Sunday, August 16, 2015

Taking care of children of vulnerable families

While we celebrate 68 years of Independence, I recall days of my prison assignment when I saw many children with their mother in the jail. The Indian prison system allows women lodged in jails to keep their children with them up to the age of six.
The children were there as their mothers wanted to keep them safe. On one of my first visits in the jail, soon after taking over as the inspector general (IG prisons), I asked the superintendent why were these children were not in school? He said: "Madam, there is no school and there is no teacher. We don't even have the budget for education in the prison complex housing more than 9,700 inmates (at that time)."
These children, as I saw, knew the language of courts, lawyers, and crime. The games they played were how to track and crush insects and play knife-knife. They knew the art of pick-pocketing and they could demonstrate it without any hesitation. For them, it was a sport.
Nursery school in jail
One of immediate things which we did was to open a nursery school on the jail premises. We carved out a space from within the women's ward compound and separated the children from their mothers through the day. We connected with the community and asked for donations in kind for books, toys and stationery. It all arrived. And we started the school. Educated women inmates were asked to take charge along with Catholic nuns who came and volunteered to serve. The place was also visited by Mother Teresa. The children were given school uniforms and bags. This created a whole new atmosphere inside the women's prisons.
Women inmates were told to ready their children for school at 8am. Mothers loved the idea of their children getting education. We also took the children for outings to parks, doll museums and zoos. The whole idea was to educate the children in a free and fair environment.
The challenge
But then came a challenge. What do we do with the children above the age of six? This is was the upper age limit of staying with mothers in the jail. These women did not want to send their children to shelter homes for various reasons. Primarily being the feeling of insecurity. Meanwhile, the children's school on the Tihar jail premises had been institutionalised and christened as India Vision School after I received the Ramon Magsaysay Award.
But when I was transferred from the Tihar jail, I started looking for a safe place where these children could continue learning. As nature conspires and gives you what you truly ask, one day Catholic nuns of Assisi Convent School approached me for providing education and hostel facility to girl children of prisoners. We only had to provide the hostel and school fee. This led to the start of the Children of Vulnerable Families Project in 1994. It still continues to serve, linking the prison nursery school with missionary schools outside. Today, the India Vision Foundation (IVF) reaches out to nearly 300 families with similar programmes running in four state prisons of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab.
Last week, the programme came together for its first alumni meet. Over 70 children, now grown up, some in college and universities, some married and some employed attended it. It was a reward of over 20 years of work, which started in 1994. We decided to use the opportunity to ask them a few questions to help analyse and reflect. Here are a few of the answers being shared and also the essential learning for us as a community.
Question: If you get a chance to change something in your childhood, what is it that you will like to change and why?
Answers: (Indicative) They all longed for togetherness of their parents. They all wished to be with them. Homes which saw violence and disrespect of their mother were distressing to them. Father's drunkenness impacted them. Poverty agonised them. Disease impoverished them more. They all longed for love, care and opportunities like others. They wanted to share their feelings but some had none. They overcame these because of care we gave them.
Question: How did you deal with your parents' criminal background?
Answers: (Indicative) One said: "She saw the wrongs, but ignored them. I still loved them." Another one said: "It was embarrassing when some of my classmates came to know that my parents were in jail. After a certain period of time, I started to think that everything happens for a reason. If they had not gone to the jail, I would not have got a chance to go to a good school." (Sent by India Vision Foundation running the Children of Vulnerable Families Project).  Another said: "I used to run away from my friends' remarks till a senior counsellor trained me how to respond to them."
Yearning for parents' love
The alumni meet revealed that children who suffer at a very early age never forget their lost opportunities. They yearn for their parents' love. They love proximity. Poverty hits them hard. They want both, mother and father. They all wanted to be educated from English medium schools. Hindi alone limits their opportunities. We found girls more expressive in sharing their feelings than boys. They were equally more sensitive.
Lessons learnt were that each child is a life whatever the circumstances might be. Children suffer when parents and teachers fail in their responsibilities. Some children manage to emerge, others take a long time. All need handholding in such circumstances. But all are not so fortunate.
By taking care of such children, the community has succeeded in saving girls from early or forced marriages (as they said in their responses). The foundation and the residential schooling protected them from being victimised or exploited. Boys too were saved from behavioural delinquency or repeating crimes as seen. Sincere collective community effort saves lives. It just needs love of heart and compassion. Children are our future. Parenting is a huge responsibility. Do not undermine it. Never take away your child's childhood.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Empowerment: Does a terrorist need mercy?

