By: N Venugopal
Economic & Political Weekly, Jan 22 2011
In the first week of November 2010, a couple of days before he entered his 82nd year, Kannabiran told me that he was thinking of writing “A Requiem to the Lost Leg”. He was convalescing after one of his legs, infected by diabetic gangrene, had been amputated up to his knee, and did not want anybody to know that he was suffering.
I don’t want people see me in this bed-ridden condition, the image of Kannabiran in their minds should always be an active fighter for their rights”, he said, “but I want to write this obituary and make it public to thank this amputated leg that took me to so many places and allowed me to wage those battles for people”. But for the fact that he was lying down covered up to his chest, he looked brilliant and talked and joked and shared anecdotes as always. His “waiting in the departure lounge”, as he quite often described his status, ended at 5 pm on 30 December 2010.
The time has come to complete that unfinished requiem to the leg that took him all over the country, questioning violations of democratic rights and challenging the impunity of the powers that be. Maybe this time, the requiem has to be to the multifaceted person, who was indeed a humane philosopher with social concerns.
It is a cliché to describe the death of a person as a void that cannot be filled, but in the death of K G Kannabiran, the renowned civil liberties advocate, “prosecutor of prosecutors” and a person highly respected and loved by almost all the struggling communities in India, it is not a cliché but true to the core. Indeed, Kannabiran was a passionate person, who touched the hearts of almost everybody who was in suffering and made some effort to help them break out of that suffering. The multitude that he lent his hand to was so large that it included adivasis, landless dalit labourers, small peasants, industrial workers, miners, and the families of those killed in fake encounters and subjected to police brutalities as well as middle class poets and writers in Andhra Pradesh, adivasis in central India, revolutionary activists all over the country, riot victims in Delhi, Gujarat, Coimbatore and Bombay, the alleged accomplices of Veerappan in Karnataka, Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka who had been arrested, Muslims from Kashmir, the small Sikh community that was subjected to terror in Bidar, persons displaced by several “development” projects, victims from the north-east, miners from Chhattisgarh… the list is unending. In a word, he used all his legal, personal and organisational skills to help those who were subjected to the high-handedness of state machinery.
Being a scribe who sat with him for hundreds of hours and went through his papers, the legal documents he cited and innumerable literary and theoretical texts he quoted just from memory, this author feels privileged to have known at least some parts of that gigantic personality who had such a rich diversity in life, yet continued to be unassumingly simple in committing himself unflinchingly to the cause of the democratic rights of people. Our association produced 24 Gantalu (24 Hours), a personalised social history, a set of memoirs, serialised in the Telugu weekly Prajatantra for 27 months during 2006-08 and which came out as a book in 2010 (Devulapalli Publications, Hyderabad). In the beginning it was thought to be an autobiography in which he would recollect his life and dictate it to me, but it ended as a social history of Andhra Pradesh, in particular, and democratic movements in the country, in general, seen through the eyes of a very sensitive and involved participant.
It is so tedious to write about a lived life. It is also very difficult to recapture the events, which led to your making. Fortunately, what I am attempting is not my biography but about my response to militant radical movements in the state as a lawyer, as their defender in courts and my evolution as a human rights activist,” he said. In the same vein, he wrote in his afterword to 24 Gantalu,
…the brutalities I was witness to – when I say witness to – very often refer to the deeds done before we get to the spot, the wreckage and the destruction wrought tell us how it was done. A meticulous recording of evidence enables us to reconstruct the scene as it happened. The exposure of these brutalities never did have any effect. Every visit of a fact-finding team was followed by the Intelligence (officials) visiting the area and thrashing the people who spoke to us. The human rights defender who visits these places, gets dehumanised in the course of time precisely for the reason that these have no effect. It becomes a duty to be painfully performed and later on it assumes the character of a pilgrimage. That was the reason why I was averse to writing my biography. A witness can at best record what he has seen or witnessed. Neither Tiresias of the Greek legend nor Sanjaya of the Hindu legend has anything to say about himself. Their experience is limited to what they have witnessed…
The fact that less than 10 pages in the 500 page memoirs cover his personal life is an indication of Kannabiran’s philosophy of life. It is perhaps because of that modesty, simplicity, thirst for justice and self-less activity, the details of his life are not very well known to people.
