Restorative Practices and Gandhi – Some thoughts and an exciting announcement

The Indian struggle for Independence, the South African struggle for non-discrimination, the American civil rights movement – these are few of the several historical movements worldwide which espoused certain common core principles towards their goal to realise human rights, equality and social justice. These were the Gandhian principles of ahimsa or non-violence and satyagraha or the insistence to hold on to the truth. The 2nd of October 2019 marked the 150th birth anniversary of the global leader for peace, Mohandas Gandhi. He was a leader who redefined the language of struggle and revolution through his two non-negotiable guiding principles – truth and non-violence. Today, more than ever, the increasingly violent post-modern, post-truth world needs a reminder, and a re-set, to examine the validity of these ideals, especially in the context of how we understand crime and punishment.

In his book, The Voice of Truth, Gandhi offers his views on the need for separation of the “criminal” from the crime “In independent India of the non-violent type, there will be crime but no criminals. They will not be punished. Crime is a disease like any other malady and is a product of the prevalent social system.” In this we find the kernel of what true justice must entail; a quest not for retribution, but for restoration and reformation. A practical rendition of Gandhi’s principles of truth and non-violence would amount to the inculcation and acceptance of restorative practices in how we address the issue of crime in society.

Restorative practices focus on the inter-relatedness of the human experience and offer an alternative, non-violent framework for resolving conflict and the resulting harm. Through restorative practices, it is possible to create a space for mutual participation of the wrong-doer and the person harmed (and for other people affected).  These practices explore what victims need to heal from the harm done and help create mechanisms to meet those needs. Whereas, for the wrong-doer, restorative practices have the potential to seek a space for possible ways to address the harm caused, starting with an acknowledgement by the individual of the harm committed. A restorative approach helps us to look at the crime, or the harm done, not in isolation, but through a framework which also brings into the picture the role of the society in perpetuating the harm. Restorative practices are governed by the belief that elimination of the “criminal” does not warrant the elimination of the crime, and is willing to engage with the social systems at a much deeper, systemic level to root out the crime.

We have had the privilege of owning this wisdom for over a century, demonstrated to us by the words and the life of Gandhi. Yet, we have a long way to go before we can actively engage with restorative practices at an individual and collective level. Gandhi shared with us his vision of what prisons should resemble in India, “What should our jails be like in free India? All criminals should be treated as patients and the jails should be hospitals admitting this class of patients for treatment and cure. No one commits crime for the fun of it. It is a sign of a diseased mind. The causes of a particular disease should be investigated and removed.”

Instead of shaming and isolating wrong-doers, restorative practices work towards holding them accountable. This begins with acknowledging the harm done, and moving towards actively repairing the harm caused to the victim. Though seemingly counter-intuitive, preventing recidivism requires building strong support systems and validating the human dignity in the person, while condemning their actions (read about our work on helping adolescents be accountable for the harm they have caused). This stems from the principle of ahimsa, which includes the idea of reaffirming the humanity of those who cause harm, and an effort to understand what social circumstances led them astray. The aspiration of a wholesome, functional justice system should also be to repair the harm that has been caused, and to offer a chance for restoration to those who seek it. This after all, is true justice.

It is our pleasure to announce that Counsel to Secure Justice in partnership with UNICEF Rajasthan kicked off a project on restorative practices on the 2nd of October. We will be working towards creating safe spaces of communication at the observation homes of Rajasthan, through the restorative process of ‘talking circles.’ Our journey to help children who have been harmed, and children who have caused harm has been paved with many a hurdle. Yet, we persevere in our commitment to facilitate true justice for children who are more than what happened to them, and more than the wrong they have committed.

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