ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Changing Ideas of Justice

Vandana Dhoop (vandana.dhoop@gmail.comis an independent consultant working on forest rights in India.

Is it time to introduce restorative justice to the Indian judicial system?

Irecently read an interesting article about “restorative justice,” which was practised in South Africa to ensure justice for victims of apartheid. The article highlighted how instrumental restorative justice was in healing and giving peace to a largely racially segregated and thereby aggrieved population. This piece brought back memories of my classmate Rachel (name changed).

Rachel was the first person I was introduced to on the first day of my Spanish class. A high school student, she was born and brought up in Minnesota in the United States (US). She was spending a year in India with her maternal grandparents and wanted to continue her Spanish lessons while in India. She was very friendly and would greet everybody with a warm “hallo,” but her eyes were always sombre. Unable to guess the reasons for her yearning, I came to believe that maybe she longed to return to her life in the US.

I enjoyed the Spanish classes a lot, especially the last session of every class when we discussed topics of relevance in turn showcasing our newly acquired Spanish skills. We had a sizeable proportion of lawyers in our class and the topic for discussion that day was “la justicia” or “justice.” The session demanded that everyone prepare at least a paragraph in Spanish on the set topic and read it out in class. Although it has been three months, I can still recall Rachel’s presentation.

Where everyone displayed strong skills in both Spanish and their understanding of justice, Rachel had taken a very different route. She had chosen to narrate her own story, using it to uncover a rather astonishing revelation about the criminal justice system. She asked us to imagine a situation wherein a murderer was enabled to face the family of the person he had murdered. Could this be possible? How would both parties behave? Rachel was a toddler when her father left her and her mother. This incident forged a strong bond between Rachel and her mother. However, a few months after Rachel turned 10, her mother was brutally raped and murdered by two teenagers while she was returning home from work. They were caught by the police and were in jail serving rigorous imprisonment. After her mother’s death, Rachel’s custody was given to her grandparents who shifted from India to be with her.

Practitioners of restorative justice or mediators tried to get in touch with her grandparents in order to help initiate a dialogue with the teenage killers; however, they refused any such attempts.

Mediation in the process of restorative justice means bringing the victim and the offender on the same page, and preparing them for an interaction with each other. This interaction helps the victim face her fears and decide the punishment she wants for the offender. Rachel had waited to turn 18 before she could initiate mediation with her mother’s killers. Last year she initiated the mediation process when she turned 18. She believed the process would help her achieve closure, which would further aid her in making peace with her mother’s death. It was taboo at home, she said, to talk about what had happened to her mother. Her grandparents never addressed it and hence were far from accepting it. She had come all the way to India to involve her grandparents in the mediation so that they could heal and come to terms with the past.

I could see how anxious she was to meet with her mother’s killers. I couldn’t help but ask why it was so important for her to meet with them when she knew their actions were barbaric. They were not worthy of this gesture. Their wrongdoing had robbed them of being called “human.” I am sure everybody in class shared similar thoughts. Rachel answered my question with a single word: healing. She said she knew the offenders were punished following due process of law, and “justice” had prevailed. However, all of this ran contrary to how she felt as a daughter. She felt alienated by the justice carried out. Her experience told her that instead of giving her strength, the court verdict gave her years in therapy and a difficult childhood.

Through mediation she aimed to bring her life back on track. I still remember what she said next. It was incre­dulous: “This past year I’ve been in touch with the killers, through letters ... You know, Mich has a beautiful cursive handwriting. In the letters I can sense repentance for what they had done and gratitude for my efforts to connect with them. Who knows the humanity my mother always taught me might translate into forgiveness for them?” As Indians we are conditioned to believe in the despondency attached with the idea of being a criminal. Once a criminal always a criminal is largely a popular principle. But, have we attempted to understand the dehumanisation a criminal undergoes in prison (that was actually meant to be reformatory)? In the same way, the justice system in India alienates and dehumanises the victim too. The victim never occupies the same space in society she did before. This is where restorative justice helps. It believes in the inherent goodness of all humanity and hence offers a scope for restoration of both the victim and the offender into society. The community, including the victim, as a whole engages in a dialogue to decide the punishment for the offender, thereby recognising a possibility of reform.

In India, where capital punishment is a popular mandate, can this be a viable option? Can an introduction to principles of restorative justice help us rethink our ideas of justice, humanity, and non-violence? Is our  society ready to accept victims and offenders as one of our own? India has taught the world non-violence. It’s possibly time for our country to introspect and adhere to its own teachings.



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