Review of K.G. Kannabiran’s The Speaking Constitution — A Sisyphean Life in Law: The limits and necessity of law

The memoir is an invaluable history of the civil rights movement, both in the courtroom and out of it

April 28, 2023 05:25 pm | Updated 08:28 pm IST

The Speaking Constitution: A Sisyphean Life in Law is an adapted translation of the Telugu memoirs of K.G. Kannabiran, one of the foremost civil rights lawyers in independent India’s history. The title of the book provides us with a sense of the two poles that it straddles: on the one hand, the “Sisyphean” character of civil rights practice in India, an enterprise that can often feel akin to pushing a boulder up a hill a thousand times without ever reaching the top; and on the other, despite all of this, to continue in the endeavour to make the Constitution “speak”, so that its potential can be truly realised.

In his long career, Kannabiran was actively involved in cases that covered the entire spectrum of the civil rights movement in India. The memoir reflects that. Here, we have reflections about the Emergency, the culture of “encounter killings”, capital punishment, the Parliament attack case, the Fifth and Sixth Schedule, labour union movements, and so much more. The book is arranged chronologically and thematically, thus providing — through Kannabiran’s eyes — an invaluable history of the civil rights movement, both in the courtroom and out of it.

Contemporary relevance

Members of the Society of Jesuits and faculty of Andhra Loyola College stage protests seeking release of Fr. Stan Swamy and other rights activists apprehended in Bhima-Koregaon cases, in Vijayawada.

Members of the Society of Jesuits and faculty of Andhra Loyola College stage protests seeking release of Fr. Stan Swamy and other rights activists apprehended in Bhima-Koregaon cases, in Vijayawada. | Photo Credit: V. Raju

Reading The Speaking Constitution in 2023, perhaps the most striking thing that emerges is a feeling of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” In his chapter on the civil liberties movement in Andhra Pradesh, Kannabiran recounts the Parvathipuram conspiracy case in the early 1970s, where an initial police FIR becomes the “template” for all further FIRs, with as many as 148 accused persons and a 1,000 witnesses. By giving a wide and stretched meaning to the term “controversy”, the state attempted to criminalise and incarcerate dissidents, including poet-members of the Revolutionary Writers’ Association. It will hardly escape attention that “conspiracy” continues to be the legal fig-leaf for prolonged incarceration of dissidents even 50 years on, with the Bhima-Koregaon case serving as the most recent — and most poignant — example.

In K.G. Kannabiran’s memoir, one can see glimpses of other memorable accounts of lawyers who have worked with the imperfect instrument of the law in order to mitigate some of the worst abuses of power. 

Even the arguments tend to repeat themselves: for example, Kannabiran describes how, in the Parvathipuram conspiracy case, the prosecution pointed to the use of initials by the accused to refer to each other, as evidence for an attempt to conceal identity, and further the conspiracy. Indeed, almost exactly overlapping arguments from the prosecution can be seen in some of the cases arising out of the Bhima-Koregaon incident.

K.G. Kannabiran (left) with the founder general secretary of the People’s War Group, Kondapalli Seetaramiah, after the latter was acquitted in the Secunderabad conspiracy case on April 19, 1994.

K.G. Kannabiran (left) with the founder general secretary of the People’s War Group, Kondapalli Seetaramiah, after the latter was acquitted in the Secunderabad conspiracy case on April 19, 1994. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

We see very similar patterns recurring in many of the instances discussed in the book. Kannabiran’s account of state impunity when it comes to encounter killings, and the unwillingness — or inability — of the judiciary to hold the state to account for what is, essentially, extra-judicial murder, has an eerie echo. The bypassing of public participation requirements to push through big development projects, and the overriding of the wishes of the displaced people, are events that could have occurred yesterday. The structural asymmetry of power when labour unions try to enforce their rights against corporations, as opposed to when corporations use the law against labour unions, is still very much a contemporary reality. And so on.

Persistent resistance

But if the problems are persistent, then one salutary purpose of Kannabiran’s memoir is to remind us that resistance is also persistent. In Kannabiran’s memoir, one can see glimpses of other memorable accounts of lawyers who have worked with the imperfect instrument of the law in order to mitigate some of the worst abuses of power. There are similarities, for example, with The Mandela Brief, Sidney Kentridge QC’s memoir about practising civil rights in apartheid South Africa; and Pheroze Nowrojee’s A Kenyan Journey, which does the same for colonial and post-colonial Kenya. In all these books, we see a clear-eyed account of the limits of the law, but also the necessity of law, and of those who attempt to wield it as a shield against power. Indeed, Kannabiran’s qualified praise of the rule of law is reminiscent of the famous Marxist historian E.P. Thompson’s analysis in Whigs and Hunters, where Thompson acknowledged that while, more often than not, the law serves as a tool of class domination, there are occasions where the universal grammar of the rule of law can serve to hold the powerful to account. The Speaking Constitution is a litany of such instances.

It is striking, though, that throughout the book, Kannabiran retains a powerful — and almost — uncritical faith in the Constitution. Despite numerous setbacks and miscarriages of justice, Kannabiran continues to hold fast to the Constitution, indicating that the roots of injustice lie in an improper understanding and implementation of the document (this is a theme that is carried forward from his previous book, The Wages of Impunity). However, the thought that there might be a structural problem with the Constitution — and that, at the end of the day, the Constitution was designed to concentrate state power — is a thought that Kannabiran seems not to entertain. The Speaking Constitution, thus, is a critical account of law and justice in India, but it stops short of going to the root of things, and asking whether we need to re-assess the legacy of a constitutional project that appears to have sanctioned so much brutality and injustice over the years. One wonders how many times Sisyphus will see the boulder rolling downhill, before he begins to wonder: maybe I need to rethink what I’m doing here?

The Speaking Constitution: A Sisyphean Life in Law; K.G. Kannabiran, translated by Kalpana Kannabiran, HarperCollins, ₹699.

The reviewer is a Delhi-based lawyer.

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