Kandadai Gopalaswamy Kannabiran (KG in the legal community, Kanna in his personal circle, saar and various altered and distorted forms of his name, filled with affection and respect, used by thousands of his clients and admirers), was born on 9 November 1929. His father K G Iyengar was an ophthalmologist in Secunderabad’s King Edward Memorial Hospital. His mother Pankajam along with the children left her husband after his second marriage. Thus, Kannabiran had to live his early life in Nellore, the status declining from a well-to-do, “England-returned” doctor’s family to a small-town poor family. Nellore in the 1940s was a veritable laboratory of working class politics with P Sundarayya’s early activities influencing every walk of life there. Kannabiran’s elder brothers, already in their teens, were influenced by this politics. Coming from an orthodox vaishnavite family, K Seshadri (later to become a political scientist) led dalit scavengers in the Safai Karmachari Union and K G Ramanathan was to become a trade unionist in the insurance sector. An introduction to books through Seshadri and the political atmosphere in Nellore were Kannabiran’s first leads in life to politics. The anti-brahmin movement of the Dravida Kazhagam in Madras in the late 1940s and early 1950s where he did his intermediate course in Pachaiyappa’s College and BA (Hons) in Vivekananda College, and LLB in Madras University exposed him to the need to fight the oppressive social structure based on caste discrimination. The influences of Marxism, a struggle for the downtrodden and a fight against the injustice of social hierarchy informed Kannabiran’s life over the next six decades.
Asia Begum Case
Kannabiran joined the Madras High Court in late 1954 and one of the first cases he fought successfully was to force an amendment to the Indian Citizenship Act based on the plight of a poor Muslim woman, Asia Begum, who went to newly formed Pakistan in search of livelihood, was thrown out and sent back to India with a paper in her hand. She did not know that the paper was called a passport and that made her a Pakistani citizen, resulting in deportation notices from the Government of India. This case, as he explained in detail in his memoirs, made him realise the fate of the poor and illiterate at the hands of the law and government. The humble childhood, reading, his elder brother’s ideas, the political atmosphere in Madras, and the case of Asia Begum were key influences by the time Kannabiran was developing into a lawyer. “Much of my own understanding and clarity has come from what I have read (voraciously) through the years”, he said in the preface to the collection of his essays, The Wages of Impunity – Power, Justice and Human Rights (Orient Longman 2004).
Unable to maintain his cousin’s successful legal office after the latter’s sudden demise, a failed attempt to join Mohan Kumaramangalam’s office as well as the job his companion Vasanth Kannabiran got in Hyderabad led him to look at moving to that city as an option. Beginning in 1960, life in Hyderabad transformed the young lawyer into not only a much sought-after popular advocate but also a receptive and insightful public intellectual. The thousands of cases he fought in law courts, the hundreds of places he visited to document police atrocities, the thousands of public meetings he addressed, the thousands of thought-provoking articles and immediate responses to injustices show how versatile a workaholic he had become.
Following his connections with trade unionists elsewhere, he began taking up the case of Singareni coal miners and that led to his entry into communist circles in Hyderabad. Thus, he was part of the attempts of the would-be CPI(M) leaders to form the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Association in 1964, but the split in the Communist Party of India distanced him from the efforts. His involvement with civil liberties activity earnestly began in 1969-70 when there was severe repression on the Srikakulam tribal peasant struggle. Killing the tribal leaders and activists in fake encounters, arresting and implicating hundreds of people in false cases led to the formation of defence committees by lawyers and democrats to expose the state policies and defend the victims.
