| Stanislaus Jebamalai at the Calcutta seminar. Picture by Amit Datta
Calcutta, Sept. 26: The tribals of Gujarat call him Sannybhai. Stanislaus Jebamalai, or Stanny as he is known to almost everyone, is a Jesuit priest working in partnership with the indigenous people, helping them find peaceful ways of conflict resolution, preserving the close-knit fabric of their society.
These are times when the likes of Dara Singh are sentenced to death for burning to death Graham Staines and his two sons. These are also times when the likes of Stanny can build an organisation that helps tribals fight for their own rights.
Through an NGO, the Legal Aid and Human Rights Centre, the lawyer has created a network of locals and village elders who intervene in disputes without taking recourse to the law.
“I realised during the time I spent in court that the system could not deliver justice to the poor,” explains the 51-year-old, who left his native Tamil Nadu to study at St Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad, after which he pursued a law degree in Surat. He had already been working with tribal groups, and knew how vulnerable they were.
The priest decided to modify the traditional “out-of-court-settlement” strategy to suit local needs. Property disputes and marital strife were common, and the expenses of a court case could force them to sell their livestock and property. He would approach the families, first cautiously. “I would ask them: ‘Why are you fighting over a piece of land' Why do you want to deprive your sister of it and tear the family apart' What do you hope to gain'’” Then, he would involve the village elders, or the panch.
Sannybhai gained trust rapidly. The work he started in 1992 has spread to seven rural centres catering mainly to tribal disputes, while the Surat branch helps anyone who seeks them out. Together, they settle between 20 and 40 cases a month.
“Not only has this done away with the need for legal redress in around 90 per cent of the cases, it also helps maintain the social balance. It reduces enmity in a very close-knit society,” explains the soft-spoken man based in Surat, visiting Calcutta for a seminar organised by the Ashoka Innovators for the Public, of which he is a fellow.
If the conflict cannot be settled amicably, Stanny relies on a panel of lawyers to intervene. “First, we were working with non-tribal lawyers. But this started creating trouble. So we recruited 24 BA and BCom students, 15 of whom were girls, and supported them through an LLB course,” he recalls. Out of college, the team was encouraged to get court experience before taking on cases for the Legal Aid and Human Rights Centre. The NGO has also trained over 400 paralegals, half of them women. “Many are now employed by NGOs across Gujarat’s 11 tribal districts,” smiles Stanny, who joined the Jesuit order in 1982.
Now, he is moving away from direct intervention, leaving it to the seven independently-registered branches of the People’s Organisation, with a member strength of 20,000 tribal men and women, ensuring the movement’s sustainability.
Having developed “value-based” local leadership, Stanny can move on to bigger things. “I know they can operate without me.” Legal battles — with forest land rights high on the agenda, as a direct threat to the livelihood of the people — are what he hopes to stress on.
Jai Adivasi is how the People’s Organisation activists greet each other. For him, that is the sound of true success.