by V. Geetha
K G Kannabiran’s The Speaking Constitution stirs memory in interesting ways. I was reminded of the time he was actively present in my home state of Tamil Nadu, with cases that pertained to the incarceration of minorities and political prisoners accused of left wing militancy. He wore his judicial competence lightly and made clear to all of us that civil liberties organisations were essentially citizens’ groups, and that one need not be a lawyer to play a role in such organisations. In other words, he suggestively noted that civil liberties groups were not unlike people’s movements.
In a sense, it is this spirit of viewing the business of defending civil and democratic rights as a social duty, which permeates this book. Written originally as a series of essays for a Telugu daily, the book speaks to a new generation, and calls attention to the doing of civil liberties work, to what it takes to defend rights guaranteed to us in the Constitution of India. At a time, when an investigation into rights violations appears captive to notions of ‘correctness’ encouraged by an inward looking social media culture, Kannabiran’s conception of civil liberties work as one undertaken in a spirit of constitutional gravity, and in consultation with local communities and groups appears both sober as well as productive. It helps take the act of defending rights into the heart of our social worlds.
For Kannabiran, the defense of liberties was ultimately a matter of upholding constitutional values, and he insisted that it was important to do so, even when one was defending those who discarded the latter as so many bourgeois truisms. As he noted in court once, it is not the values of those who are disdainful of constitutional morality that are on trial, but of those who have sought to build a modern republic that need to be affirmed and renewed.
His reading of the right to life and livelihood are important in this regard: he held that these rights ought to be understood as including and substantializing everyday political assertion. That is, political assertion in the cause of social and economic justice ought not to be viewed as always and already a challenge to the sovereign republic and state, rather it was to be understood a right to politics. To be political is to be alive to injustice in a democratic polity and not to have to pay with one’s life for justice claims that render life as such meaningful and precious.
In doing rights activism in the manner that he did, Kannabiran was insistent that the ‘truth’ of phenomena matters: for instance, a witness at a trial ought to be encouraged and supported in speaking the truth and there was no question of ‘coaching’ him to say what was opportune in the eyes of the law. While he sometimes rued the unimaginative ways in which judges ‘read’ the law and Constitution, he did not seek concessions by way of judicial arguments and protocols.
The Speaking Constitution is a book that addresses the people of India, thereby making it clear that it is their needs and struggles that inform constitutional values, and that to defend these latter is to defend the sovereign nation.