George left his village in Wayanad to bustling Thrissur to become a priest in 1965.He was lured by the prospects of acquiring free higher education in a seminary. He was 12 years old. In the seminary, reading about the martyrdom of Christian missionaries who worked for the poor in China and South Africa, fired his imagination. Unconsciously, “live dangerously, die heroically” became his motto.
In 1981, he was ordained a priest and began working at the Chavara cultural centre in Ernakulam. He soon realized that monastic life bored him. He felt isolated from human condition, distanced from the everyday struggles of the ordinary people whom he yearned to serve. For him, priesthood meant reliving the life of Jesus Christ. Serving the poor appealed to him much more than being cloistered, listening to the tedious confessions of people who committed the same sins – lying, cheating, disobeying. His work at the Centre sensitized him to the injustice that the poor had to cope with.
Reminisces George: “I was convinced that God was not confined to the chapel. He existed amidst the people, in their struggles, in their miseries. It is out there that I knew I would find God.” And thus, the second motto in his life was born: “Defend the Defenceless.”
The best way to do that was to become a lawyer and fight for the rights of the oppressed. And George headed to Mumbai where he did a course in Law. In 1992 George started Jananeethi, an NGO, to provide justice to the poor. It offered free legal aid and even fought cases in court. Recalls George: “Cases began pouring in.”
As the cases poured in, so did the complaints. Most of his court cases were against the rich – land-owners for usurping the land of the poor, industrialists for arbitrarily dismissing workers or businessmen for illegally converting agricultural land for commercial use. The litigating priest became a threat to the “vested interests” – politicians, landed gentry and factory owners, who across the world wield tremendous clout with the Church through their donations, connections and goodwill.
“I was convinced that God was not confined to the chapel. He existed amidst people, in their struggles, in their miseries. Its out there I knew I would find God" says George Pulikuthiyil. He was a Jesuit priest when he founded Jananeethi. Most of his court cases were against the rich – land-owners for usurping the land of the poor, industrialists for arbitrarily dismissing workers or businessmen for illegally converting agricultural land for commercial use. The litigating priest became a threat to the “vested interests” – politicians, landed gentry and factory owners, who across the world wield tremendous clout with the Church through their donations, connections and goodwill.
Relations between Fr.George and the Church began to sour. Fr.George believed in Liberation Theology, a brand of priestly activism that swept across the Catholic Church all over the world in the 1980s and 1990s. Priests were going out of the confines of their churches and seminaries to fight for the rights of the poor. The Vatican frowned on them and the movement petered out. The bruised relations culminated with Fr.George and the church parting ways at the turn of the century. From Fr.George, he became George.
This picture : George talks to a group of auto rickshaw drivers in Jananeethi’s old office. Jananeethi provides legal support whenever they need, imparts behaviour training and sensitises them socially and culturally.
Shyma was a victim of abuse from her ex-husband. It was so unbearable that she walked into the sea with both her children. They died she survived. She was arrested and slapped with several criminal cases. Jananeethi got her released on bail, provided psychiatric treatment and got her a job. In 2010 she was acquitted of all charges. She has married again.
46 years old Sunil lives next to Jananeethi Institute near Thrissur. A daily wage worker, he is the only earning memebr of his family. Health complications due to alcoholism resulted in a gangrene on his leg. George helped save his leg from amputation by providing proper healthcare and tried to get him out of his drinking problem as well.
George acknowledges that realizing his dream is easier said than done. Lack of funds to do noble work is the single biggest impediment. Another is the rampant disunity within society. Echoing a popular sentiment, George notes: “There is always a group of people in society who won’t work themselves and what is even worse, won’t allow others to work. So they keep raising obstacles and spreading venom.” This can be frustrating, even disheartening. But he says the one lesson he has learnt in life is: “commitment makes the difference. If you stay committed, nothing can pull you back from your goal.”