With the death of Dr K. Balagopal at age 52 on October 8, India and in particular his home state of Andhra Pradesh, have lost an untiring worker for human rights. Over almost three decades of activism as a human rights investigator, a public intellectual and 10 years as a lawyer, Balagopal had become synonymous with the human rights movement in India.
His years at the Regional Engineering College (REC) in Warangal town during the '70s, where he studied for a masters in applied mathematics, largely shaped him as an activist, writer and public intellectual. Since the '60s, Andhra Pradesh has been the strongest base for the Indian revolutionary movement known as the Naxalites. The greater part of the struggle was against near-medieval exploitation by landowners, which was particularly brutal in the state. The movement had a committed support base among the students and teachers of the various schools and colleges in the town.
The REC was no exception and threw up several activists from its student ranks, some of who were killed in "encounters" — summary executions by the police. Not just activists were targeted. Anyone suspected of supporting or providing material support — including food and water — to Naxalites could be "encountered" and made to disappear. The state's response to the revolutionary struggles was to suppress them through arrests under various draconian laws, torture in custody, destruction of property and execution by the police. They justified this with the standard tale of valiant police fighting back against armed desperados who were intent on wreaking havoc on the guardians of life and liberty.
The struggles of the people of Warangal, supported by committed intellectuals in the town, helped shape Balagopal as an activist and intellectual. Balagopal made human rights activism and writing his life work from the day he joined the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee in the early '80s. At tremendous personal risk, Balagopal investigated hundreds of "encounters" and "disappearances" along with torture, rapes and destruction of property by the police. He had a murder case foisted on him, was beaten by right-wing students affiliated with the Hindu-chauvinist BJP party, was kidnapped twice by outfits linked to the police and was attacked with knuckle-dusters by plain-clothed police.
Despite this, he also wrote on political economy, history, literature and politics. He became one of the most prominent Marxist writers in Andhra Pradesh, and in India. In his later years, Balagopal became a severe critic of the arbitrary violence and terror employed by the biggest Naxalite organisation, the Communist Party of India (Maoists). His criticism was backed up by extensive documentation of the often-indiscriminate terror and violence of the Maoists.
Balagopal distanced himself from Marxism, but he remained a friendly critic of the Naxalite groups and often fought cases on their behalf after becoming a lawyer in the late '90s. His quiet courage and commitment were evident in his legal work and activism. Balagopal spent long days fighting for the poor and marginalised for little or no fee. He wrote columns on issues ranging from river water disputes to preventable deaths from malaria. His weekends were often spent investigating human rights violations all over the state. His human rights investigations took him nearly all over India, as a field investigator, speaker or agitator — from army and security force killings in Kashmir to anti-Muslim pogroms by the BJP government in Gujarat, Balagopal had something to say about it.
His disillusionment with the Naxalite parties, stuck in sectarian quarrels and rigid schematics inherited from their Stalinist molding, led Balagopal to try to build the human rights movement as a substitute for a political movement. Regardless of the outcome of his experiment in later years, his countless friends and admirers within and outside the revolutionary movement will sorely miss Balagopal's work.