June 13, 2021
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K.G. Kannabiran (1929-2010)

Eminent civil rights activist, former president of PUCL and prominent lawyer, passed away in Hyderabad after a brief illness on December 30

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K.G. Kannabiran (1929-2010)
courtesy: magiclanternfoundation.org
K.G. Kannabiran (1929-2010)

I was on my way to the Basheerbagh Press Club at 5.45 pm Thursday, December 30 when my mobile rang.

“Have you heard the news ?” I knew what that ominous question meant. But who was it?

The friend who called was one of the listed speakers at the 'Free Binayak Sen' meeting at the Press Club where I was going. It had to be someone both of us knew intimately. ”Kannabiran. I am on my way. I can pick you up,” he said quickly.

“I will be there, you go ahead”, I shouted over the din of the traffic. Since I was within minutes of reaching the Press Club, I went there first. It was the same room where I have heard Kannabiran and Balagopal address jam-packed audiences. There were some 20 odd people scattered across the room. One of the organisers told me that many of the people who had come for the 'Free Binayak Sen' meeting left in a hurry to go to Kannabiran’s house… even before the meeting started. I needed time. Some excuse to postpone confronting the fact that Kannabiran is no more.

I decided to stay on.

When was it the first time that I got to know Kannabiran? ’The state as terrorist’… those are the words through which I got to know Kannabiran and they remain etched in my mind. They conjure up in my eyes, the many life worlds that Kannabiran touched. It was the title of an article in the Indian Express, published on a Sunday after the Emergency. Right after the Emergency? Five years later? I cannot tell. I wish I can find the article now. It was not until 1995, that I really found myself in a place where I could speak with him in person. I was writing an article and I wanted to know if the police had killed more people or the Naxalites killed more people in the previous year. That question is not going to help you understand anything, he said. I hung up and went to see him right away. If you try to make a balance sheet of killings and brutality by the state and the Naxalites, you will probably find that in some years the Naxalites have been much more brutal and killed many more people than the police. And you will soon get trapped into the mindset of a petty shop accountant, he said. May be that was the time when I got to know him. When he saved me from becoming a petty shop accountant.

I remembered the time in 1998 when the police had organised a vigilante group to bring a truck-load of victims of Naxalite violence to Kannabiran’s house. One of the men who barged into the house that day… Kannabiran recognized him as the man who was a Naxalite who had gone rogue and was now working for the police carrying out assaults that the police could easily deny any knowledge of. I spoke to him the next morning. I could not tell if he was physically afraid for himself and for the safety of his family. He was a little subdued for a few hours. The DGP offered some sort of a lame apology that day. He said well… there were all these people who had grievances against Naxalites and we thought it was OK for them to make a representation to senior members of the Committee of Concerns Citizens. So, we let them go their houses.  In the days that followed, I have heard him speak of courage and fear every now and then. I cannot tell exactly when he told me the secret to his courage. May be he never did. May be I just cooked up the answer in my head. I have come to think that somewhere along the way, he did tell me a story about the hazards of civil liberties work, and the tremendous amount of personal responsibility that one must exercise. I seem to remember that he told me that fear is a strange beast. You have to get it before it gets you. Turn it around… turn it into anger and it can work for you. I think he was afraid, like anyone else. He fumbled like every one else. There was always this brief pause, when he was confronted with some problem. He took time to grasp the crux of the matter, the argument. And then the tentativeness was gone. He had his policeman in the dock. He had the prosecutor by the throat. And then he was in control. May be that is how I got to know him watching him practice his art, cutting through the confusing mass of detail to the heart of the matter.

He loved to speak of the hundred odd conspiracy cases that he argued, literally in every single district of the state of Andhra Pradesh. He believed in the court. In the lowest building block of the Indian judiciary--the trial court. It is the district judge, the district journalist those are the people I have to address. Who else would give them books, arguments, ideas ? Who else would teach them ? I have to show them how to think. Each of the conspiracy cases is an opportunity for public education. It is stupid and lazy to go to the higher court and get it quashed, he used to say.

It was around 6:30PM and I was still in the press club. Nikhileshwar, one of the three digambara poets who was charged with sedition, the same section 124-A in 1971, in Hyderabad, was speaking. “We had no idea what sedition meant. Rajadroha… apparently when Binayak Sen asked the judge what Section 124-A meant, he was told that he was a rajadrohi. That was what I and the other poets along with me were charged with. I did not know that meant either. I could have been sentenced to a life term. It was Kannabiran who fought for us.”

The mobile rang again and this time it was from Delhi. The caller asked me what happened ? I said “I dont know. I have not yet reached the house.” She said “Please keep calling me. I am feeling orphaned. ” I said OK.

When was the last time I saw Kannabiran ? I mean, really, really see him ? I did meet him briefly at the release of his book.. 24 hours. But I can hardly call it seeing him. Several weeks before that, just after Balagopal died… that was when I really saw him last. He was in his library. Typing one key at a time: Angry. Writing an obituary for Balagopal. He told me: 'That fellow had no business dying like this. How could he do this to me?'

