The First Tribunal

Kerala Travel Blog

 › entry 33 of 37 › view all entries

I am sitting in my Mascot Hotel room.  Its about 11:30 a.m., I’m awaiting my parents arrival from Mumbai, and I have just finished the Kerala People’s Tribunal on Torture.


Let’s rewind the last month and a half.  Without, much of an understanding of the purpose of the work I was performing, I began editing Fact-Findings from the state of Kerala.  I vaguely knew that the Fact-Findings would eventually find their way into an Annual Report.  I knew little more than that. 


Reading the allegations of “torture” was tedious and tiring.  My assignment was to perform the second and final edits to recorded incidents of torture and police violence from 4 of the 14 districts in Kerala.  For the last year, monitors stationed in the four districts interviewed victims and witnesses of police torture, and when possible the perpetrators.  These were sent to the NGO head office in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, where I was working.  250 of these Fact-Findings crossed my desk.  Often the language differences and “professionalism” gap was wide.  At one point, there were so many cases that merely said the victim was “tortured or beaten” that I felt the credibility of the organization would be undermined if we published these findings.  Torture and beating are conclusions, really legal conclusions, that can only be drawn from the facts of an encounter.  To prove torture, it is first necessary to convince the reader what actually happened to the victim.  So, I told the National Director we must send the cases back.  He asked, “How many?”  I said, “70.”  Trusting me, we sent back nearly 1/3 of the Fact-Findings submitted.  This was in early March, and we were due to complete the project by March 30th, a few days before the commencing of the April 2nd and 3rd People’s Tribunal on Torture.


The last few weeks involved long hours of editing Fact-Findings, of editing reports of police torture from secondary sources; such as newspapers and other Human Rights Organizations.  Editing is not my strong point. I found myself wishing at times that I had the talents of former workers who can spot a misplaced comma from three law offices away.  But they were not here, I was.  So I settled into the task with as much devotion and faith as I could muster.  Sitting from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day was wearing on me.  My eyes were exhausted, my mind felt like mush at the end of the day.  I could not shake the lingering feeling of exhaustion that haunted me.  At night, I would talk on Skype and look at myself in the corner screen, exhausted. 


Finally, at the end of March, we finished.  The National Director assigned some additional editing instructions and asked Anitha and I to prepare the cover on the Annual Report. WHAT, I thought.  The only thing I’m worse at than editing, is creating “art.” Even my stick figures are indecipherable!  I wished that I had the talents of my friends who are so artistic, who brand corporate logos or design websites for a living!  But they were not here either.  With the help of Anitha and the computer/NGO tech Anand (who is quite good in this area, I learned) we went to work designing the cover and the page layout.  The only design experience I had prior to this, was putting the case caption on the page ~ and there are statutes telling you where it goes, what goes in it, and what the finished product should look like. 


I asked whether we had any stock photos of torture.  Instead of photos, Anand said his friend did some drawings.  Then we worked on the page layout, page size, and all the little things I had never thought about before.  In the end, we created a substantive report that I’m quite proud of. 


I took a short break at the height of this process, when I escaped to Pondicherry for the weekend.  My return was an abrupt gear change into HIGH.  With time running short, the days were long.  I began to feel like I was back at my desk at home, spending hours and hours pushing paper.  On the day before we were due to leave, March 31st, the Annual Report was “finalized” and sent to the printers. 


In addition, I was assigned a new task.  To prepare for the PTTs  I was to attend six tribunals; in Utter Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Bihar, Rajasthan.  Some 2500 Fact-Findings were flooding into the NGO, needing 1st edits (turning the affidavit style document into a narrative) and 2nd edits (turning into a cohesive, concise, and clear narrative).  My job was to perform the work, “outsource” if possible, and do whatever else was necessary to complete the tasks.  But now I’m ahead of myself because the Kerala PTT started the next day.


