India: The eventful life of a human rights lawyer

May 21, 2011

The death of KG Kannabiran (1929-2010) on December 30 came as an anti-climax to an eventful and often turbulent life; in accordance with his wishes his family conducted a private, secular cremation within an hour of his death.

For four decades, KG Kannabiran was the most prominent public face in the struggle for human rights, both as a lawyer and activist ― in his home state of Andhra Pradesh and across India.

Born into a wealthy family in the city of Secunderabad, Kannabiran experienced an early fall in fortune; from the son of a wealthy eye surgeon, to the genteel poverty of life with a single parent, when his father remarried and his mother moved with her sons to the small town of Nellore.

The personal experience of want and his early years in Nellore, hometown of communist leader P. Sundarayya, and the influence of his teenage brothers, who were active trade unionists, brought Kannabiran into communist politics.

However, discovery of the anti-Stalinist writings of Arthur Koestler and the revelations of Stalinist crimes by Khrushchev saw Kannabiran break away from the organised left. But he read extensively from Marx and would often quote entire passages from works including Marx’s 18th Brumaire.

Kannabirain set up a law practice with a cousin in Madras. One of his earliest cases was that of Asia Begum, a poor Muslim woman who went to the newly formed Pakistan in hope of work and returned home destitute.

The semi-literate Begum was handed a piece of paper at the border crossing that effectively made her a citizen of Pakistan ― and was thus to be deported from India. This opened Kannabiran’s eyes to the way laws could be used to victimise the poor and marginalised.

Kannabiran moved to the High Court at Hyderabad. For the greater part of the 20th century, the region comprising Andhra Pradesh and Hyderabad city have been the crucible of the revolutionary movement in India.

They have seen protracted political struggles by the landless rural workers and small peasants, as well as brutal suppression of the movements by the state.

Kannabiran found his calling in defending the rights of victims of state repression. He fought judicial battles against the ban on leftist poetry and literature and fought charges against activists of “conspiracy”.

There is possibly not a single conspiracy case in Andhra Pradesh that Kannabiran had not fought.

For three decades, Kannabiran was the most prominent face of human rights activism in India, from opposing “encounter” killings, pogroms against Muslims by the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat or opposing state terror in Kashmir.

For all his acerbic wit and intellectual acumen, he retained an earthy touch. One would often leave a meeting with Kannabiran richer in insight and in their repertoire of ribald stories.

Though he was ailing for several months with advanced diabetes and had a leg amputated, among his last public activities was the issue of a public statement condemning the conviction of human rights activist Dr Binayak Sen under sedition laws in the state of Chattisgarh.

As a lawyer, human rights activist, public intellectual and writer Kannabiran’s presence will be missed by thousands whose lives he had touched.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.