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Mainstream, Vol. XLIX No 6 , January 29, 2011

Kannabiran — the Fighter for Your Rights

Monday 31 January 2011, by A K Dasgupta



It is with a deep sense of grief and sorrow that I write this piece to report the sad demise of Kandadi Gopalaswamy Kannabiran, affectionately called Kanna. He passed away on December 30, 2010, at the age of 81, after prolonged illness. The Amnesty International (AI) has hailed him as “a passionate advocate for human rights”.

Born on November 8, 1929 in Madurai (Tamil Nadu) to Kandadi Gopalaswamy Iyenger and Pankajan, he had his early early education in Nellore where his family migrated. Later, his father, a physian, joined the King Edward Memorial Hospital (now Gandhi Medical College and Hospital in Secunderabad), Kannabiran went to Nellore to complete his education and later studied in Madras University to obtain his Master’s degree in economics and a law degree. He started his legal practice in Chennai (then Madras). He shifted to Hyderabad in 1961 and started practising in the Andhra Pradesh High Court. A brilliant advocate, he could have earned a fortune, but he preferred to defend the victims of police atrocities during the Emergency days and fighting extrajudicial killings, euphemistically called “encounter murders”. I had the good fortune of assisting the Civil Rights (Tarkunde) Committee which looked into the “encounter murders” in 1976. He was one of the prominent members of the Committee. The deliberations of the inquiry committee resulted in the publication of the report titled “Encounters are Murders”—a Documentation of Naxalite Policy of the Andhra Pradesh Government (1976).

Besides the text of the report, it included newspaper clippings, editorial comments, letters to editors, statements by eminent personalities such as J.B. Kripalani, and critical comments against the AP Government when the proceedings of Justice B. Bhargava Commission ended in a fiasco. Most importantly, the Tarkuncle Committee report led to the appointment of the Bhargava Commission. The Commission had several other members, such as Kannabiran, Dr Arun Shourie, an economist and a human rights activist,

Dr Balwant Reddy, an economist with the Administrative Staff College of India, and Nabakrushna Chaudhuri, a former Chief Minister of Orissa. It was Loknayak Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) who persuaded Justice Bhargava to preside over the Commission. After the proceedings of the Commission abruptly ended, the above mentioned publication was compiled to cover the reactions of the arbritary decision of the Vengal Rao Government. I had the privilege of collecting newspaper clippings from various sources to incorporate them in the publication to present a total overview of the development of the “Naxal” issue. It still remains an excellent source of information about the police excesses.

The Commission arranged for public hearings which were attended by a large number of people. The proceedings used to be reported in the leading newspapers. All hell broke loose, however, when K. Lalitha, an activist, deposed before the Commission. She told the Commission that she was asked to identify the bullet-riddled dead body of one of her closest comrades. Lalitha described how her comrade was brutally murdered and the dead body was removed from the spot. She landed in jail custody. The next day, her detailed deposition was published in the newspapers. A panicked Vengal Rao ordered that henceforth the proceedings would be held in camera. In protest, Kannabiran (PUCL) and other legal practioners decided to boycott the hearings. However, the effect was electrifying for Vengal Rao’s discretionary act.

Kannabiran refused to confuse legality with constitutionality. He denounced the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act as being shielded by the “fig-leaf of legality”. This is because it goes against the constitutional guarantee for the right to life. In the “encounter murder” case titled K.G. Kannabiran versus Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh, in which he was the petitioner, he successfully persuaded the Andhra Pradesh High Court to order an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation. The case related to the disappearance of a trade union leader after an “encounter” within the jurisdiction of the Mushirabad Police Station.

A Marxist by conviction, he advocated a dialogue between the government and the banned Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War—later to be known as CPI (Maoist). Irrespective of the political colour of the ruling party, it used to approach Kannabiran to seek the release of senior government officials kidnapped by the Maoists.

Although his mother tongue was Tamil, he learnt Telugu in order to communicate with the poor villagers to understand their problems. Not only that, he used to contribute articles on topical issues in the Telugu weekly, Prajatantra. A collection of these essays published in the weekly during February 18, 2006 and May 17, 2008 came out in book form. The title of the book is 24 Gantulu—Personal Social History of Kannabiran’s Memoirs.

He was kind enough to send me an autographed copy with the remarks—“for Comrade Dasgupta—still a comrade of the vibrant variety”. I spoke to him on February 16, 2010 on phone. He enquired about my health and asked me my age. I replied: “84+”, and he said that his age was 83. He advised me never to think “that you are old”. I never imagined that his end would come so soon.

One of his earlier books, The Wages of Impunity, Power, Justice and Humanity, highlights the lack of changes that has marked this nation as it moved from the colonial phase to the post-colonial phase. He used to write regularly in English newspapers on socio-economic and political issues. In one the articles published in The New Indian Express (June 18, 2010), he scathingly criticised the judicial system observing that “our judiciary is very sympathetic to the affluent”. This observation was made after the court verdict on the Bhopal gas tragedy became known. He commented that this latest example showed the predominant culture of our unequal society.

The two-volume report on the Gujarat massacre in 2002, penned primarily by him, is an excellent example of writing an inquiry report on such a grave issue. He was a lover of classical music and known for his ready wit. Once a judge expressed surprise over his defending a branded rowdy-sheeter named Kotta Das after the police had held him in preventive detention. He told the judge: “Who knows My Lord, one day he may be our Chief Minister.”

He was the President of the AP Civil Liberties Committee between 1978 and 1994 and became the National President of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL).

He leaves behind his wife Vasanti, a prominent feminist writer; daughter Chitra, a scientist with L.V. Prasad Eye Institute; another daughter Kalpana, a social activist and lawyer; and their only son Arvind, a cinematographer; and a large band of admirers.

“Kannabiran will go down in the history as one who had dedicated his life to defend the rights of individuals. He fought for protection of the rights that the Constitution has guaranteed for the people”—this is how Jayaprakash Narayan, a fellow human rights activist and the leader of the Jansatta Party, paid tribute to the departed soul. A writer in a local English newspaper described his demise as the “end of an era”.

I would request the PUCL to bring out a collection of his articles published in various newspapers. I have a copy of one of his articles published in The Little Magazine (Vol. 3, No. 2, 2002) titled “Gujarat—A Case for Genocide” (pp. 6-13).

The author is a former Librarian and member of faculty, Administrative Staff College of India. He was also the Chief of Research, Eenadu Telugu daily, Hyderabad.

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