Personal memories of the man by Vithal Rajan


An obit that would do justice to this Just Man would occupy a fair-sized book. I am sure a compilation in memoriam will be attempted soon by learned people, who worked for him, and alongside him. I was a bystander most of the time, and I can offer only a few personal glimpses of a man, whose name and fame and work filled over three decades of Indias human rights struggle. He was lean, taut, and spry, and his commitment to universal justice blazed forth as from a pulsar. But at other moments he was a genial companion, learned and impish in turns, with an ineradicable sense of humour even about what he held sacred   his work   and an ever-green childlike romantic ideal till the very end of days.


During the period of Internal Emergency promulgated in the mid-1970s, the Indian bourgeoisie saw a flicker of the ferocious aspect of authoritarian rule inherited from colonial times, which is experienced daily even today by the vast masses, the poor, the tribal and the Dalit, the Muslim and the rural women. That period drove many a brave intellectual into silence, or even better, safe exile in the West. But it also brought forth Kannabiran, a middleclass lawyer with insufficient means, and a young family, a lonely champion of the undefended poor, and students innocent of everything but idealism. The state apparatus foisted on the hapless several conspiracy cases under draconian colonial laws, and it was Kannabiran who stood against this ferocious tide, fearlessly carrying out pro bono litigation for free, careless of how he met next months expenses. His sense of humour, unknown to leftwingers as he put it, was his personal source of comfort during those dangerous days. In court he declared that a dog which had been accidentally shot by Naxalites was the first running dog of capitalism!


The times, and Indira Gandhis flirtation with despotism, made this man an unlikely hero. He had struggled to complete his education suffering many privations. A relative supported him, but such was the frugality of those days that he had no money for a square meal in college. A cheap hot snack from a passing handcart was all that he could afford, but to get it, he had to leap out of a window during class. His benefactor caught him one day and slapped him for cutting class. He took the slap without uttering a word, for how could he tell the man he owed so much that he had no money to spare for a regular meal? Such was the upbringing that shaped the character of our hero, and perhaps early on gave him an innate sense of empathy with the voiceless poor and the downtrodden. His dislike of the rich and powerful was for their callousness, setting his voice apart from the cacophony of the envious many.


But he was no puritan. He liked his drink, and on occasion before the onset of diabetes which finally felled him as the might of the powerful could not, he could eat half-a-kilo of sweets at a sitting. His life was unlittered with luxury, for there never was any money for indulgence, but his spirit soared into high romantic realms. He told me once that he never missed a single showing of Romeo and Juliet, with Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, when the 1936 film first came to Madras. He would quote dialogue from Scaramouche, and I could almost see him fencing with the Count. Cricket was another passion, but not that of the spectator, for he had been a respected bowler once in Triplicane.


One would not think that such a man, with typical middleclass likings, would throw all caution to the winds, all hope of comfortable prospects as a lawyer, and stand alone and undaunted against the fury of an autocratic system, which seemed to have thrown aside all vestiges of democratic disguise. But he did. He used the tools of law, his knowledge of case-work, and his own simple unblemished bearing to put forth arguments in defence of those falsely arraigned. The State pondered how to get rid of this man and when, but luckily for India, Indira ceased to be India, an election was held, the people spoke, and the babus, the police, and the politicians realized that whatever might be the practice in other third world countries fascism in its naked form could not be adopted in India, at least not in the 20th century. Yesterdays friends who had once desperately sought the support of such as he soon became rather distant friends in power in Delhi. Though George Fernandes proclaimed he was powerless to help as a cabinet minister, Morarji Desai could not but institute the Bhargava Commission to enquire into the atrocities committed in Andhra Pradesh during the Emergency period. The retired judge was very reserved at first, but soon warmed to Kannabiran and the irrefutable case he put forward with eye-witnesses testifying in open sessions. In a memorable moment, a pious Muslim police officer was questioned whether he witnessed his superior commit murder. When he hesitantly denied this, Kannabiran with great compassion told Khan Sahib that he had told a lie on oath, and the look in the face of the unhappy man told everyone the truth. The Prime Minister hastily closed the Bhargava Commission, and that can of extrajudicial murderous worms.


