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Understanding Indian human rights movements through the lives of two human rights defenders: Jinee Lokaneeta

February 21, 2012

Guest post by JINEE LOKANEETA

Watching Advocate alongside Democracy Dialogues: a Tribute to Balagopal, both by Deepa Dhanraj, made for a powerful experience for its remarkable documentation of human rights movements in Andhra through the lives of these two human rights defenders and the collectives that they were a part of whether it was Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee, Human Rights Forum or People’s Union for Civil Liberties. There is of course a sharp sense of loss, since in the last few years we have lost both these incredible people but one was grateful for this effort to record and document their inspirational lives in such a beautiful manner. It also points to a further need for us to understand the connections of human rights groups to law, the relationship of human rights defenders to the courts, and their role in pushing for the realization of some of substantive aspects of the Indian Constitution in the process.

Commitments: Personal and the Political

What struck me the most about both of them (and people around them), was their supreme confidence, the sense of being sure of their commitments in life. Undoubtedly, there must have been phases when they must have struggled with decisions about life, family, security, materiality, true of middle class/all existence, but what is it that led them to believe that this was the path to take? It was fascinating to see in the film Advocate, Vasanth Kannabiran, feminist activist and Kanna’s companion, refer to the early part of their lives. Vasanth talks about her life initially as a middle class one (we see her wedding photo!) with husband, kids, and job and then gradually recognizing the contradictions between her life as a lecturer teaching Shakespeare and Milton and her home where she would witness survivors of custodial torture and recognizing where her lifelong commitment lay—in a critical engagement with the radical left movements as a feminist activist. Varavara Rao spoke of Kanna’s successful practice as a corporate lawyer that gradually suffered as he began to be known as a naxalite lawyer.

With his disarming smile that often appeared when he was abashed, Balagopal answered this question about commitment in a very interesting way.  He said, there are many qualities that enable these commitments, individual qualities that weren’t by themselves admirable – such as being stubborn or being inflexible – but in the context of a life committed to positive values, they helped. Kanna noted that while he worked as a political activist only part time, it was not a “pass time”—all these snippets reminding one of the unknown paths they let their lives travel and once they did, they never let go.

Cause Lawyering

The relationship between their lives as lawyers and as human rights activists has been the subject of much discussion. Looking elegant in their lawyerly clothes, one wondered about why they turned to law. Was there a faith in law that their lives and work represented? Balagopal said that he turned to law with little illusions about the possibilities within law, and yet he also said he had some faith in law. But mostly he chose it as a profession because he saw it as closest to the human rights work he wanted to do while trying to earn a living.

Kanna in his obituary for Balagopal in EPW (“A One in a Century Rights Activist,” Nov 4, 2009) wrote about how the latter appeared to have more faith in law than him, but in the film, it is the “advocate” Kanna who is focused. Cleverly, of course, the title could mean mostly an advocate for peoples’ rights not just in a legal sense, but to the extent, it focuses so much on his life as a lawyer, as a cause lawyer, as a human rights defender in court, one wonders about Kanna’s own complex relationship to the courts. And some of that emerges beautifully in the film. Kanna’s willingness to not only represent the marginalized for free but also to pay for their travel costs, to never coach them about what to say and most significantly to use the contradictions present within the state’s own interpretation of the laws. Mostly, for him, he suggested, it was a political performance in the court—so we hear that he spent time explaining passages of the Communist Manifesto to the judges to translate what communist activists actually did. He asked evidence for the nonexistent provisions that were being relied on by the state lawyers, and according to him, some of the liberal judges responded to his arguments quite favorably. The film Advocate among other things pushes us to note the ways in which lawyers such as Kanna could gain the respect of the court by virtue of their innovative interpretation of the Constitution, their legal performances, and their sheer persistence.

Human Rights Movement

The Indian human rights movement and its historical phases are gradually being documented and the obituaries written for Balagopal, and Kanna among others reminds us of accounts not yet written. But Dhanraj’s efforts reflect the power of documentation through the lives of these human rights activists. Some of the formative phases of the human rights movement come out powerfully in the film in the recalling of emergency (1975-77) and the arrests and above all the setting up of the Tarkunde Committee and the Bhargava commission to look into the incidents of state violence. What is striking in that narrative, apart from these state bodies actually acknowledging that encounters were murders, is just the way in which fact findings as a method got established by the efforts of these human rights initiatives. What is it that allowed the police to acknowledge that these activists have the right to know what happened? What helps them acquire that legitimacy? As Balagopal states in his interview, there is no law that requires them to and yet the police gradually accept it as legitimate. He says at least we have achieved that—this respect from the police (even more than from politicians) comes out of sheer perseverance and, of course, at great costs to lives and bodies.

While much has been written about the HRF emerging from the APCLC, Balagopal’s narration, regardless of whether one agrees with his critique or not, is noteworthy just in terms of his approach to political differences in general. Balagopal explains, in the interview, three things that are of note: a substantive critique, a method of analysis, and an ability to accept political defeat without bitterness. Substantively, it was HRF’s inability to accept state repression as the primary form of human rights violation that led to their political disagreements with the APCLC. Methodologically, his method of analysis was to constantly change in the face of reality. This theorist-practitioner pointed famously to how the human rights activists changed their focus on custodial torture to be more comprehensive to not just protest against torture of political prisoners but of all criminals. Third, what’s admirable was his ability to accept defeat in a political struggle and yet work until the very end to represent the rights of naxalites in the courts.

Tensions therein

Neither Kannabiran nor Balagopal had an uncritical relationship to the law or to each other. Kannabiran in his very moving obituary on Balagopal in EPW pushes the point further about their different approach to law. Kanna writes, “His was a radical approach to the Constitution but he was bound by institutional norms. He accepted the law as defined by precedents but did not stretch the limits of the principle or break new ground to innovate a principle to advance the jurisprudence of the poor. My view, on the contrary, has always been that appearing for the poor and as lawyers for social change one should always at¬tempt to break new ground or innovate and strive for its acceptance. We must make the contentions and the conceptions we innovate familiar in courts if they are to be accepted later (10).”  Elsewhere he writes, Balagopal believed in social transformation through the struggle for rights. While this may be a subject of further debate, what it above all points to is the need to continue this conversation, a debate to some extent that lies at the origins of the civil liberty and democratic rights movements in India in the 1970s. In the present, such discussions become even more important when questions of whether India is even a democracy (and what kind of democracy) persist and rights are even further endangered in the name of security and development. In such a context, a debate on the role of the law and the courts and analyzing the experiences of these transformative human rights defenders to these institutions become crucial.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. kalpana kannabiran permalink
    February 22, 2012 7:48 AM

    Nice article, Jinee. Only there are no two films that Deepa made as far as I know. Balagopal was interviewed as part of the making of The Advocate. When he passed away unexpectedly, Deepa strung together his recordings and sent it as a personal gesture of sympathy to the family. If someone ha actually turned the interviews into a film, it would be interesting to see, but as far as my knowledge goes, Deepa did not make a film on Balagopal. But of course The Advocate is a comprehensive comment on the civil liberties movement, and its many leaders and protagonists.

  2. February 23, 2012 5:02 PM

    Response from Jinee Lokaneeta:

    Dear Kalpana,
    Thanks for your comment and clarification. You are right i should have emphasized that the Advocate is a film by Deepa Dhanraj (linked in the article above) and the other is a set of interviews of Balagopal by Deepa Dhanraj (included in a set of dvd/cd) titled Democracy Dialogues:Interviews, Speeches of Balagopal- A tribute to Balagopal.
    Thanks!
    Jinee

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