Shri K.G. Kannabiran, former President PUCL, eminent lawyer, writer and the most active civil liberties activist, passed away on December 30, 2010.
One of the pillars of the civil liberties movement in the subcontinent has left us in the twilight of 2010. An irreparable loss that the civil liberties movement in the subcontinent will have to weather in the days to come. Kannabiran’s life as a civil libertarian, as a human rights lawyer is a constant inspiration for anyone who was ready to walk the unbeaten track.
It was in the decade and a half from the early 80s to the mid-90s that he worked as the President of Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) and later as National President of PUCL for a decade did Kannabiran initiate and pave the path of radical jurisprudence in India.
The early 80s were also the days of high tide in the civil liberties movement throughout the subcontinent. Making hitherto unchartered ventures into the interpretation and practice of law in the Indian subcontinent, thus radically looking at the Indian Constitution, Kannabiran’s entreaties, in his own words, “embarrassed the most sensitive among the judges”. And for Kanna, mere interpretation of the law or the unfolding fascist nature of the State was not enough. He believed in not mere “interpret[ions] but to change things”.
It was this vision and spirit that made him look at law and the Indian Constitution from the point of view of the most marginalised or the voiceless, the exploited and the oppressed. If law was the fossilised expression of the prevalent morals of human relations and conduct, Kannabiran always went a step ahead to instill life in the interpretation of law, to stretch its elasticity in so much as to accommodate the tensions of everyday life of the common people. He was always in defence of the ‘deviant’ who used to think ahead for the betterment of the community, for the people, society at large. For Kannabiran it was the paramount task of the civil libertarian to use the constitutional framework to relentlessly probe and enunciate the possibility of introducing new principles in jurisprudence. He thus made extensive use of the fundamental rights and the directive principles in the Indian constitution, trying to push its limits, in all of his cases.
Despite his ill health Kannabiran had readily agreed to be the President of Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP), Andhra Pradesh chapter. When we approached him to apprise about the plan to start the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP) his anger and impatience for not being able to do much due to his failing health was evident as he wryly joked about him as a “non-performing asset”.
Today when we stand up with a lot of conviction against the draconian laws be it the TADA, POTA, UAPA, AFSPA or the PSA, this moral courage to face the wrath of a fascist state—or the “terrorist State” as he would prefer to call it—came from a tradition set by the likes of Kannabiran. It was Kannabiran who filed a petition in 1971 successfully challenging the Andhra Pradesh Preventive Detention Act, 1970 under which writers intellectuals and poets were arrested.
Later in the mid-90s when the Justice Ranganath Mishra along with Justice Fathima Beevi as part of the Commission’s inquiry heard the cases of fake encounter killings in various districts of the state of Andhra Pradesh, it was under the leadership of Kannabiran, braving even physical threats, that too before the very members of the committee itself that the first steps towards initiating criminal proceedings against the police officers involved in the ‘encounters’ was heard and accepted. But the State ignored the report of the Ranganath Mishra Commission. In 1997 again he fought and managed to get a judgement which recognised these killings as homicides. Notwithstanding the efforts of the state to return the judgement, a full five member bench of the High court of Andhra Pradesh endorsed the arguments made by Kannabiran and his colleagues. Today the same judgement is pending before the Supreme Court of India.
Besides being a jurist par excellence he was also a champion of the people’s causes and a virulent critic of the state’s policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. The increasing penal nature of the Indian State, Kannabiran had argued, should be located in the outright selling of resources of the people in the subcontinent to the predatory needs of decadent monopoly capital. He lend his voice to the movements against displacement, destitution, destruction and death—the four dreaded Ds.
It was the constant efforts of the jurist to connect with the people, so as to sharpen his radical interrogation of the law and the Indian Constitution, for the betterment and in defence of the struggling masses that made him a people’s lawyer. While interpreting the law within the four walls of the courts and chambers, he was fully well aware of the ground level implications of each and every word that was chiselled to form the defence of the most marginalised and the ramifications that it may have for their lives. This made him and his likes in the APCLC stand apart from the ivory towers of legal parlance and practice—that had become the vocation for the rich and powerful—firmly grounded in the interests of the people.
No death can be timely. And more so the demise of Kanna. But one thing that marks his death is that he will live for ever. For his life was dedicated to the cause of the most marginalized, oppressed and exploited. And his vision of insurgent jurisprudence, to not only interpret but to change the reality. It is being in union with that vision and in trying to live up to that sensibility, responsibility and compassion of the insurgent jurist that we do the real homage for Kanna!
Secretary, Public Relations
COMMITTEE FOR THE RELEASE OF POLITICAL PRISONERS