Dr Mathew Kuruvilla, of the NGO, Reach World Wide talks about their project of rehabilitating criminals
Photos: Mathew Kuruvilla; P. Lalji. Pics by Albin Mathew
By Shevlin Sebastian
It is a rainy July afternoon in Kottayam, Kerala. Standing outside his office of the NGO Reach World Wide (RWW), the founder Dr. Mathew Kuruvilla points at a canopy of trees, in translucent green that stretches hundreds of metres on the opposite side. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he says, with a smile.
Kuruvilla has plenty to smile about, apart from the beauty of nature. He is celebrating the tenth anniversary of RWW’s remarkable criminal rehabilitation programme. “More than 700 criminals have been saved,” he says. “They now lead straight lives, with a good family life and enjoy a peaceful sleep at night.”
The programme began rather accidentally. One day a woman, Anita, in Kuruvilla’s neighbourhood came and told him that when her husband Shibu would come home on parole, he would beat her up. So, Kuruvilla met Shibu in the jail and told him, “When your children grow up how will they describe you? Won’t they say, ‘My father is a criminal as well as a murderer’?”
It was a stunning opening gambit. Shibu grabbed Kuruvilla’s feet and said, “Sir, please save me.” Kuruvilla replied, “I will. Remember Shibu let us try to leave good footprints behind in our lives.”
And thus the programme began. The convicts are taught that when calls come from their former associates, they should politely say that they will call back and cut the call. “Most of the time when they start drinking they have a tendency to meet old friends,” says Kuruvilla. “This happens in the evening. So at that time, we conduct a lot of activities to divert their attention.”
Also, to convince them, RWW uses former prisoners as counsellors. “The just-released prisoners listen far more carefully to former convicts,” says Kuruvilla. “Eventually, they feel emboldened to go down the straight path.”
One man who did so was P. Lalji, a stocky forty-year-old. At the RWW office, he recounts a memory from his youth: it was a Good Friday afternoon. From a distance, Lalji saw Manoj. He moved forward and in one smooth movement, he swung the sickle on Manoj’s arm.
Apparently, Manoj had attacked Lalji’s father regarding a debt and the son had taken revenge.
In the end, Lalji used the sickle 30 times. Lalji was duly arrested and sent to jail. But there was nobody to come forward as a witness, thanks to Lalji's political connections. So, the case fell apart. Thankfully, Manoj survived. So, Lalji was freed after a few weeks.
But for the next sixteen years, Lalji went in and out of prison. “Many a time I did the dirty work of political parties, as a member of a gang,” he says. “Then people would give us money to harass and intimidate their rivals. It was easy cash, but there was no peace of mind. At night if I heard an unusual sound, I would wake up, my heart beating fast, imagining that it was an enemy coming to kill me or a policeman out to arrest me.”
In the end, Lalji got tired of this violent life. It was at this moment he met Ranjit Mathew, a staffer for RWW. “He told me that my life's path was not correct,” says Lalji. “Ranjit would come to my house often and talk to me. Slowly, I was able to break away from my criminal activities and my addiction to alcohol and marijuana.”
Good luck continued for Lalji. One day, a woman, Manju, who was working in Saudi Arabia heard about Lalji's story from a friend. Amazingly, she quit her job, came to Kottayam, met Lalji and said she would marry him. Lalji accepted the proposal and today they have two children, a girl, Abigail, 9, and a boy, Abhishek, 5. “God has been kind,” says Lalji.
Incidentally, apart from prisoner rehabilitation, RWW also has programmes for women empowerment, feeding the hungry, building houses for the poor, and cleaning the environment. “We depend on donations for our works,” says Kuruvilla.
How it began
RWW began in July, 2004 because of a specific incident. One night, a local acquaintance Samuel Thomas (name changed) came to Kuruvilla for monetary help. Unfortunately, Kuruvilla did not have any money. This man had been a successful businessmen but his company had gone bust.
Samuel began working in the same company which he had owned at Rs 150 a day. But the creditors would take whatever money he earned. Samuel told Kuruvilla he could not bear the sight of his children going hungry. The next morning Kuruvilla learnt that Samuel had committed suicide. “I decided then and there I would do whatever it takes so that nobody goes hungry,” says Kuruvilla.
He also had a personal experience of suffering. When Kuruvilla was 13, his father died suddenly of a heart attack. As the eldest child, the responsibility fell on him. “I had to look after my family which included eight members,” he says. “I went to school but in the evenings I worked as a door-to-door salesman. The rejections, the 'Get outs' that people shouted at me, it was all very painful. But, as a result, I understand keenly the pain of others.”
When ex-prisoners ask Kuruvilla, why they went through such harrowing experiences, the latter says, “If you don’t go through the pain of that situation how will you know the pain of others? How will you know the pain of rejection? I tell them they have now discovered their purpose in life.”