Kannabiran had been joking for a few years now, that he was sitting in the departure lounge and that he resented people who were jumping the queue (about people younger than him dying). But this was different. He was genuinely angry now. Angry as you could only be angry when the most trusted friend betrays you. When, in the middle of an argument that friend just gets up and goes away never to return. Not giving you the chance to complete the argument so that one could become friends again. Can there be a worse, more hurtful betrayal? Balagopal and Kannabiran disagreed on what the immediate task at hand was. For Kannabiran it was to use the constitutional framework to continually anunciate new principles in Indian jurisprudence. He made extensive use of the fundamental rights and the directive principles in the constitution in all of his cases. He believed that the directive principles were enforceable. And that that was precisely what the revolutionary movements in India were doing. Balagopal smiled quietly at Kannabiran’s rage and intellectual sharpness. He appreciated the superb wit and acerbity with which Kannabiran carried out his mission. But Balagopal, the lawyer, felt the task at hand was somewhat different. There are people in jail, people losing their jobs, tribals losing their resources. Getting immediate relief for them is much more important than anunciating a new principle. Principles ultimately have to be translated into cultural practices and that is a battle at the every day mundane level.

Kannabiran was hurt and angry on that day in a way that I have never seen. It was not so much because Balagopal disagreed with him. It was that Balagopal did not stay long enough to work through the disagreement. And that made him angry. “He had no right to do this to himself, to me and to the world. How long could he have gone on fighting those little skirmishes in the court ? Mulla ki daud masjid tak….get two people released on bail today, fight a little case there tomorrow, a little fight there… that is the work of NGOs.” Personal hurt at the betrayal of friendship made Kannabiran a little uncharitable and dismissive towards Balagopal’s position. Or perhaps, it seemed that way to me simply because Balagopal was not there to spar with Kannabiran and it all seemed one sided. And for no fault of Kannbiran either. ”That sort of NGO work did not need someone like Balagopal. His real work is elsewhere. It was in establishing new principles. And Balagopal had the mind to do it. He would have had to come back to me. I have been waiting for him to do that.” Kannabiran did not need affirmation from me for any of these things. I was quiet for a bit and then nodded in agreement as Kannabiran continued. ”He cared for me. Whenever he knew that I was in the court, he came to find me and took me to the canteen. But he had stopped discussing work with me. He would have had to come back…he had somuch still to learn from me.” It was not until after a quarter of an hour that the the rage subsided and remorse set it. “Many years ago, Pucchalapalli Sundarayya came to see me once. He was a shattered man. He talked of all the young people who had been killed. Kannabiran, you know, it takes a 100 years to make men like them. And they have killed each of them. A hundred years to make men like them. It takes a 100 years to make a man like Balagopal”.

I stayed until Kannabiran recovered enough to remember why he called me. The High Court… there is a practice of making a mention of it in the court, when one of the practicing advocates passes away. It is a ritual. It has to be done for Balagopal. So, a letter has to be delivered to the Chief Justice with the biographic details of the member so that the CJ can read it out. Kannabiran gave me the letter to be delivered in the court. That was the last time when I really really saw Kannabiran and….. Balagopal. A little more than a year ago. It was a humbling lesson in how important friendship and generosity are for politics. A lesson in bearing loss with dignity. A lesson in keeping ‘conversation’ the thing that Kannabiran always held to be the life blood of politics… from drying up.

The Free Binayak Sen meeting was coming to a close. I rushed to the podium to shake Pushpa Mitra Bhargava’s hand and ask him if he could give me the notes from which he spoke. He said he didnt have anything written up. Did he mind if I reconstructed it from what I remembered ? He said, no, of course not. What I said is very simple. We all have to be seditious. All of us. Thats all there is to it.

I stepped out of the press club and still did not feel like going to see Kannabiran. Another call from Delhi. The caller asked me ‘What happened ?” This time I was puzzled. What could possibly have happened in the space of two hours? I struggled to say something…The cremation would of course be tomorrow. It is too late to do it today. I am still at the Press Club. Will go there in a little bit. The caller said, ”Wait, what do you mean tomorrow? It is already over. It was at 6.30pm.”

This was a jolt. I could feel the pain of thousands of people for whom Kannabiran was much more than what my mind’s eye could conjure up. He was the saar, who saved them from certain death, from unfairness and from lack of dignity, at the hands of the police, and at the hands of the Maoists. They knew him as the man whose tongue was equally sharp in castigating them. But they had learnt to laugh when he did that. They knew him as the man who was the prosecutor of their prosecutors -- the rock solid support in the face of injustice. How could they all have come in such a short time ? 5 pm dead, 6.30 pm cremated?!

I started making phone calls. Suddenly, my tongue gave way. 2 hours later, I can barely recollect all that I said. I remember someone telling me that it was done in accordance with his wishes. With the family’s wishes for privacy and dignity in an age of intrusive television cameras. I heard of people who rushed to the crematorium and missed their chance to see him for the last time, barely by a few minutes.

I remember what Biju Mathew said on Balagopal’s death: “The light has gone out of our lives”. And now the linesman who switched on that light in thousands of Indian Express readers on that day with those words. ‘The state as terrorist’ and shaped the imagination of civil liberties in post Emegency India is gone. But there will be many occasions and many ways in the near future when we can pick up the threads and reconnect. That I am sure of.

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