The life and legacy of civil rights legend K.G. Kannabiran

Published : Apr 06, 2023 11:00 IST - 12 MINS READ

This book also documents in detail the history of the civil liberties movement in India from the 1970s onwards.

Reading this book is like entering a time machine. The author takes us on a roller-coaster ride through the history of the civil liberties movement in Andhra Pradesh from the 1970s onwards, filled with police encounter deaths, state lawlessness, and the quest for justice and accountability.

The Speaking Constitution: A Sisyphean Life in Law
By K.G. Kannabiran; translated from Telugu by Kalpana Kannabiran
HarperCollins India, 2022
Pages: 340
Price: Rs.699

From its pages tumble names of young, ordinary people who were killed for daring to pursue their dreams of a more egalitarian society, of people who refused to cower before the police or the state and who kept the fight for a better future alive in spite of the terrible cost exacted by a brutal state apparatus.

The book is at once a memoir of K.G. Kannabiran’s life of over five decades dedicated to protecting people’s rights and the Constitution, a chronicle of the human rights movement in India, a legal handbook that analyses penal laws in the light of constitutional provisions, a moral trope of Kannabiran’s views on the importance of aligning one’s personal values with professional ethics, and a toolkit for advocates and rights activists in their defence of rights enshrined in the Constitution.

Above all, Kannabiran’s life story is inspirational, teaching us never to give up hope, to persevere no matter what and continue the fight for justice. He writes poignantly about winning the case he filed in his own name before the Andhra Pradesh High Court in the encounter killing of Madhusudhan Raj Yadav in Hyderabad on July 26, 1995.

K.G. Kannabiran, circa 2007.

K.G. Kannabiran, circa 2007. | Photo Credit: K. Ramesh Babu

The division bench accepted Kannabiran’s contention that encounters were nothing but murders committed by men in uniform, that a separate FIR should be registered for murder in every encounter case, and that the policemen’s claim that they fired in self-defence could only be tested in a criminal trial following an independent investigation.

The historic ruling in K.G. Kannabiran vs Chief Secretary, Government of AP dated August 14, 1995, was the crowning glory of 25 years of fighting encounter cases in courts. Kannabiran writes: “It was my personal victory, and the victory of the civil liberties movement that I had led.” (page 125)

Richly detailed

One of the most remarkable features of the book is its wealth of detail about people, places, dates, events, debates, and discussion. In a manner reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Kannabiran recounts the events leading to the police killing the famed doctor and Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) leader Dr Ramanadham while he was treating patients in his clinic in Warangal on September 3, 1985.

The policemen, many in uniform, led by then DIG Janak Raj and SP K. Aravinda Rao, were taking the body of Kazipet Sub Inspector Yadigiri Reddy, who was killed allegedly by naxalites at Kazipet railway station the previous day. Yadigiri Reddy was said to be infamous for his brutal methods of torture in custody. Despite this track record, the APCLC, led by Kannabiran as president and Dr K. Balagopal as general secretary, condemned the killing, pointing out that “the APCLC did not support retributive violence or murder”.

Kannabiran suggested that the revenge killing of Dr Ramanadham could be traced to the doctor taking up the case of the disappearance of Kodaveti Sudershan, a labourer in Kazipet railway station. Eyewitnesses talked about Yadigiri Reddy picking up Sudershan on December 18, 1984, after which he was allegedly tortured and killed and his body disposed of. Kannabiran points out how, by raising their voice against growing state and police repression, Dr Ramanadham and Balagopal became an “eyesore” for the police.

Astonishing tidbits add rich texture to the book. In the chapter “The Civil Liberties Movement in Andhra Pradesh”, Kannabiran points out: “The Civil Liberties movement was not the creation of a single individual or group. It was the product of a specific socio-historical context.” He then speaks of attending a meeting in 1964 in the MLAs’ quarters in Hyderabad about state violence, which ended inconclusively because of differences between sympathisers of the CPI and the CPI(M).

“The book is at once a memoir of Kannabiran’s life, a chronicle of the human rights movement in India, a legal handbook, a moral trope, and a toolkit for advocates and activists.”

The rise of the Naxalite movement in Andhra Pradesh in the 1960s led to a brutal response by the state, which used the police to crush the movement. Approximately 5,000 Adivasis were arrested, two or three talukas of Srikakulam district were converted into detention camps, and hundreds of activists and sympathisers were slapped with criminal cases alleging “conspiracy”.

