in the area of restorative justice. For the first time in India, Jananeethi has initiated a Certificate Program on Business & Human Rights in law schools and national law universities inculcating human rights values in the minds of young executives and professionals. Since 1991 Jananeethi has been able to help more than 3000 persons/families a year to access justice through alternate dispute resolution (ADR). This was intended to avoid unnecessary delay in judicial adjudication and to save hard-earned revenue of the poor citizens. The process was democratic and participatory. Jananeethi introduced sensitization workshops in rural areas through its association with the ICDS network in Kerala. Women on average of 5000 numbers in a year have been trained in elementary legal principles so that they could be watch-dogs of any untoward incidents on women at home and in society. The State Women’s Commission has now adopted this idea in the name of Jagratha Samithy under the local self-governments. From the year of its inception, 1991, Jananeethi has been organising several neethimelas (settlement of disputes in public with people’s participation) in a year in order to reduce the workload of the courts. Dozens of pending civil cases and minor criminal complaints were amicably settled on such occasions. Now adalats are conducted on weekly basis in every district court of Kerala State.

However, I feel Jananeethi has to do lot more. I wish to develop Jananeethi as a resource centre for research, intellectual exchanges and dissemination of news and views on democracy, human rights, migrant labour, human trafficking, gender justice, environmental justice, justice education, business & human rights, livelihood rights, minority rights etc. We also wish to develop a training centre for para-legal volunteers, social work students, geriatric carers, service providers, nursing professionals etc. It is also our wish to facilitate and organize like-minded, value-based men and women to start a Adult Community Living to counter the emerging fascist tendencies in the Indian society.

We need strong funding support for these developmental plans. My dissociation with the church has closed all my avenues for resources. Lots of negative campaigns had gone worldwide.

Q. According to the reports, there are over two million NGOs in India. How did you place the Jananeethi among them?

A. To my information, there are around 3.5 million NGOs in India and according to reports, over 70% of them are fake. I understand those “fake” organisations never file necessary documents to the government, no proper auditing, no properly constituted governing body, no annual returns, no audit reports etc. It is the duty of the government to identify such organisations and deal them as per law. But the government does not do its job; on the other hand it goes on alleging that all NGOs are fake and wrong doers. Those who oppose anti-democratic, anti-people, communal, fascist policies of the government are notified as “criminal organisations” and “anti-national” organisations according to the government.

Jananeethi, from the very beginning, has meticulously followed all directions and rules of the registered organisations. Jananeethi has income tax exceptions as per IT Act under its Sections 12 A and 80G. Jananeethi has been allowed FCRA till 2021 by the Government of India. Jananeethi has national accreditation for its TRANSPARENCY and ACCOUNTABILITY by national bodies like i) Guide Star India, and ii) Credibility Alliance. The General Body of Jananeethi has presently 97 lifetime members. The General Body meets once in a year and elect 9 member Board of Directors. The Board will remain in office for 3 consecutive years and may be re-elected as the case may be. The Board meets once in two months. The Executive Committee of Jananeethi has 11 members and meets twice in a month. There is also a 9 member strong Advisory Committee consisting of eminent personalities across the globe to advise and guide Jananeethi.

Q. In the mission statement of the organisation you have formulated says that “Jananeethi conceives justice as an incontrovertible right that should heal those who are broken and wounded due to oppression and exploitation”. Tell us the situation in the past and how it has been improved with your immense contribution?

Justice as a healing force:

A. The capital of Jananeethi is its commitments to people who are deprived of their basic rights and amenities, and those for whom litigation process is unaffordable. They are bleeding in their memories and hence they stand in need of justice that should heal them. The idea of justice as a therapeutic intervention can be seen in the historical narratives of many indigenous or aboriginal communities. However, in the march of modernity, this ancient intuitive interpretation of justice was superseded by normative and rational ones, adversarial in nature. But of late there has been a resurgence of academic and practical interest in justice as a healing force. Jananeethi during its 25 years’ existence has experimented with this approach and has found highly successful in bridging people for building peace and reconciliation. During this period the organisation has grown from a “leap of faith” to a recognised institution providing legal, social, psychological, physical and emotional support to over 3000 persons in a year, vast majority of who are the most disadvantaged and disengaged in society. The target population of its services has generally been victims of domestic & sexual violence, corruption, hate politics, communal polarisation, caste & ethnic bias and mal functioning of the law enforcement & judicial institutions.