Kannabiran had no regrets about his lifes mission, though he did mention once in passing that Morarji Desai could have made him a judge, but did not. He had no careerist ambitions, only a little frustration that even his so-called friends in power would not make it possible for an Indian to shape law like Lord Denning had done. If the chance had been offered, he would have made a greater peoples judge than Denning, for his lordship had illusions about British fair play when it came to the question of Irish rebels opposing British domination. Life afforded Kannabiran no such illusions. For Kannabiran, it was always a clear question of principle and justice. His friendship with Arun Shourie ended the day he uttered anti-Muslim opinions. While Kannabiran remained a firm and dependable friend to many, his incisive wit would spare none in response to any opinion he considered against the interests of the people. Many round him had to suffer such put-downs from time to time, but his palpable goodness of spirit restrained all from making any retort.


The state never believed in his commitment to civil liberties, despite his 15 years service with the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee [APCLC] and his founder-president-ship of the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties [PUCL], and even though different governments depended on his help to conduct dialogues with Naxalites. Disregarding his repeated statements against violence from any source, the State contemplated doing away with him in 2003, as it tried to do away with the banker-turned peoples balladeer, Gaddar. His family was threatened in a rather clumsy way, and his house cased by the Green Tigers   perhaps not unlinked to the Green Hunt now unleashed in Chattisgarh. All these threats made no difference to Kannabiran   it passed by him like the idle wind which he respected not. Ultimately, the same fear of uncontrollable peoples anger which made the British government protect Mahatma Gandhis life led the Andhra Pradesh government to stay its hand.


Not surprisingly, he had retained the respect of political leaders like Channa Reddy, NT Rama Rao, and Salauddin Owaisi.  Swami Agnivesh was a valued friend. The spotless SR Sankaran, a legendary IAS in his time, was a daily visitor to his home; his regular circle included such notables as Professor Keshav Rao Jadhav, and MT Khan, who had worked for communal harmony and local democracy, and Dr. Jaiphal Christian, whose life among leprosy patients demands a book of its own. Feminist leaders from Hyderabad with international reputations, who had formed the Anveshi Research Centre for Womens Studies, and the Asmita Resource Centre for Women, were family to him in more senses than one.


In his fight as a human rights lawyer, Kannabiran filed more than 400 Public Interest Litigation cases single-handed. Along with other immortal stalwarts like the late K. Balagopal he established the APCLC as a redoubtable peoples organisation. The PUCL also owes its creation to his efforts. Despite failing health, he was a member of the Concerned Citizens Tribunal which brought out the most authoritative report on the 2002 Gujarat State-managed carnage of Muslims. Kannabiran wrote a seminal book in a subject on which he was the undoubted authority: The Wages of Impunity: Power, Justice and Human Rights, published by Orient Longman in 2004. A film about him, ‘The Advocate,’ was made recently by the well-known documentary maker, Deepa Dhanraj, a long-time admirer of his.


Justice Krishna Iyer wrote to Vasant, his wife and his love from their youthful days: It is men like who in their heroic struggle for civil liberties really stand for the daring challenge against authoritarianism. Shabnam Hashmi said: Human Rights activists of our generation always drew strength from him. In keeping with his principles, he wanted his family to perform the cremation of his remains as quickly as possible and without any ceremony after his end. Several tens of thousands from the districts were denied a chance to pay their last respects, but he has left them the legacy of standing up against injustice and in support of the people, whatever it takes. He had one personal wish. In one of his old romantic moments, he told me that he would be singing in the Todi Raga as he died. I am as sure of this as I am of anything.


(Vithal Rajan [] is with the World Coalition Against Torturers [WCAT] and the Future Justice Group of the World Future Council.)


Daya Varma: Whenever I visited Hyderabad, which was quite often, I stayed with Lalitha and Vithal Rajan. Vithal would invariably take me to meet Kannabiran as a symbol of the best that Hyderabad possessed. Like a whole lot of people, I too  am very saddened at his premature death.

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