Kannabiran recounts a meeting before 1970 organised at Hotel Haridwar in Hyderabad, where Bhakti Bhushan Mandal, then a Forward Bloc MLA from West Bengal, addressed a gathering of about 40 lawyers and sought their assistance to defend alleged naxalites facing conspiracy cases. Describing Mandal’s speech as “inspiring”, Kannabiran recounts that the meeting ended with the formation of the Naxalite Prisoners’ Defence Committee with himself as convener and B.P. Jeevan Reddy, C. Padmanabha Reddy, Ravi Subba Rao, and Pattipatti Venkateswarlu as members.

In a footnote, Kannabiran points out that the committee was the second defence committee for communist prisoners (the first was set up in 1952 to provide legal assistance to about 30,000 people active in the communist movement who had been jailed between 1944 and 1955). Such details make the book invaluable as a historical document, for there are few books which document the timeline of the civil liberties movement in India.

The Hotel Haridwar meeting was the turning point for Kannabiran. He writes: “We travelled all over the State to appear in cases…. I had never delivered a speech in a public meeting…. I resolved to devote my energies to the defence of movement activists unlawfully placed under detention by the state…. The travesty of justice perpetrated in the name of conspiracy needs to be spoken about.”

Deconstructing conspiracy cases

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Kannabiran criss-crossed Andhra Pradesh, conducting hundreds of trials of people alleged to be naxalites, their sympathisers, or innocent people caught in the State’s web of lies and conspiracy allegations. He succeeded in one trial after another, especially in sensational cases such as the Parvathipuram conspiracy case (1969-76), the Nagireddy conspiracy case (1969-71), the Secunderabad conspiracy case (1974-89), the Chittoor conspiracy case (1979-85), the Ramnagar conspiracy case (1986-2003), and the Bangalore conspiracy case (1992-1999) and attained legendary status as a brilliant trial lawyer.

K.G. Kannabiran with Kondapalli Seetaramiah (centre), the founder-general secretary of the People’s War Group, after he was acquitted in the Secunderabad conspiracy case on April 19, 1994.

K.G. Kannabiran with Kondapalli Seetaramiah (centre), the founder-general secretary of the People’s War Group, after he was acquitted in the Secunderabad conspiracy case on April 19, 1994. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Interestingly, Kannabiran recounts a lunch organised by Arun Shourie in Delhi where he met the naxalite leader Satyanarayan Singh for the first time. He writes: “As soon as Arun Shourie introduced him to me, he rose, held my hand and said, ‘Kannabiran, prosecutor of prosecutors’.” The name has stuck since then.

The enduring legacy of Kannabiran lies in the way he interpreted Section 10 of the Indian Evidence Act to demolish the charge of political conspiracy put forth by the state. Scores of young lawyers who worked with him will remember the methodical way in which he picked apart the prosecution evidence supposedly proving conspiracy as bereft of any legal standard.

In his own inimitable way, he explains: “Most importantly, when it is argued that there has been a conspiracy or acts in furtherance of conspiracy there must be contemporaneous evidence that establishes this challenge. Agreements reached after the act is carried out are inadmissible—even if such agreements are reached among co-conspirators. In every conspiracy case, the prosecution gathered countless agreements and statements of approvers, all of which were discounted in the course of the trial. This is a key element in the definition of the crime of conspiracy because it safeguards the indiscriminate use of a charge of conspiracy against all and sundry.”

Many of the cases that Kannabiran conducted became sensations and widely known. These included his appearance before the Justice Bhargava Commission (1977-98); the Justice Muktadar Commission (1978) involving the police station gang rape of Rameeza Bi and custodial death of her husband Ahmed Hussain on March 29-30, 1978; the Justice H.A. Iyer Commission of Inquiry, 1993; and the NHRC inquiry in Andhra Pradesh. Apart from this, there are hundreds of conspiracy cases in which he appeared for the accused and got people acquitted in most of these cases.

The greatest gift that Kannabiran has left behind for succeeding generations of human rights lawyers, activists, students, and constitutionally minded citizens is the detailed manner in which he describes each of these proceedings and deconstructs the legal strategy he followed. It is a package of stories, strategies, and actual conversations in courts to learn from, get inspired by, and deploy for future fights for human rights and to defend the Constitution.

Death penalty jurisprudence

Equally powerful is Kannabiran’s contribution to the death penalty jurisprudence in India. One of the historic death penalty cases he was involved in was that of the naxalite prisoners Bhoomaiah and Kishta Goud, who were sentenced in January 1972 for the murder of Bodikanti Mallaiah and Lakshu Patel.