On the Preventive Detention Act
Besides the defence committee activities, another major event that brought Kannabiran closer to the emerging Naxalite movement in the state was his appearance as a defence advocate in the cases against a ban on revolutionary literature and the arrest of writers under the Preventive Detention Act in 1971. Three poetry collections of revolutionary writers, March, Jhanjha and Le were banned and Kannabiran argued against the ban on March and Le. He was successful in getting the ban order on Le struck down by the court. Similarly when revolutionary poets Jwalamukhi, Nikhileswar and Cherabandaraju, were arrested under the Preventive Detention Act, Kannabiran appeared for them and the Act was set aside, with a famous judgment – “nobody can be detained for having political beliefs and giving expression to them” – delivered by justices Chinnapa Reddy and A D V Reddy.
The efforts to commute the death sentence of Bhoomaiah and Kishtagoud during 1974-75 made Kannabiran a real activist advocate. The two peasant activists were sentenced to death in 1972 and the sentence was ratified by the Andhra Pradesh High Court. Pending the decision by the president on a clemency appeal, democrats all over the country, including Bhupesh Gupta, George Fernandes, K A Abbas and Mrinal Sen initiated a movement against the death sentence. The clemency petition was rejected and the execution was to take place in November 1974. The defence lawyers used technical grounds to stay the execution but the hanging was again scheduled for May 1975, when the court was on vacation. Kannabiran moved a house motion and secured a stay on the execution. Finally, under the Emergency, they were executed on 1 December 1975.
It was during the Emergency that Kannabiran’s judicial activism came to the fore. Since P Venkateswarlu, the then secretary of Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) was arrested along with several other defenders of civil liberties, Kannabiran had to take up the cases of those arrested, illegally detained and tortured during the Emergency. He used to file writ petitions almost on a daily basis and during those 19 months he became a single source of challenge for the detainees belonging to different political schools from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to Naxalite activists.
With a democratic upsurge after the Emergency, almost all people’s organisations became popular and broad-based and it was natural that Kannabiran, as a popular fighter for democratic rights in the Emergency was in the forefront. He became the president of APCLC at its state conference in Warangal in April 1978. He continued in that position until 1993, through the most repressive and crisis-ridden times, becoming the longest served president of the 36-year-old organisation. It was during this time that the organisation spread its influence all over the state, became the real opposition to the powers that be, and was subjected to the most brutal repression including the killing of its activists Gopi Rajanna, Dr Ramanatham, Japa Lakshma Reddy and Narra Prabhakar Reddy and also attracted people like K Balagopal into its fold. He was also associated with People’s Union for Civil Liberties from 1977 onwards and served as its national president from 1995 to 2009.
Kannabiran stands as the only advocate who defended the accused in almost all the conspiracy cases in Andhra Pradesh. He became part of the defence committee set up to fight the Parvatipuram Conspiracy Case and the Hyderabad Conspiracy Case in 1971-72. By the time of the Secunderabad Conspiracy Case (1974-88) he had become a major advocate and in the subsequent Chittoor Conspiracy Case and Ramnagar Conspiracy Case (1986-2002) he made important contributions not only to the defence arguments but also to jurisprudence on conspiracy cases. He always used to maintain that Sections 120-A to 124-A of the Indian Penal Code referring to criminal conspiracy, sedition and waging war against government were vestiges of colonial administration and were untenable in post-1947 India.
On ‘Encounter’ Deaths
Exposing and challenging the extra-judicial killings in the name of encounters was one of Kannabiran’s major contributions. He successfully proved that the “encounter” lost its original meaning and became a deliberate state policy and was against the rule of law and Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The reports of the fact-finding committees he led on several such encounter incidents, his counter affidavits ripping apart the police versions of encounters, his efforts as secretary to the Tarkunde Committee, his defence arguments before the Justice Bhargava Commission, his arguments before the Andhra Pradesh High Court in Madhusudan Raj’s encounter case, in particular, and before the Supreme Court and National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), in general, have made people disbelieve the cock and bull stories the police put forth after each killing. He also contributed to the change in the attitude of courts, resulting in verdicts to register each and every encounter death as a culpable homicide, putting the burden of proof on the police since they claim the shoot-out was in self-defence. Even though the police in Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere do not follow any of these judgments and guidelines of the NHRC, the efforts of Kannabiran and his colleagues have not gone in vain as nobody today believes the police version of encounters.