Therapeutic approach:

Over the last few years, from 2000 to be more specific, we at Jananeethi have noticed that many of the aggrieved persons who sought the help of Jananeethi for legal reasons were in need of psychological help too. The need of a clinical psychologist in our office, therefore, was very much felt more than ever in the past. We recognised that the petitioners/complainants were rather seeking a holistic remedy – not exclusively legal but psychological as well. Chronic depression, fear, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, hallucination, obsessive compulsory disorders were among the common symptomatic disorders found in our clientele. Therefore, one of the experienced lady officer of Jananeethi was given professional training in clinical counselling and thereafter both the law officer and the clinical psychologist together started attending the petitioners. Jananeethi is committed for holistic healing in terms of its legal, social and psychological realms and hence we introduced ‘befriending’ as an initial step in preparing the person for legal counselling followed by legal action, if so required. Befriending alone was not enough and so clinical support through counselling, capacity building and rehabilitation were offered. Thus through a well-knit process of law and psychology, Jananeethi has arrived at what we call today ‘therapeutic jurisprudence’. However, it should be noted, it is not an academic or intellectual exercise for Jananeethi; rather it is an act of human rights intervention at the grass root level, reaching out to the victims depending on specific contexts/cases.

Therapeutic Jurisprudence is a psychological construct, possible only through a clinical process. As we are concerned, law takes the role of a therapeutic agent. It is an interdisciplinary enterprise between law, human rights, psychology, psychiatry, criminology, criminal justice, mental health and philosophy. Therapeutic Jurisprudence utilises psychological concept to determine ways in which existing domestic laws and international human rights standards can enhance the well-being of people afflicted by torture, cruel and inhuman treatment and organised violence. Further, it explores how in consonance with the principles of justice, knowledge, theories and insights of mental health and related disciplines can help the development of law. What the wrongdoers say and do after having committed a wrong, can influence the victim’s forgiving process. Although the difference is not significant, victims are notably less forgiving when the wrongdoers offered excuses.

The concept of therapeutic jurisprudence, according to Jananeethi is different from the ‘reconciliation and peace’ approach of the Catholic Church. Without justice, we believe, peace can never be restored; any restorative process has to be founded on the principles of equity and fairness. The modern restorative justice movement is a victim-centered approach to ‘doing justice’ that focuses on healing the harms caused by crime rather than on punishing the offender. Victims, offenders and the community are said to be equal ‘stakeholders’ in the restorative process because all are harmed by crime and all require healing after a crime has been committed. But can we equate the victim with the offender? An act of offence cannot be over simplified, either. Therefore, the victim comes in focus and it is the victim who decides the course of restorative justice, of course with the support and guidance of civil society.

Jananeethi, being a right based organisation, tries to impress the victim at the very beginning that he/she is seeking only what is legitimately entitled to him/her and, not a charity. The victim is received with profound respect and personal concern, is offered hospitality and friendship, shares meals or refreshments, is given ample time to relax and to confide to whom-so-ever he/she feels free to do so. During the initial conversation he/she will be invited to share on the family, social, economic and psychological backgrounds rather than jumping into the legal complexities. This process will help Jananeethi (service provider) to discern the problems, from psychological, social, legal and personal angles. Until the victim is psychologically settled and comforted, legal issues will not be taken up, unless the nature of the offence demands immediate medical or circumstantial documentation. Taking up the legal issues means initiating clinical legal education through which the victim is sensitized and made aware of the different implications of the offence – civil and criminal – the gravity of the offences committed, the rights violated, remedies available under domestic and international laws and steps to be taken toward adequate compensation and prosecution of the offender. The victim is assisted to draft petitions to be filed before the appropriate authorities, judicial and human rights institutions, giving thoughts to alternate procedures and remedies. Taken into account the nature of the offence committed, the victim is advised and assisted to prepare urgent appeals and to disseminate to national and international human rights network for speedy and effective reparations.

