Extraordinary Indians

How these courageous heroes changed their lives ... and the lives of the helpless

Team RD Updated: Dec 14, 2018 10:31:29 IST
Extraordinary Indians

Civil Action

Colin Gonsalves, 65, Human Rights Law Network

While presenting the distinguished alumnus award to Colin Gonsalves in 2010, for his four-decade-long work as a human rights advocate, the dean of his engineering department at IIT-Bombay remarked, "Had you seen him in IIT, you wouldn't think he'd win anything!" Those who appear without potential, or ambition, often surprise you. Gonsalves is living proof of that.

The early '70s were a time of fiery student movements, seeking a new world order, which shaped the young Gonsalves. Upon graduation, he worked briefly as a civil engineer, before becoming an advocate for the rights of the disenfranchised. Gonsalves plunged into slum work, fighting evictions and getting arrested. He came into his own under Dr Datta Samant, a legendary trade unionist. "The guru gives you a little piece of magic when he touches your life," says Gonsalves. For him it was shedding the middle-class lens and looking at issues through the eyes of the working class.

One day Gonsalves turned up at Samant's residence for work, and got rejected outright. But Samant was quick to see the trade union needed an English-educated hand, and hired him the same day. Gonsalves started representing the workers, but only seriously thought about a law degree after a judge told him he "could not pretend to be a lawyer forever". Fresh out of law school, Gonsalves defended 10 labour cases a day, working on hundreds of others. He was with the union until Samant's assassination in 1997.

In the late '80s, Gonsalves established the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), then called the Peoples' Law Group, a collective of lawyers and social activists committed to the cause of human rights and ensuring access to justice for all. It shifted to Delhi in 2000 with the Right to Food case.

Gonsalves had started his practice in response to injustice. But reaching the higher courts, he realized that the public interest litigation was a powerful tool, which could be wielded like a sword, to ensure peoples' rights. Sehba Meenai, who has been associated with HRLN since 2001, continues to be inspired by his leadership and work ethic. "How many hours Colin sleeps is the question, not the hours he works," she says.

In over three decades, HRLN has fought innumerable battles, from the grass roots to the Supreme Court, on the rights of women and children, refugees, sexual minorities, prisoners, Dalits and the disabled. It has secured housing, labour, health and reproductive rights for thousands, fighting for criminal justice, environmental protection, anti-trafficking, secularism and peace. The network now has over 200 lawyers and an alumni list of several thousands, with 30 centres spread across the country. Funded primarily by independent donor agencies, most of the cases taken on by HRLN are pro bono. Only recently have they started charging a small fee to cover the mounting expenses.

Gonsalves has worked tirelessly, without any expectation of reward or glory, believing it to be his duty. He has received an honorary doctorate from UK's Middlesex University and multiple awards, the most recent being the Right Livelihood Award in 2017, known as the Alternative Nobel, "for his tireless and innovative use of public interest litigation over three decades to secure fundamental human rights for India's most marginalized and vulnerable citizens".

Gonsalves has fought like a hero and secured landmark judgements in Manipur's extrajudicial encounters; ensured treatment of acid attack survivors in private hospitals; prevented child trafficking and child labour; defended Adivasis in illegal land acquisition cases and is currently petitioning to stop the repatriation of Rohingya Muslims from India. He has represented death-row convicts Afzal Guru and Dhananjoy Chatterjee, among others. Gonsalves's work on the Right to Food case is very close to his heart-after 17 years of struggle, it was affirmed as a constitutional right in 2017, bringing subsidized grain to over 350 million people below the poverty line.

His toughest and most memorable fight, however, remains the midnight case of 15 death-row convicts. They were to be hanged at 6 a.m., which Gonsalves and his team learnt about from a journalist the previous evening. The prisoners' mercy petitions had been pending for about 10 years. "Keeping the sword of a death sentence hanging over someone is cruel, inhuman and degrading. Therefore, we argued that these 15 death sentences should be commuted to life." HRLN got the information at 4 p.m., drafted the petition by 6, and arrived at Chief Justice P. Sathasivam's house to argue their case by 8 p.m. "We stood outside until midnight, in the rain." The journalist had learnt the gallows were being prepared and the convicts being offered chicken and new sets of clothes. "They dress you up, they fatten you, clean the gallows and then they hang you. It's a macabre tale," says Gonsalves. That night, CJI Sathasivam commuted the death sentences and put an immediate stay on the hangings. He further made sure the superintendents in different jails were informed. A year later, he commuted all 15 death sentences to life imprisonment without remission. "What a historic act," says Gonsalves.

