Human rights activist and lawyer K G Kannabiran’s memoir, translated into English from Telugu by his daughter, is a book worth reading and re-reading
The Speaking Constitution: A Sisyphean Life In Law
Author: K G Kannabiran (translated by Kalpana Kannabiran)
Publisher: Harper Collins
Price: Rs 699
“The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” Leaving aside the issue of whether this quote is correctly attributed to Samuel Johnson, when this yardstick is applied to K G Kannabiran he stands as a giant who lived amongst us.
Kannabiran, an advocate, a humanist, and co-founder of People’s Union for Civil Liberties lived from 1929 to 2010. He started his practice as a lawyer in Madras, later shifting to Hyderabad, where he became one of the leaders of the bar. To label him a mere lawyer, however, would be a fallacy, for he was the voice of the people who, having been granted “equality before law” by the Constitution, unfortunately remained unheard and for whom the promises made in the Constitution and the law were mere illusions.
“The violence of the State silences people.” This line in the book, The Speaking Constitution, shows the reality of the old saying, “The more things change, the more they remain the same”. One cannot help but draw a parallel with present times and notice how repression by the State in independent India has remained an enduring legacy from one government to the other, regardless of the party in power.
In his memoir, Kannabiran tells us of his first big case, fought on behalf of a poor, uneducated Tamil woman who wanted her Indian citizenship back after having realised that migration to Pakistan was a bad idea, and whom the government wanted to deport. Among others, we are told of his work with colliery workers, landless peasants, the excesses of the State during the Emergency, the Naxalite trials in Andhra Pradesh, encounter killings in the 1980s and 1990s, the issues relating to tribal rights, and the civil rights of Dalits, and the citizens enquiry committee into the 2002 Gujarat genocide.
What was most interesting for me was the description of how Kannabiran and Justice V M Tarkunde were thrashed by the police in Madurai, when he and Tarkunde challenged the right of the police to confiscate the camera of a journalist who had taken photographs of a police force gathered to monitor a procession — this, even after Tarkunde had identified himself as a former judge of a high court and pointed out that there was no provision in law for the police to have confiscated the camera.
The 44-page introduction to the book by Kalpana Kannabiran is a great read in itself, encapsulating her father’s life and philosophy, and how he used constitutional values to push the judicial system to take an “insurgent constitutional position, especially against state arbitrariness”.
In this time of Christmas, one is reminded of the story of Cain and Abel from the Bible. After murdering his brother, when God asked Cain where his brother was, Cain responded that he was not his brother’s keeper. Cain’s guilt made him disassociate himself with his brother Abel. Kannabiran’s life reminds us that a truly just society can only emerge when each of us believe that the person standing next to us is our brother, with everyone mindful of the other’s basic human rights. This may sound simplistic and utopian, but reading the book, I got the impression that this is how Kannabiran lived his life.
Perhaps this is explained best in his own words: “I believe that we have not taken our Constitution as seriously as we should have. We are paying the price for that neglect…If we step back into history briefly, we realise that courts were used by the colonial government as instruments of oppression….After Independence, there was no attempt to change the fundamental character of these institutions in the justice system.”
It appears that Kannabiran lived his life guided by the simple principles of humanity using his legal skills to prod the courts into becoming guardians of the Constitution.
As I read the book, I felt an overwhelming sense of regret at never having met K G Kannabiran. I was reminded, rather starkly, of how he actually did the work that had inspired me to become a lawyer in the first place.
My only criticism of the book is in the part of the title which uses the word Sisyphean. “Sisyphean” is normally used to describe something that is endless and ultimately futile. “Futile” would be the last word that should be used to describe the life and work of K G Kannabiran, whose work has, and will continue to inspire people who believe in the ideals of the Constitution.
I have two recommendations in respect of The Speaking Constitution. The first is: Read the book. The second is: Read the book again.The reviewer is a lawyer practising in Delhi