Fighter always

Print edition : January 28, 2011

K.G. Kannabiran (1929-2010), the civil rights activist and advocate, was the face of the human rights movement in India.

in Hyderabad

K.G. Kannabiran. His legal career saw him fighting against extrajudicial killings.-K. RAMESH BABU

A PASSIONATE advocate for human rights is how Amnesty International described Kandadai Gopalaswamy Kannabiran, who passed away on December 30, at the age of 81, after a prolonged illness.

For over four decades, Kannabiran, an eminent civil rights activist and a widely acclaimed advocate, was the face of the human rights movement in India. Respecting his will, Kannabiran's family comprising wife, Vasanth Kannabiran, a prominent feminist writer; daughters Chitra, a scientist at the LV Prasad Eye Institute, and Kalpana, a social activist and lawyer; and son Arvind, a cinematographer performed the last rites at the Hindu crematorium at Marredpally in Secunderabad within two hours of his death.

Born on November 9, 1929, in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, to Kandadai Gopalaswamy Iyengar, a doctor, and Pankajam, he had his early education in Nellore, where his family had migrated. Subsequently, his father joined King Edward Memorial Hospital, more popularly known as Gandhi Hospital, in Secunderabad. Kannabiran went back to Nellore to continue his education and later joined Madras University to obtain his master's degree in economics and a degree in law.

With the help of an uncle, Rajappa, an advocate and an avid cricketer, he enrolled in the Madras Bar Council and started his practice in 1953. Tragedy struck Kannabiran when his uncle died in a plane crash near Nagpur in 1954, leaving him to shoulder the responsibility of carrying on the legal practice.

For the next six years, he practised law in Madras (now Chennai) with moderate success and shifted to Hyderabad after his wife joined RBVRR Women's College as an English lecturer. Kannabiran began practising in the Andhra Pradesh High Court in 1961 and, by 1969, had started defending political dissenters, which saw him in the thick of action for civil liberties and human rights work for the next four decades.

A voracious reader, Kannabiran was influenced by the works of Karl Marx, William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, the Telugu writer Gurzada Apparao ( Kanyasulkam) and the Telugu poet Sri Sri ( Maha Prasthanam). The poet Varavara Rao of the Revolutionary Writers Association (Virasam in Telugu) noted that Kannabiran was also attracted to the works of the communist leader Puchalapalli Sundaraiah.

Kannabiran's legal career saw him fighting against extrajudicial killings, police encounters as they later came to be known. His role in defending numerous political detainees brought him into the limelight during the pre- and post-Emergency years. His wife worked with him to fight for the rights of political dissidents, sometimes at great risk to herself and her family.

Varavara Rao recalled how Kannabiran took up the cases of political dissidents, including four major conspiracy cases: the Parvathipuram (Srikakulam district), Tarimela Nagi Reddy, Secunderabad and Ramnagar cases in 1975. As a matter of conviction, he was against the Preventive Detention Act, the Maintenance of Internal Security Act and the Anti-Goonda Act, which he opposed tooth and nail, he said, adding that Kannabiran had filed as many as 600 writ petitions challenging detentions under these Acts. Varavara Rao noted that after emerging as a crusader, Kannabiran became president of the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee and served it from 1978 to 1993.

In 1994, he became national president of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and continued in that post until last year. Kannabiran took up cases on behalf of naxalite sympathisers, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh workers and also members of the Left parties. In his view, anyone who suffered during the Emergency had the right to be defended, Varavara Rao said. His relentless fight against extrajudicial killings during the Emergency resulted in the Centre setting up the V.M. Tarkunde and Vashista Bhargava Commissions to look into such cases. It was his relentless work in nailing the prosecution's lies in scores of conspiracy cases that laid the foundation for a creative application of the law towards building a human rights culture in the courts, said S. Jeevan Kumar, president of the Human Rights Forum.