The life of a public interest litigator is arduous and requires immense patience. Empathetic yet detached, and completely undeterred by challenges, including frequent death threats, Gonsalves has an almost spiritual approach to his dharma: Live and let live, with dignity for all.

-- Suchismita Ukil


Home & Hope

P. V. Sandhya, 65, Aarti Home for Girls

It was a rainy August day when eight-month-old Sowmika crawled in through the gates of Aarti Home in Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh. She had been left there by a woman -- in a red frock, with a bag containing a slate tied to her back.

Today, 19-year-old Sowmika is happy, confident and fierce in her determination to end gender inequality and give back to Aarti and Sandhyamma, the woman who loved her as her own. While completing her graduation, Sowmika took a sabbatical and joined the recently completed Mana Bidda (our child) Project, by the Vijay Foundation Trust (that runs Aarti), as project officer.

Sowmika's saviour and that of a thousand other girls like her -- Sandhya Puchalapalli -- is a quiet, unassuming 64-year-old who has been working towards saving and fostering abandoned children in the district, while also empowering women for over two decades.

Puchalapalli's desire was to educate women and protect abandoned girls, and make them strong and independent, offering them the same sense of security she felt while growing up. This was significant in Kadapa, considering her many students who were pulled out of junior college, only to get married. Also, mothers gave up their daughters or preferred abortions over the discrimination they experienced every day. 'Why should I send my daughters to school; they only get married and leave,' they would say.

The deep need to do something came to a head in 1991 when she saw two-year-old Radhika playing on the road. The baby had been abandoned by her abusive father, who had disappeared after killing her mother in a fit of rage. There was only one option: to bring her home. Encouraged by her family (notably her mother) and two nieces, Sandhya and three friends set up a home for abandoned children -- girls and a few boys. She called it Aarti, after one of her nieces -- the first donor -- who died tragically, four months after the organization became accredited.

Today, Aarti Home has gone from being a rented house to Aarti Village -- a sprawling, two-and-half-acre complex with six cottages, housing living areas, a communal kitchen and a library. A concrete crib has been built outside the gates -- after a baby, left in a cardboard box, on a rainy day, died. No questions are asked when a woman comes with a baby. "Imagine, their desperation," she says. "Which mother would want to abandon their child?"

From being merely a shelter, Aarti has expanded to rescuing children from abuse and trafficking and running livelihood programmes and training courses for women across 51 mandals in the district. Volunteers from Aarti go into homes to sensitize, educate and empower families, even saving lives, with the help of community leaders. In the course of Mana Bidda, these women have stopped 67 gender-based abortions. Aarti now plans to expand its work to the Chittoor district and step up its training programmes around Hyderabad.

Ask Puchalapalli about the Aarti children -- like Radhika, now a radiology technician at Apollo Hospital in Hyderabad -- and she smiles with great pride. "It's the greatest reward anybody can have … I am happy," she says.

Today Aarti is flourishing but the battle is far from over. Says Puchalapalli, "We need to empower women, change the attitude that girls are a burden and see that no child is abandoned." The long-term solution, she says, is not Aarti Home. That there is never any need for it.

-- Chitra Subramanyam


The Good Doctor

Dr Thiruvengadam Veeraraghavan, 67

It is almost midnight; daily wage labourers and harried mothers carrying their sick children have queued up outside a dispensary in a working-class neighbourhood of Chennai. They are waiting to meet the doctor who is a known saviour of the poor.

Inside, the only spot of cheer is the blue-and-yellow wall and, of course, Dr Thiruvengadam Veeraraghavan, who provides care for the needy on a daily basis. A patient with a foot ulcer listens intently as the doctor explains how to change a dressing, nodding apologetically when chided for not managing his diabetes better.

For the past 25 years, the doors to Veeraraghavan's clinics in Vyasarpadi and Erukkancherry in north Chennai have been open to sick factory workers and labourers with limited means. Loved and admired by the local community, the doctor often sits well into the night, until his very last patient has been attended to.

Veeraraghavan studied industrial medicine to cater to the petrochemical and petroleum industries in his area. Today he has a day job at a private hospital as an industrial medicine officer. It is after work that he opens the doors of his clinics to the crowds gathered outside at Vyasarpadi (from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.) and Erukkancherry (10 p.m. to midnight).

The committed doctor has been treating the underprivileged ever since he got his degree from Chennai's Stanley Medical College in 1991. "I got my education free, thanks to the government, and want to share this gift," he says. "Knowledge and care can help people live better lives."