After the higher courts upheld the death penalty, a demand was made for commutation on the grounds that the murders were not for personal gain but “political” murders committed due to their extreme political views that justice could only be enforced through force and violence since the Constitution had not eliminated exploitation and oppression in society. The demand for clemency was echoed by numerous writers, filmmakers, journalists, and politicians, including K.A. Abbas, Mrinal Sen, Utpal Dutt, C. Rajeshwar Rao, P. Sundarayya, and George Fernandes.

“The enduring legacy of Kannabiran lies in the way he interpreted Section 10 of the Indian Evidence Act to demolish the charge of political conspiracy put forth by the state. ”

The commutation case was heard by the Andhra Pradesh High Court division bench of Justices K. Madhava Reddy and Madhusudhan Rao. During arguments, Justice Rao asked Kannabiran, “Why should naxalites who do not believe in the Constitution take shelter under writ?”

Kannabiran’s answer was instant and laconic: “When such issues come before the court, it is your values and not their values which are on trial. It is the values enshrined in the Constitution and the values of the state that are under test.”

Despite the attempts of many people, Bhoomaiah and Kishta Goud were hanged on December 1, 1975, in Murshidabad, West Bengal.

In a rare departure from his normal practice of being a defence lawyer, Kannabiran appeared for the CBI as a prosecutor in the Shankar Guha Niyogi assassination case before the Madhya Pradesh High Court bench at Jabalpur. Niyogi, a prominent trade unionist of unorganised workers in the Bhilai steel plant region, was murdered around midnight on September 27, 1991, in his residence.

The trial court on June 23, 1997, convicted five owners of the prominent industrial group Simplex—Chandrakant Shah, Gyan Mishra, Avadesh Roy, Abhay Kumar Singh, and Moolchand Shah; it held them guilty of conspiracy to kill Niyogi and sentenced them to life. The hired assassin, Paltan Malla, was sentenced to death. Despite Kannabiran’s best efforts, the Madhya Pradesh High Court acquitted all of them, including Paltan Malla, on June 26, 1998. The CBI took the matter on appeal to the Supreme Court, which ruled on January 20, 2005, that Paltan Malla was guilty; however, considering the long time gap, the Supreme Court commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment. The Supreme Court, however, upheld the acquittal of the members of the industrial group.

Reflecting on the verdict, Kannabiran writes: “As you climb up the justice system, you find courts are unwilling to hold the powerful to account, convict them and send them to prison for murdering a person who led oppressed workers in their struggle for dignity.”

In over five decades of litigation and human rights work, Kannabiran fought for numerous other issues, including the rights of tribal people in the Fifth Schedule areas, the rights of Dalits and the rule of law, the rights of religious minorities, and the rights of labour. The list is too long to cover in this review.

Kannabiran’s richly textured chronicle has been transformed into an important historical document by his daughter, Kalpana Kannabiran, an academic and advocate. She has added several footnotes and references and embellished the book with a panoramic introductory chapter.

With Kalpana Kannabiran, his daughter, in Hyderabad in June 2009. 

With Kalpana Kannabiran, his daughter, in Hyderabad in June 2009.  | Photo Credit: P.V. Sivakumar

Kannabiran lived a long, fruitful life, true to the motto he set for himself at the beginning of his career: to live his life modestly, guided by the principle not to earn beyond his needs. He did not know what it meant to give up or to give in to cynicism, pessimism, and defeatism. Until the very end, he remained committed to the struggle to protect human rights, safeguard democracy, and uphold the Constitution.

He compared himself to the mythical Greek hero Sisyphus, who was condemned by the Greek god Hades to eternally keep pushing a great rock up a hill only to see it roll down each time it reached the top. Despite the nihilistic tone underlying the comparison, Kannabiran’s life reminds us of the interpretation Albert Camus gave to Sisyphus in his acclaimed philosophical essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”.

Camus points out that for Sisyphus, suicide is not a possible response for a lifetime of being doomed to push the rock up the cliff; the only alternative then is to rebel by “rejoicing” in the act of rolling the boulder up the hill. Camus argues that by the joyful enjoyment of the struggle against defeat, the individual gains meaning, identity and purpose.

This is exactly what Kannabiran exemplifies through his life story—he was immersed in the struggle to humanise and democratise society and did not allow himself to be pulled down by adversities. This is his legacy to the human rights movement.

V. Suresh and D. Nagasaila are advocates, Madras High Court, and members of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties; Suresh is national general secretary of PUCL.

Disclosure: Both Suresh and Nagasaila worked closely with K.G. Kannabiran on many human rights cases.

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