Founded in 2015, Quill Foundation is engaged with research and advocacy in India. With their slogan of ‘Back to the Constitution’, the organisation seeks to examine legal and judicial processes in the context of everyday rights violations and understand the interface between law and the social world, with regard to access to rights and justice.

The Citizen met with the core team - Suhail KK, Director; Sharib Ali, Programme Head; Vipul Kumar, Fellowship Coordinator and Fawaz Shaheen, Researcher – of the organisation to know more about their work.

TC: Quill is only about a year and a half old, yet you seem to have done some path breaking and impactful work - the Bhopal encounter report and the public hearings with exonerees… has it been overwhelming?

Sharib Ali: Yes, it’s been overwhelming; but at the same time we were ready for this pace of work. A lot of thought went into the making of Quill, you know. I mean, both Suhail and me have been working on the issue for several years now. The other members of the team - Vipul and Fawaz - while not working directly on the issue of terror have been working with movements of different kinds. So one can say that we spent about 5 years thinking through- sometimes unconsciously- about what is required to be done and how it needs to be done.

Our process of learning has not been just from books, but also from looking at the different movements in India- the APCLC, the NBA. All these movements were path breaking in the way they went about pushing the boundaries of law, bringing in a different kind of jurisprudence. When we are looking at such long term objectives, we aren’t talking of one or two people. We have a large team of people we are constantly in touch with, who have been in this movement. At the same time we have absolutely new and bright people who have a different way of looking at things. So if you look at it from that point of view, the work that you are seeing right now is not even the tip of the iceberg.

TC: It is surprising that you say that you have drawn inspiration from other movements and that your objectives are long term. But to an observer from the outside, like me, Quill appears to be a NGO with a project oriented outlook. How do you reconcile the two?

Vipul Kumar:
Historically, NGOs have been designed to kill socio-political movements. It’s not a coincidence that a mushrooming of NGOs began just after the economic restructuring, post the 90s.

But, to be fair, NGOs can play important roles in initiating rights based discourses, in capacity building and facilitating research that is rooted in the people’s movement. This is ideally what the role of an NGO should be, unfortunately, it hasn’t happened. NGOs have a tendency of getting caught in the trap of funding agencies, writing projects proposals, and reports. This has a detrimental effect on their understanding and engagement with ground realities and struggles.

At Quill our approach is bottom-to-top and issue oriented as opposed to the top-to-bottom and project oriented. Instead of structuring our work according to the requirement or demands of the donors, we design the structure and approach based on the issues that need to be addressed on the ground. For instance, the research done by us is planned in such a fashion that it addresses the most pertinent issues. Issues by which the concerned communities and individual are affected, so they can be active participants, and it acts as a catalyst for building a movement opposing a specific kind of human rights violations. This is possible because we locate ourselves within the community, and since we are publically funded we don’t have to succumb to other pressures.

Perhaps, it may be more suitable to look at Quill as a ‘research and advocacy think tank’ with the objective of rejuvenating the civil and democratic rights movement; committed to values of justice, equity and freedom, rather than seeing it as just a NGO.

TC: What are your other programmes and initiatives?

Suhil KK:
Quill is engaged in research and advocacy on issues of human rights, justice and equity. We focus on marginalised groups and communities, particularly Dalits, Muslims, women, sexual minorities and persons with disability. Our Law and Human Rights Cell (LHRC) has been investigating and examining the many ways in which legal and judicial processes form the context of everyday injustices.

For the past one year, we have done a comprehensive social audit of the terror prosecutions in Maharashtra (1993-2015), the report will be out shortly. As part of the audit we have analysed nearly 350 cases and travelled to various districts of Maharashtra, to meet the victims of wrong terror prosecutions and their families - in order to assess and understand the consequences of having been wrongly prosecuted.

We also offer a fellowship program for those who have faced the violence by the state, especially exonerees. Presently, we have nine fellows from across the country and they’re all pursuing law. The fellowship seeks to empower them by strengthening their knowledge of law and absorbing them into the work on civil and democratic rights.

Another flagship program is the Innocence Network, which is an all India collective of individuals and organizations working for the rights of those who have been wrongfully prosecuted or convicted - particularly under the charges of terrorism. Led by exonerees themselves, the Network is facilitated by senior members from the legal fraternity, policy practitioners, and civil liberties' groups. The Network seeks reform in criminal justice systems to prevent the practice of unjust incarceration. It also aims to establish support mechanisms for exonerees to help rebuild their lives after release.

TC: Something like the Innocence Network is unheard of, but at the same time very crucial in a country like India, tell us more about it.

Sharib Ali:
True, the Innocence Network seems to have caught the imagination of the people. To be very honest, we didn’t expect such a huge response, particularly with the issues we are raising, in a country paranoid about its security.

We are seeking to learn from the American Civil Rights movement and other such Innocence Networks - how did they fight for the rights of the oppressed and what strategies were used to the make movement so strong and effective, that it even gets accepted by the establishment.

Their methods and ideas were phenomenal. A person, who was wrongfully prosecuted, came out after 14 years. His employer asked him where he had been all these years - a make or break question in an economy with few regularized jobs. You know what the movement did? It made sure that the state listed that the person was ‘employed by the state of Florida’ etc during that period. That’s the kind of rights framework we want to bring in!

The Innocence Network will demand legislative and structural changes for those who have been wronged. Under ICCPR, under any humanitarian law, or under the fact that we are humans over and above all- the state owes it to us. It is affirmed by the Constitution, so we will fight and ensure that not only is it accepted but also that laws are passed around it. How we do it, is an ongoing debate.

TC: Tell us more about the rehabilitation aspect of your work. I ask because, while demanding legislative reforms, you are also working together with social structures to assist in rehabilitation. Will that not pose a challenge in the long run?

Fawaz Shaheen:
True, we know that legislative reform will take long. It is why we are creating structures to ensure that socio – economic, educational and psycho social rehabilitation is also provided.

In our vision, we view these structures as halfway homes; the final objective is to re- integrate them within society. For this civil society structures need to be built in order to empower, rather than create dependency – something which NGOs have a tendency to do.

TC: How do you plan to achieve that?

Fawaz Shaheen:
[Laughs…] that’s; the tricky part. We are deliberating on it. Wait and watch.

TC: Since you began, what have been some of the challenges you have faced?

Suhail KK:
The biggest has been ensuring a balance between idealism and pragmatism in our everyday decision making processes. Being a very small team, there is also a lot more pressure.

Often we are face with ethical dilemmas, especially when we have to drop what are doing for something which maybe more important. For instance, sending a fact finding team to Bhopal was unplanned – but we had to prioritize it over other things. Given how rampant rights violations have become – it is challenging to attend to every case with limited resources. To address this challenge we will soon be launching an open sources website, where people can choose to be a part of data collection processes – which would help us gather more information by using community participation and existing resources.