Influenced by Gandhian thought, A.R. Palanisamy is developing the first comprehensive rehabilitation program for children who come from families of convicted murderers and of murder victims.
Born in a remote village near Tirichy, Palanisamy is the sixth of eight children. His mother's income from coconut trees and two cows literally fed the family, and he was able to complete his education only by winning scholarships and cash awards for his excellence in speaking and studies. Holding part-time jobs throughout his college career, he graduated with a degree in physics, but soon followed that with law school. While there, he produced innovative programs for TV relaying real-life themes based on case studies at a time when highly unbelievable fiction was the essence of programming. Palanisamy then landed a clerk's job at a bank in Madurai. The prominence of Gandhian thought among the town's academic institutions made an impact on him, and he began spending more of his time working for the poor. Upon being transferred to Madras, he began working with the children of nomadic tribal people, people so destitute, according to him, that they "fight with the dogs in front of marriage halls to get the left-over items in the thrown-out dinner leaves." While doing research on prisoners for a graduate degree in sociology, one of the convicts made the point that even the nomadic tribes and scavengers could find means to support their children better than the prisoners could. This conversation led to his current full-time commitment to this issue.
Children become secondary victims when a parent kills or is murdered. They are stigmatized and suffer psychologically, and the new pressure for them to supplement their families' lost income often forces them out of school and into menial labor. Palanisamy believes that such children need much more than ordinary care or economic assistance. They need a new perspective on their lives, and a new source of values in order to develop into mature and self-respecting members of society, capable of dealing with the social stigmas attached to them. Palanisamy's model approach is a boarding school for 300 of these children that provides vocational and academic training, laden with values to encourage a productive and honest life. His school, located in the village of Mathur near Sriprambadur, Tamil Nadu, accepts children as young as three and offers them instruction through the age of 20. (Since the minimum time one can serve for murder is 15 years, most students will complete their education before their parent's release.) In addition to academic coursework, younger students get instruction in spinning, cloth and mat weaving, bag making, and saree embroidery. Older students take up carpentry, tailoring, horticulture, screen printing, and radio repair. Importantly, the school works to get its students practical apprenticeships to improve their skills and earn some income. The school opens a savings account in the name of each student, and the money he or she earns from work collects interest until graduation, at which time the student may withdraw it to start his or her new life after school. Palanisamy's work also focuses on helping the children accept their paroled parents, a crucial step in reweaving the frayed threads of these families and helping the parent reintegrate into society.
Children confronted by the shock, psychic impact, ostracization, and sudden economic hardship that comes when a parent is convicted of murder or is murdered have a far harder time, by and large, than does a child who is poor, even terribly so, from birth. The hardship is doubly severe if, as is often the case, the father kills the mother. Nor does the problem evaporate once the children have made productive adjustments; wounds open up afresh when convicts get paroled and seek to rejoin their families, many of whose members have lost respect and affection for them. In Tamil Nadu State alone there are roughly 20,000 children at any one time who are the sorts of secondary victims of murder Palanisamy is reaching out to serve. There are hundreds of thousands across India. No one has systematically figured out how to reach them before. Helping these children recover and grow healthfully is terribly important, as doing so not only improves their lives, but is important for society as well. Many such children respond to their world in chaos by turning to crime. They have had little reason to believe in themselves, their families, or society--they're angry. When they go down this path, the circle of victims increases, and society loses.
Palanisamy has mobilized community support to make the school a reality. He has tapped private and public institutions, and has used volunteers extensively for many aspects of the operation, ranging from teaching to building, from counseling to cooking. Palanisamy intends to make the school largely self-sufficient though a school farm and canteen. Many of the full-time teachers have themselves struggled against harsh circumstances, such as desertion or destitution, and they desire little more than the accommodation, meals, community, and opportunity to serve that the school provides. Palanisamy sees in them another advantage: "One who suffers can understand the sufferings of others," he says. The school designs its own curriculum, drawing heavily for ideas and resources from the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, a fund established after Mohandas Gandhi's death to propagate his ideas of moral and job-oriented education. Palanisamy works to integrate the school into the surrounding community. The students produce traveling street plays, chiefly on themes that often have contributed to their predicament, such as alcoholism and superstitions. The students also work in the surrounding area. It's important, Palanisamy feels, that the students experience and learn the warmth of these healthy village societies. Palanisamy has little trouble attracting students. Victimized, and often therefore destitute, families can afford an education that is free and at times income generating. Palanisamy has also engaged legal aid societies and police stations to inform families of victims and convicts about the school. He has likewise enlisted the superintendents of each central prison to supply detailed reports about the jailed parents, and works with welfare officers to allow as many face-to-face meetings between parent and children as possible. These steps not only allow children to work through their confusion regarding their parent, but they also give the parent reason to believe he or she can eventually reintegrate into the family, an important, probably necessary part of rehabilitation. As he further refines his school and its approach, he plans to spread his model to other regions of India.