Thus Jananeethi assures the victim that whatever available in law shall be accessible to him/her without fail and that legal procedures are set in motion. Common people are not aware of their rights and constitutional remedies available to them as legal entitlements. Section 89 of Civil Procedure Code in India provides mediation and settlements outside the court. The State Legal Services Authority h as vast provisions for negotiated settlement of disputes. Alternate Dispute Redressal has been legally acknowledged and approved in India judicial system. Merely an order of conviction of the offender and monetary compensation to the victim do not remove the pain and shame that are necessary consequences of any offence committed. Hence Jananeethi initiates talks with all parties concerned, of course with a mandate given by respective persons. The primary aim is to ameliorate the pains and stains attached, to mend the relationships, to bring all involved around a table to explain and to explore various options available for healing the wounds inflicted and restoring the social tranquillity that was disturbed. In ordinary instances this process will arrive at certain consensus with regard to the compensation and reparation of the damage caused. Damages are not physical or material alone. What about the mental trauma and social stigma, and those memories that bleed profusely? Feelings and memories are to be adequately addressed. Jananeethi, therefore, introduced, during the process, yoga, meditation and music therapy that would substantially accelerate the healing process.

Therapeutic Jurisprudence is a psychological construct, possible only through a clinical process. As we are concerned, law takes the role of a therapeutic agent. It is an interdisciplinary enterprise between law, human rights, psychology, psychiatry, criminology, criminal justice, mental health and philosophy.

The social and emotional support to the victims includes rehabilitation providing short-stay homes, arranging schooling for their children, part-time/full-time employment of the victim for self support etc. Medical examination and continuing treatment will be required in selective cases. There are other dynamics for total healing like group activities, music, painting, humanitarian services, entertainment programmes and such other engagements that would bring desired results.

Therapeutic Jurisprudence is not something pertaining to lawyers and judges alone. It involves the entire society, necessitating the interventions/supports of many segments of society. One possible danger in the process, unless monitored closely and diligently, is that the victims will be forced to compromise on their legitimate rights and constitutional guarantees leaving the offenders go unhurt and unaccountable. In such instances memory will remain unhealed. Often the offending party will have an upper hand over the victim and is rich and influential even to the extent of manipulating and defeating the cause of justice. This is the heavy responsibility of the service provider that mediates the process.

Q. What are the major obstacles in the state apparatus such as court system, the policing system in your state?

A. We work in Kerala State. As per information we gather from many sources, the Kerala situation is much better. That does not mean we are happy with our law enforcement institutions including courts, police and human rights institutions. They are far below the standard we wish to have. What is happening in the country reflect in our courts and police department. Communal and fascist tendencies are on the increase. Respect for human rights, democracy, rule of law are not seen anywhere. The biggest violator of law and constitutional rights is the government, be it the government in the Centre or in the State. Judges from the apex court to the lowest court have shocked the country and scandalised the people by their unethical, unlawful and idocritic statements and judgments. As a result we have lost much of our faith and confidence in the courts and other law enforcement bodies. When all the three pillars of democracy – the legislature, the judiciary and the executive – are corrupt and wrong, democracy becomes a mockery.

Q. How many activists are working in the organisation and what are the major cases that you are handling?

A. Jananeethi has six full-time staff including me as executive director. All except me are paid monthly salaries from Rs 20000 to 30000. We have around 10 volunteers who come to our help on call. We get law students for short periods from many national law schools and law colleges who come for internship. We also get students from foreign universities for 3-6 months for grass root level experience.

Jananeethi’s main objective is NOT to conduct cases, rather we try to avoid going to the court for obvious reasons. But of course, we cannot rule out courts and adjudications, as that is the last alternative in a given system. We normally go to courts for filing Writ Petitions on public interest matters. Presently there is no pending case. Financial problem in Jananeethi does not encourage filing of too many cases in courts.

Q. How do you maintain the national, regional and international network to enhance your activities?

A. Jananeethi is open to networking with any credible and value based NGOs at home and abroad. We are always ready to be part of any ‘legally correct and ethically sound’ initiative anywhere. In India we are often invited by few national NGOs for workshops and seminars, but we are not associates/members of any except for Human Rights Defenders Alert – India (HRDA) and All India Network of NGOs and Individuals working with National and State Human Rights Institutions (AiNNI). Among international NGOs we have working relationship with OMCT, May 18 Memorial Foundation, FORUM-Asia (applied for membership), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Q. Who are your partners, and what are the basic requirements that you consider in selecting the partners?