Though the doctor prefers to offer his services for free, those who insist, pay what they can. In the early '90s, it was Rs 2, then Rs 5, now those who can afford it pay up to Rs 50. Veeraraghavan's own upbringing may have something to do with his selflessness. Says his daughter Preethi, "When my father was growing up, north Chennai was very underdeveloped. Survival depended on helping each other out. No one growing up in that environment can turn away those in need." This 27-year-old is also a doctor who assists her father occasionally.

Veeraraghavan's earnings from his clinics go into paying F. Bubealan, his assistant, who has worked with the doctor for 25 years, and procuring supplies for the clinic. The doctor took in this high-school dropout, and taught him to clean and dress wounds. "Those who require just a new dressing don't need to wait for me. They can get it done during the day from Bubealan and return in time for their shift," says Veeraraghavan.

For the self-effacing doctor, personal wealth or recognition holds little meaning, Bubealan explains. For him, it's all about lending a helping hand. "These days medicines have become costly and doctors also charge a lot of money. And unfortunately, the poor do not have the means to get the treatment they deserve. My intention is to offer affordable treatment to the needy," Veeraraghavan says.

Looking back at the six decades of his life, Veeraraghavan is content knowing that he is using his own life in making a small difference to someone else's, just as his parents did.

In these times, where many doctors are focused on profits rather than patient care, Veeraraghavan is living by his Hippocratic Oath, in word and spirit, and keeping alive the faith in this noble profession.

-- Gagan Dhillon


She Hero

C. Lalthanzami, 47, Grassroots Development Network

Every night as Lalthanzami went to bed, she thought she wouldn't live to see the next day. As her alcoholic husband put a knife to her neck and forced her to take the heroin injection every day, she feared for her son. She had left her husband, discovering he was already married, while pregnant with their child. But he forced his way back into her life a couple of years later. The man she loved had turned into a "beast" -- he would threaten to kill their son, or take him away if she refused the needle. He never worked, instead stealing from her and keeping a watch on her constantly. But one day, she managed to escape with her three-year-old. Later, she had her husband arrested, but also spent a year in prison for her own addiction. She was determined to turn her life around, but that came after fighting her addiction, losing the battle, and fighting it again with rehabilitation. "Even though I had lost my way, I believed it was my life and my future and that I could get back on track," she says.

Lalthanzami, widely known as Zampuii, could have been lost to the world. But, at 47, she is an example of how a survivor can turn around the grim events of her life to fight back and bring hope to hundreds of women like her. A finalist for CII Foundation's Woman Exemplar Program, 2017, for her work with Grassroots Development Network (GDN), she and her team run a safe house for survivors -- battered women and their children. These survivors of domestic violence are also provided legal aid and enabled to rebuild their lives. "Everyone has unlimited power. Cowards die every day, courageous people die only once," Zampuii says. Since 2008, GDN has also fought for human rights of the undocumented migrants from Myanmar.

Zampuii grew up in Myanmar where she became involved with the struggle for democracy while at Rangoon University. Her brother's sudden death brought her to Mizoram in 1994, where she started a small grocery shop and met her husband-to-be. The downward spiral began soon after her marriage, and she left him.

After giving birth to her son, the desperate single mother, with no steady income, was pushed into drugs after her ex-husband reappeared in her life. Looking back she says, "The addiction was a very difficult phase." There were times when the haze lifted and she wept looking at her son. This eventually gave her the strength to fight her addiction. In late 2002, she sought rehabilitation at the Society for HIV/AIDS and Lifeline Operation in Manipur (SHALOM), an NGO, and later started working for them. On the job, Zampuii encountered other abused women.

She recalls meeting a single mother being forced into a physical relationship by a man. He threatened to kill her child if she didn't give in. "At the local police station they said, 'Stop meddling in other people's business'." Zampuii realized that vulnerable women routinely faced such shocking apathy --this spurred her on to launch GDN, where she draws on her own life experiences to build and drive the programmes.

Her work with survivors puts her at constant risk: "I've had my doors broken, and I've been threatened with weapons by victim's partners." Even though the north-east is seen as relatively safe for women, patriarchy abounds here too. "Gender discrimination runs in everybody's veins. Mizoram is a male-dominated society -- domestic violence is treated as a private affair," explains Zampuii.

Despite the many challenges and limited resources, Zampuii has battled on fearlessly. Says Namrata Goswami, programme manager at Foundation for Social Transformation, that works with her, "Being a survivor herself, Lalthanzami understands these women and their circumstances. She is breaking the silence in areas where women have not been able to."

-- Suchismita Ukil and Naorem Anuja

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