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Review: The Speaking Constitution by KG Kannabiran

ByBaljeet Kaur
Jun 03, 2023 06:35 AM IST

An important documentation of senior advocate and human rights activist KG Kannabiran’s work but also of the journey of the civil rights movement in India

Justice Madhav Reddy: Why should Naxalities who do not believe in the Constitution take shelter under it?

KG Kannabiran (1929-2010) was a senior advocate, human rights activist and co-founder, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) (HT Photo)

Advocate KG Kannabiran: When such issues come before the court, it is your values and not their values that are on trial. It is the values enshrined in the Constitution and the values of the state that are under test.

A narration of this courtroom exchange is how I was introduced to KG Kannabiran. On one hand, his audacious response magnifies the position of the Indian Constitution while, on the other, it alerts the courts and the State of their heightened responsibility towards all citizens. The book The Speaking Constitution – A Sisyphean Life in Law showcases several such real life incidents of KG Kannabiran’s calibre as an advocate, his courage as a human rights defender and his belief in the “insurgent” possibilities of our constitution. More inspiring are the references to his collaborations with friends and colleagues who – amidst a spree of extra judicial killings, detentions and arrests, and even fatal attacks on communities at the margins – continued their attempts in documenting, fact finding and pursuing legal and administrative mechanisms for relief and justice. This book clearly recalls how several of Kannabiran’s associates were arrested and killed while he himself was subjected to surveillance, intimidation and physical assault. It may also nudge readers to wonder how they were able to give shape to the human rights movement in such circumstances.

340pp, ₹699; HarperCollins

The first two chapters of this autobiographical account of Kannabiran’s work and vision translated and edited by his daughter Kalpana Kannabiran, narrate his life history from his childhood to his days in legal practice. Thereafter, in 16 chapters, Kannabiran narrates the events and proceedings of cases where he participated as an advocate or as a human rights defender. The cases are contextualised with a commentary on the concerned provisions of the Indian constitution and background history.

Through a series of specific cases, chapter three to nine and the last chapter of the book, provide a broad historical account focussing on the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh. It begins in the 1960s which saw a rise in people’s discontent with governance, the judiciary and the lack of change in the societal structure, and it ends in the first decade of the twenty first century which saw attempts at peace talks between the Naxalites and the government. Chapters 10 to 17 cover varying themes including the death penalty, adequate legal representation, rights of workers, reservations and conditions of tribals, Dalits and religious minorities. Kannabiran articulates how courts can never match the rationality and the consistency required in imposing the extreme punishment like the death penalty and calls it the most premeditated of murders. In the two chapters dedicated to religious minorities, he narrates his participation in various commissions and court cases. The chapters, while contextualising those events, point out to the evidence of constitutional assembly debates indicating how religious minorities were anxious about the standard of their citizenship even before the formation of India.

Naxalite cadre photographed on 21 April 1993 in an undisclosed location. (HT Archive)

Through the narration of different kinds of cases in which he provided legal representation, the author brings forth nuanced perspectives on several issues of criminal law, especially procedural law. From defending conspiracy allegations to proving conspiracy charges, the politics of jail courts, understanding and prosecuting “undue influence”, the registration of FIRs in cases of extra judicial killings – Kannabiran covers a range of issues through discussion on important case laws as well as the provisions of the Constitution. He also, very importantly, shares his critical analysis of the law and the judiciary. For example, he raises the concern that, in cases involving allegations of violence by government officials such as police, the courts dispense with the vigil that the Constitution requires them to hold by assuming that all government officials are responsible officers. Similarly, he also illustrates how the principle of giving benefit of doubt to the accused is applied by the courts much more in cases involving the rich and the powerful. Despite being a busy advocate till his last years and a staunch believer in the Constitution, KG Kannabiran was acutely aware of the reality that justice can be delayed and denied using the law itself. He documents his discussions with judges and other courtroom proceedings. Such accounts give readers a glimpse of the fluid and subjective nature of the judiciary.

Though this is an extremely important documentation of not just KG Kannabiran’s work but also the journey of the civil rights movement, it has some limitations in terms of language and content. A collation of different incidents rather than a sequential life story, the book’s structure inevitably leaves gaps which may make it difficult for readers to fully comprehend the context. The flow of the language is occasionally uneven and some legal terms are left unexplained, which may make it difficult to grasp for readers from a non-legal background.

Despite being an active member of civil society, KG Kannabiran was also critical of different strands of the civil rights movement as well as the Naxalite movement. But his principled position recognised peace and justice as the collective right of society. He believed people deserved “social, economic and political” justice and not just legal justice. He links this broadened imagination of justice to the often ignored directive principles enshrined in the Constitution and calls for a campaign on constitutional values. He argued that at the least the government should do is protect the space for citizens to freely deliberate upon such issues.

Baljeet Kaur works on issues of criminal justice. She studies Criminological research at Cambridge University.

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