K.G. Kannabiran, one of India’s “leading civil liberties lawyers for the last four decades,” died on December 30, 2010, at age 81. A biographical sketch, from the Hindu:
Born in 1929, Mr. Kannabiran obtained master's degree in Economics and a degree in law from the Madras University before shifting to Hyderabad to set up legal practice in 1961. Since the late 1960s, he began to defend political dissenters that eventually marked the beginning of his over three-decade-long civil liberties and human rights work.
He was the president of Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee between 1978 and 1994 and went on to become the national president of People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
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He was a member of Concerned Citizen's Tribunal that inquired into the Gujarat carnage. Earlier, he was appointed as senior counsel by the CBI in the prosecution of the accused in the Shankar Guha Niyogi murder case in Madhya Pradesh.
During the Emergency, he defended numerous political detainees and appeared in four major conspiracy cases — three of them in Andhra Pradesh — that had been filed to suppress political dissent.
In 1971, he filed a writ petition successfully challenging the Andhra Pradesh Preventive Detention Act, 1970, under which writers, poets and intellectuals had been arrested. [The Hindu]
Many of Kannabiran’s writings are collected in a 2004 book, “The Wages of Impunity: Power, Justice and Human Rights.” His funeral was conducted “quietly” soon after he passed away, as his wife, Vasanth Kannabiran, explained in a guest post on Kafila:
As per his wishes and ours, and based on previous discussions we declared that the last rites would be simple, speedy and secular. The secular part we ensured. There were no flowers, no lamps, no mantras, no ceremonies. But the clamour for progressive “traditions” was what I found troubling in the extreme. In doing away with religious orthodoxy, all we have done is replaced it with other orthodoxies....
We all need symbols and some reassurance. But the slogans we raise however loud and clear – can Kanna hear them? Will they, like the traditional mantras, take his soul to heaven? Who are we reassuring? Why are we afraid of silence? Why are we making our radical orthodoxies more rigid and meaningless than the reactionary ones? What is reactionary and what is radical? Why are we in such haste to raise monuments to the people we love? If Kannabiran cannot live in the hearts of people, are tributes and memorials going to bring him to life? To be loud in praise is easy. It dies out in a moment....
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Instead of recreating the dead man in imaginative ways that would bring him alive to the public that loved him, we would rather show the dreary details of his funeral. How many people? How many placards? How many organizations? ... It is not enough to write obituary pieces and hold meetings without any reflection of our conduct and attitudes.
The dead need no reification. Kannabiran was the voice of the poor. He never projected himself. He never needed to. [Kafila]
Here are a handful of remembrances reflecting upon Kannabiran and his work. From Sudhir Krishnaswamy, constitutional law professor:
The typical Indian lawyer revels in their anti-intellectual approach to law. They scoff at any attempt to theorize law and insist on the irrelevance of these academic efforts to their everyday practice. Kannabiran was similarly disenchanted with academic theorizing that employed obtuse prose and neologisms that required an academic translator to make such texts intelligible. However, he practiced and refined an ecumenical approach to legal scholarship that would stand the most rigorous academic scrutiny. He engaged with the case law of the courts which he subjected to close reading and critical analysis in his court room practice as well as writing....
Kannabiran advocated an old-fashioned engagement with substantive law and the legal system. At a time, when ‘revolutionary commitment’ was assessed by the shrillness of your denunciation of law and the legal system and one’s distance from the practice of law in the courts, Kannabiran stood out as a beacon of rationality and moderation. While he was aware that ‘in a perpetually misgoverned society, any movement for good governance... according to law becomes rebellion’ he did not recklessly conclude that law was irretrievably an oppressive device that should be shunned and disregarded. [Law and Other Things]
From V.R. Krishna Iyer, former judge of the Supreme Court of India:
[T]his great man's demise is a national loss for the cause of humanism but his memory will long remain an inspiration for the cause of liberty and against all forces which are Fascist and State terrorism.... It is men like Kannabiran who in their heroic struggle for civil liberties really stand for the daring challenge against authoritarianism. [The Hindu]
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UPDATE (1/20/2011): Another tribute, from lawyer and legal scholar Menaka Guruswamy (via Arun Thiruvengadam):
[I]t was not just the ‘human rights activist' in him that captured my imagination as a 19-year-old when I went to intern with this venerable Senior Counsel and past president of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). It was the fearless yet gracious lawyer who matched a vivid knowledge of the law with a love for literature, and his wit and zest for life, that enthralled. On my first day as an intern, I straggled along, hanging on to the train that is the flowing gown, and the line of eager juniors and interns that trails a Senior Counsel. As I followed him into the Andhra Pradesh High Court, I could not but help notice the curious eyes that followed him, and a palpable air of excitement that soon filled the courtroom. Soon the cause for this anticipation was clear.
With a commanding voice that filled the courtroom, a rigour and craft that unravelled the case of the opposition, a patient temperament that took the judge along and a legal acumen that refused to countenance that a police bullet through the head was anything but execution by the state without trial, he was the lawyer's lawyer. And he epitomised for that young law student everything that her craft should be.
Kanna, as he was affectionately called, identified himself with the institution that is most essential to challenging state impunity through the system of courts — that of defence counsel. In an interview he gave Frontline in 2009, he said: “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.” It is this guiding legal philosophy that has lessons for the younger members of the bar. Though most of them might not want to dedicate all their work-time to the causes that may be best categorised as “rights-oriented,” many challenges of our time might well be highlighted through aggressive litigation. Such litigation, even if it is engaged in sporadically, utilises the craft, enhances the substantive knowledge of the legal discipline, and most importantly connects us to the issues and people that constitute our communities. [The Hindu]