India has death penalty on its statute book not because Indians are blood-thirsty and want an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth, but because India will not incentivise terrorism. Terrorists cannot kill, attack, destroy, injure and still live to attack again.

India is duty-bound to keep her people safe so that they can live in harmony and peace. India is a democratic country with a robust judiciary. It has due process of law and the right to fair trial applicable to everyone. Every citizen has certain fundamental rights. But they come with responsibilities.
While we have the right to life, we also have the responsibility not to take another's, and if someone commits the crime, he will be tried by law, sent to prison, face a trial, and if proven guilty, gets convicted and goes to prison for punishment as per the sentence awarded. The courts award death penalty depending on the irrefutable barbarity of the case. However, Indian courts have used it sparingly in rarest of the rare cases.
Crime of terror is barbaric. It's cold-blooded murder. It is equally an assault on the security and integrity of the state. It is also an attack on the nation of 1.2 billion people with a conscious attempt to cause mayhem by mass life destruction, bloodshed, pain, suffering, communal division, hostility, revenge within the communities by undermining trust and mutual respect.
The Indian democracy gives all, terrorists included, the due process of law. However barbaric the offence, the accused has the right to defend himself.
Victims' rights are the responsibility of the state delivered through the governments at the Centre and the state. In case of unsatisfactory protection of victims by the state, victims suffer, and lose faith in the system and the governance of the day. The political parties at the helm tend to lose support. Hence, to keep their respective constituencies intact, there is undoubtedly an element of competitive politics and political posturing is seen at play.
Threat of terror
India continues to be under serious threat of terror for decades. It has lost thousands of innocent ordinary citizens, policemen and women, and personnel in armed forces. The attacks have become almost a daily feature in different parts of the country.
As a cop I notice considerable outcry by the intelligentsia against death penalty to a terrorist, irrespective of his barbaric acts. Recently, the country lost the Gurdaspur SP with his 'thullas'. Their loss, comparatively, received little space and attention in visual, print and social media vis-a-vis the clamour of the vocal intelligentsia pleading for mercy to a terrorist. How justified was this? Is this not national blasphemy? And cruelty towards one's own, just because you yourselves have not been the victims, and have not experienced the pain and suffering?
Should our hearts not bleed for the loss of innocent lives and the hapless? Should we not support the rank and file in uniform, our real protectors?  I asked a known opinion influencer advocating the abolition of death penalty, "If his heart bled for the slain Gurdaspur SSP and other 'thullas'?" I did not get a satisfactory reply.
Can our hearts instead not cry for a more effective, strong and resourced criminal justice system? Can we not ask for speedy trials, more courts, tougher and updated laws and processes, quality investigation teams, well-trained and equipped, strong intelligence systems, and certainly, exemplary punishment for terrorists?
What we see is energy being dissipated by pleading for mercy for killers or the ticking bombs who have just one single focus -- to tear apart our social fabric and create communal disharmony at any cost. If you get terrorists alive, they remain ticking time bombs in custody, in transit or even after being convicted while lodged in jails. In truth, terrorists are exceedingly indoctrinated with rare exceptions amenable to reforms. This comes out of my experience in prison management.
India today needs an uncompromising voice of unity against terror and terrorists. Challenges and threats of security are accelerating by the day, as is evident the world over, while synergy in political parties back home is diminishing. What all stakeholders need to remember is that if you play with fire, your hands too can get burnt.