I sent the first cases out for editing, along with a letter, email, instruction sheet, and samples that I prepared on-the-fly, then hopped into the car at 11:00 p.m. with the National Director and Anitha.  We were bound for Trivandrum, and after a quick dinner and a long sleepless drive, we arrived at the YMCA at 6:00 a.m.  I curled up in my bed and quickly fell asleep for 3.5 hours ~ the longest sleep I would get for the next 2 days…


At the 10:00 a.m. meeting, without the foggiest idea what goes on at a PTT, I was introduced to the 12 volunteers that I learned I would be supervising.  I walked into a small meeting room (much like the tiny hotel deposition rooms I was used to) and was greeted by 12 smiling young men and women.  As I stepped inside, they all stood up and said “Good morning Sir.”  A bit dumfounded, I replied, “Good morning.”  That was all I could say.  “They are showing you some respect,” the Kerala State Director Ajay told me.  I introduced myself, taking great care to speak slowly and clearly.  The ND entered, and again everyone rose.  He explained the plan for the next three days, and I furiously took down notes so that I would know what was happening.  Then he turned it over to me, and I explained the case summary and editing procedure, which I had had plenty of experience at, having just edited some 250 cases. 


The ND, said now go to work, asked me if I had questions, and like that, I was supervising 12 volunteers.  The goal: distribute the 33 tribunal cases to 3 teams, have them prepare a case summary of each one and return to me for final edits, then assign each group a documenting task for the three stages of the PTT, the Inauguration, the Plenary, and the Panel review.  The volunteers fanned out into the 4 YMCA rooms and I took a few minutes rest before the long night.  We all went to dinner at approximately 8:00, ate a huge meal, and then returned to work.  


With Anitha’s help, we distributed the cases, explained assignments, and then settled in for a long day of work.  I was supposed to complete the edits of the 33 cases by morning.  When the volunteers began submitting the cases at 10:00 p.m., I knew it was an impossibility.  At 3:00 am, with Anitha’s prodding, I went to sleep having completed only 8.  Up at 6:00, I went back to work.  Then at 8:00 we went to the hall where the PTT would be held.  Instead of the magnificent “court room” I imagined in my head, I walked into an auditorium in its initial stages of dilapidation.  The acoustic ceiling tiles were water stained, rotted, and falling, leaving gaping wholes in the ceiling.  A few rusty fans hung like stalactites from the corroding ceiling while others dustily clung to the pillars.  The old grey-brown seat cushions looked tired against the bare concrete floor.  The stage barely held onto its former glory with its blue dust laden curtains and faded backdrops.  A podium on the stage and hand drawn Styrofoam “art” ornamented the stage, as did a cut-out Styrofoam sign hung from the stage reading “People’s Tribunal on Torture.”  I was stuck somewhere between honored to be a part of the amazing process and out-of-place by how unprofessional (by American standards) it looked to me.  But as the finishing touches were place, the auditorium began to come to life.  My friend Aman came too and we talked for a short time.  And then the auditorium began to fill with reporters, torture survivors, their families, citizens, and advocates.  I was working on the final edits and turned around to see a packed room.  It was hot without any air flow, and I sweat, my fingers pruning from dampness.  But the audience was enraptured. 


The ceremony was almost entirely in Malayalam, the Keralan language, so I understood very little.  But having read each of the cases before its presentation, I now had a face to put to story.  At 5:00 pm the PTT ended for the day.  We returned back to the YMCA where the volunteers spread out through the 4 rooms.  The volunteers began submitting their observations and summaries from the day of hearings, and I began editing.  The first reached my lap around 11:00 pm.  Many of the girls left early because the families did not like their daughters out so late (9:00), some left a bit later.  The men worked and slowly faded-out. My room was the male crash-pad, and I worked as the 4 male volunteers began to sleep.  By 5:00 a.m. I finished.  I woke Anitha up and we sent the final product at 5:45.  I went straight to sleep!  I turned on my iPod, but was asleep before the first song ended.  I awoke to Anitha standing over me at 8:45 telling me to wake-up. 


A splash of water on my face, lens solution for my scratchy contacts (3 days in) and some fresh-looking clothes, I was back in the ND’s room for a meeting.  A mad dash to finalize the press release, and we were off the printers to deliver the final version to the press at 11:00.  By noon, it was over the PTT was over. 


This was my introduction to the PTT process.  Following Kerala came 5 more.  Each one became a bit easier, the format solidified and organization simplified.  But each Tribunal had its own share of “personality”.  Some were meticulously organized, others…left something to be desired. 


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