A. Jananeethi does not have any partner in India or outside. In 2017 we have a small project (Health Transparency Initiative – Kerala) which is supported by Washington-based Partnership in Transparency Fund (PTF).

Q. According to available information we have, Jananeethi is maintaining a high moral and ethical reputation among the people in Kerala and elsewhere. But, there are NGOs earned nothing but bad reputation when it comes to financial accountability and transparency. How does it damage the reputed works conducted by the organisations like Jananeethi?

A. It really affects very badly. We are ashamed of being named as NGO. We now prefer to be known as Civil Society Organization (CSO). Again there is a problem of accountability and transparency. I used to argue on all platforms that there should be some sort of arrangement like Ombudsman that should be able to look into complaints/allegations against NGOs/CSOs/CBOs etc. Political outfits, communal organisations, commercial organisations, religious organisations are to be dealt separately from secular non-governmental, non-partisan, non-profit and voluntary movements/organisations.

Q. Father, have you had any bad experience by selecting activists, advocates or colleagues to work in your organisation?

A. I am extremely careful in choosing persons for working with me. As I am not able to pay attractive salary, only committed and value based people will apply to Jananeethi. We do not have vacancies kept for job seekers. Those who are aspiring for a placement should prove to me what he/she is going to do through the organisation. In case the person seems to be not fitting to the work culture and personnel policy of Jananeethi, I will see that person is out in six months time. Our personnel policy is very comprehensive. There is no room for a person not inconsistent with our cherished values.

Q. One of the major newspapers in London has run a nice title over the Prime Minister Modi’s decision on the NGOs a few months ago. “When 180 million people live in poverty, why is India’s PM waging a war against NGOs claiming to help those in need?”, the newspaper asked. What is your take on this very subject?

A. The reason is simple. Narendra Modi is not the PM of India, he is the PRO of Adani and Ambani. His international tours are not for promotion of India’s foreign policies. He wants to enhance the empire of Adani and Ambani. He wants to organise all rich Hindus around the world to build a Hindu Rashtra. Unfortunately, we do not have an Opposition party in the parliament to challenge this man. We have only NGOs that are occasionally challenging/criticising Modi and his government. Therefore, for him NGOs are his opponents. They are to be finished to facilitate his anti-people and undemocratic policies. Of late he will consider farmers and Dalits along with NGOs as his rivals.

Q. Do you know any other regional or international organisation which is genuinely supporting the victims of human rights in Kerala?

A. There are of course some groups/secular collectives that are genuinely supporting/helping victims of human rights violations in Kerala. But they are not strictly regional or international organisations. They are not registered or do not come under any structured system. They do not believe in that. You can call them ‘forum’ or a ‘platform’. There are different types of people among them. Some may believe in using force/violence, some may not. Therefore Jananeethi finds it difficult to be fully involved in such movements/forums. But on issue based programs, we do participate in joint programs for the protection of human rights, gender rights, environmental rights etc.

Q. Please feel free to tell us, if we missed anything that you think important to let the people know?

A. Many of the major international NGOs are of western origin. They often miss the Asian perspectives/experiences in policy-making. Therefore it is high time to have Asian organisations to come up and take lead in Asian concerns. Perhaps, I believe, FORUM-Asia, a Bangkok-based human rights organisation, can think of taking this challenge. Some time ago, I had a hope that Asian Human Rights Commission, a Hong Kong-based human rights group, will occupy that seat in Asia. That did not happen.

We all at Jananeethi are really pained at heart seeing the cruel and atrocious treatment of Rohingya communities in Myanmar. There was time we all strongly supported Aung San Suu Kyi while she was in house arrest by the military regime. But now she has turned to be much more brutal than her persecutors in crushing out the Rohingya community in Myanmar. All human rights groups in Asia should join against her. I believe we have a responsibility for that as we all had whole-heartedly supported her for several decades.

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