Spoke his mind

Gadar, a balladeer and the convener of the Telangana Praja Front, noted that for the past 35 years, wherever there was a revolutionary movement, when people were afraid to associate with or even mention naxalites, Kannabiran continuously defended their politics. At the same time, he criticised their mistakes fearlessly. He always spoke his mind.

In 1995, he argued a petition in the Andhra Pradesh High Court relating to the encounter killing of Madhusudan Raj Yadav in Hyderabad. The High Court, for the first time, took exception to such police action: it faulted the police for filing cases against the deceased for attacking them and for not registering cases against their own personnel. The High Court, in its landmark order, noted that in all cases of encounters a case should be registered against the policemen involved, charge sheets should be prepared and the accused should be brought to trial. This ruling gave human rights activists a shot in the arm.

N. Venugopal, editor of the journal Veekshanam, mentioned how Kannabiran fought on behalf of Sri Lankans deported from India and those caught at sea and imprisoned in India. Persons facing cases under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act on the grounds of supporting the forest brigand Veerappan got his legal help. He also fought cases relating to the Madurai and Coimbatore blasts.

Venugopal recalled how Kannabiran agreed to take on the role of special prosecutor in the trade union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi case in 1993 at the invitation of the government of Madhya Pradesh. That was the only time he appeared on behalf of a government.

Venugopal, who wrote 24 Gantalu (24 hours), a personalised social history of Kannabiran's memoirs that was later serialised in a Telugu weekly between 2006 and 2008, described Kannabiran in the book as a humanitarian concerned for the downtrodden and those in distress. He had contempt for the media, the police and government officials, he said.

People in Andhra Pradesh remember his contribution to breaking deadlocks between the State government and extremist organisations. The Andhra Pradesh government looked to him to come to its rescue when the People's War Group abducted seven Indian Administrative Service officers, including S.R. Sankaran, in 1987.

According to Varavara Rao, a lawyer called Yugandhar telephoned Kannabiran seeking his help in getting the abducted officials released. As Kannabiran was wary of the government's intentions, he sought a clear-cut direction from the government, then headed by N.T. Rama Rao. Only after the government gave him the go-ahead did he proceed to Rajahmundry. He managed to get the officials freed, Varavara Rao said.

The Andhra Pradesh government again approached him when Congress MLA P. Sudhir Kumar, son of former Union Minister P. Shiv Shankar, was kidnapped from the heart of Hyderabad in 1991. In January 1993, Kannabiran was again in the thick of action; he ensured the safe return of another Congress MLA, P. Balaraju, now a Minister in the Congress government.

Civil liberties and human rights activists recall how Kannabiran along with S.R. Sankaran launched the Committee of Concerned Citizens to mediate between the government and the Maoists. He was instrumental in making it possible for the Congress government headed by Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy to hold talks with the Maoists in 2004. He was a member of the Concerned Citizens' Tribunal that inquired into the Gujarat carnage.

In an interview published in Frontline in October 2009, Kannabiran summed up his 40-year-long career thus: A major part of my professional life has been spent as counsel for the defence owing to the trust placed in me by the countless people whose freedom I found myself defending.

His death was mourned by a broad section of society in Andhra Pradesh. Former Chief Minister and Telugu Desam Party president N. Chandrababu Naidu, Panchayat Raj Minister K. Jana Reddy, who was formerly Home Minister, and scores of others from all walks of life paid him rich tributes.

A PUCL statement said: In spite of being a prominent lawyer instead of running for money, he chose social service instead and fought all these PILs [public interest litigation] and many more cases without charging any money. For the tremendous amount of work done by him in the field of civil liberties, he was considered to be a one-man army by his colleagues.

Kannabiran authored The Wages of Impunity: Power, Justice and Human Rights, which was published by Orient Longman in 2004 and is known to be his best and most read book. The Bangalore-based film-maker Deepa Dhanraj made a 130-minute part-biography, part-history film on Kannabiran, called The Advocate. It documents his contribution to challenging the Indian state and upholding the rule of law in institutions of governance and justice.

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