Another major contribution of Kannabiran, as member of the Committee of Concerned Citizens (CCC), was in initiating talks between the Government of Andhra Pradesh and the Naxalites. Along with other members of the CCC he met the underground leaders of the CPI(ML) (People’s War) several times to get their point of view and approached the government for negotiations. Though the efforts failed for the first time in 2001, Kannabiran played a crucial role when the talks took place in 2004.
A considerable portion of Kannabiran’s career as human rights defender pertains to his arguments in favour of dalits and religious minorities. He was involved in defence arguments of a number of cases of atrocities on dalits in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Kannabiran’s defence of the fundamental rights of people, including the right to fight injustice was not limited to Andhra Pradesh alone. He rose to the occasion whenever and wherever a gross violation of democratic rights occurred. In the process he appeared and argued in a number of cases, including on Shankar Guha Niyogi (1992-97), the Coimabatore blasts (2005-06), Nalla Kaman (2007), Gujarat genocide (2002), Srikrishna Commission on Bombay riots (1993-96), the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights on encounter killings in West Bengal (1998), and the Shyamsundar Commission on Bidar riots (1987-90), the Bangalore Conspiracy (1992-99), Sri Lankan Tamilians (1995-97), Premananda (1997-2002) and Melavalapu (1997), and the Uttar Pradesh Human Rights Commission case (2002).
All through his life he was fighting for the rule of law and against impunity. The rule of law was creatively interpreted by him as an adherence to the preamble, fundamental rights and directive principles of the Constitution. The Constitution is not just a document, but a result of the people’s struggle for equality and justice. The partial suspension of the rule of law would subvert the system and ultimately the law enforcement machinery would become illegitimate, he used to argue.
Belief in Constitution
As a person Kannabiran was very sensitive, loving, jovial, courageous and concerned. He had a quick wit. When a judge asked him why the Naxalites should be given constitutional protection when they do not believe in the Constitution, Kannabiran answered: “It is a test for the Constitution, not for the Naxalites. The Constitution was not selective and did not say that it wouldn’t apply to non-believers. It was meant to be universal. We have to decide whether the Indian judiciary can protect the democratic value system proposed by the Constitution – whatever may be the beliefs of the accused.”
He often narrated an incident in the forests of Medak when he went there on a fact-finding mission into an encounter killing. Kannabiran posed a question to a shepherd he met there: “The Naxalites killed a landlord and in turn the police killed the Naxalites. Why should we bother?” The shepherd asked Kannabiran, “Then why do we have the law?” Kannabiran narrated this in the court halls and in several public meetings to conclude, “unfortunately the judges and educated do not have the wisdom that shepherd had”.
Though he attained a powerful stature and the government would be afraid of him, there were some stealthy attempts to threaten and dissuade him from his work. There were at least half a dozen attacks on him by the police and threats to his family. He was remarkably fearless both in the court and in public life. Being a top legal professional in the country, he could have amassed money but he led a very simple life and as he himself expressed, he shunned making money.
Kannabiran would always ask his juniors and peers to be rigorous in studying the cases and the law and precise in making arguments. His approach to cases was humane and he used to tell lawyers to not just note down adjournment dates and sections of IPC and CrPC on the vertically folded dockets without opening them. “Just open those dockets, there are people inside. They are waiting for your concern and empathy”, he would say. This urge to help human beings in removing their suffering and fighting for their rights was his manifesto and that flowed consistently for six decades from Asia Begum’s case in 1955 to a statement three days before his death against the life imprisonment sentence inflicted on Binayak Sen.
N Venugopal (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor of Veekshanam, the Telugu magazine, and jointly wrote a collection of memoirs with K G Kannabiran, titled 24 Gantalu.