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The Struggle Was Always For a Better World

Rishav Sharma |
KG Kannabiran’s translated memoir is about amplifying marginal voices, especially in tough times.
C Book

Eminent lawyer KG Kannabiran’s decade-old memoir, 24 Gantalu: Atmakadhatmaka Samajika Chitram, has been translated into English by Kalpana Kannabiran, a distinguished sociologist and his daughter. The Speaking Constitution: A Sisyphean Life in Law, published by Harper Collins in 2022, is a significant work that reflects the illustrious life of a stalwart of human rights. KG Kannabiran was one of the central characters in India’s civil rights movement and amplified the assertion of marginalised voices. He mastered the craft of advocacy, was a prolific writer, an idealist thinker and, in short, a man of substance. He brought the black letters of the Constitution to life through his ability and dedication, incessantly striving for radical incorporation of overlooked social and economic rights into interpretations of the Constitution. To those who knew him, he was affectionately called KGK or Kanna.

The title of Kalpana Kannabiran’s book, A Sisyphean Life in Law, implies a never-ending struggle. Much like the mythical Greek figure condemned to roll a boulder uphill repeatedly, only to watch it roll back down. Albert Camus writes in his essay, “Myth of Sisyphus,” “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” KGK notes that his struggle was for a better world and that the struggle was his reward. The introduction by Kalpana Kannabiran is a fine and detailed cicerone to the book. To young lawyers, the memoir provides a wealth of wisdom.

When KGK joined the profession, he noted the “huge gap between the harsh realities of the legal profession and the hoary, noble tradition that are part of solemn declamation”. As he embarked on his legal journey in 1954, a tragic plane crash took the life of his elder brother TS Ragahavan. He lived through a phase of destitution which lasted for some years. In 1958, when KGK took up the Ansari Begam case—related to deportation—he was inexperienced yet confident and argued with the utmost acuity. A single case cannot be a breakthrough, and it took him years to build a career in law, but Ansari Begam left an indelible imprint on his experiences in matters concerning human rights. It gave him an analytical and critical mindset and prepared him for the future. Any man has a choice either to live profitably or to live respectably. KGK chose the latter.

Though based in Andhra Pradesh, KGK took up cases throughout India wherever there was “an urgent need for justice”. This included appearing for Shaukat Hussain (convicted in the Parliament attack case), where the lawyers had boycotted the accused. He had a strong professional and ethical stand and believed, “I am a lawyer, and I work among people… Everyone knows where they can find me… but when people come to me with confidence that this person from this organisation will help us, I cannot but act immediately”.

In the late 60s, when West Bengal was shaken by mass movements and rampant State violence against the communists, KGK took on encounter killing cases such as of communist rebel poet Saroj Dutta and the custodial death of Charu Majumdar, leader of the Naxalbari uprising. He was committed to communism but did not formally align with any political party. And he was averse to the ‘class annihilation’ creed of ultra-left Naxalites. He once wittily remarked: “There should be a deluge that will wash the rot away, but individual annihilation is not the path.”

Nonetheless, his commitment to justice was far-reaching, and he took up matters of blatant civil rights violations of Naxalites and their sympathisers. Once, in the Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh, two talukas were turned into detention camps and thousands of Adivasis were crammed in jail on the mere suspicion of Naxal influence. During this nationwide phenomenon in the 1970s, KGK played a yeoman’s role in establishing the Naxalite Prisoner’s Defence Committee. It took up cases of hapless tribals suffering at the hands of a police offensive. Also, he played a pivotal role in establishing a dialogue between the government and Naxals.

During Emergency, KGK represented prisoners irrespective of their political colours. He filed multiple petitions that the courts were reluctant to admit. His optimism in the situation was commendable. When addressed by the treasurer of the Defence Committee to shutter their work, he responded: “Quite to the contrary, our work has just begun.”

In today’s India, where dissent is construed as anti-national and protesters are seen as terrorists, KGK would have vehemently contested the labelling of the accused as terrorists. He wrote, “If an attack on a political or cultural organisation is construed as a terrorist offence, every political conflict will be labelled a terrorist activity, and all political activity will be labelled ‘terrorism’.”

KGK denounced the politics of discrimination and resolutely checked anti-minority politics. The toxic brew of politics and religion was visible, and he predicted the degeneration of electoral politics, but he had forewarned that its first casualty would be the country’s democratic setup. KGK called for urgent action to resist such a political agenda and demanded an unremitting struggle to protect the essence of Indian democracy.

Today’s worrying human rights situation requires more legal luminaries committed to the cause. The latest Project 39A report says 165 prisoners were sentenced to death in 2022, the highest in two decades. The apex court is hearing a petition challenging how capital punishment is executed in India: whether death by hanging is humane. But Kannabiran firmly believed the death penalty is the “last remnant of an uncivilised attitude to punishment”. He argued that sentencing must be humane, apply within the bounds of the rule of law and eliminate retribution and vengefulness. In 1980, when the Supreme Court declared the ‘rarest of rare’ doctrine, it drew from moral, legal and ethical concerns. KGK questioned the foundation of this doctrine, the ambiguity of its definition and the role of personal prejudice in deciding such matters.

To uphold constitutionalism, its inherent morality embedded in the Constitution must be invoked, KGK believed. Through his court craft, he furthered the cause and meanings of liberties the Constitution guarantees. Kalpana Kannabiran’s book is even more relevant today as the galaxy of career lawyers grows bigger. This book is a must-read for legal practitioners, students of law and human rights activists.

The author is a lawyer practising in Delhi. The views are personal.

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