Dr Ramanamurthy, who was then with the National Academy for Legal Studies and Research, dragged me to many Human Rights Forum (HRF) fact-findings on a weekend in 2001. It was in an Andhra Pradesh state transport bus headed for Warangal that I was first introduced to HRF’s founder K Balagopal. He was already a legend in human rights circles, and many of us held him and his work in awe. On this occasion, the eminent lawyer and human rights advocate immediately plunged into a lecture speculating on the history of Irani tea!
After this, for the year and a half that I was in Hyderabad, I was a regular at many of the programmes and fact-findings initiated by the Human Rights Forum. Still recovering from the shock of hearing of Balagopal’s death, I am just jotting down some disjointed memories which I hope will give a clue to his personality.
Balagopal rarely spoke about his personal life. Most of what I know of it is hearsay, gleaned from co-travellers in the Human Rights Forum and snippets he occasionally let fall. But his life itself is a testimony to his commitment, his propensity for hard work and his intellectual range. A little known fact about him is that his doctorate is in Mathematics. It was his journey through the civil liberties movement and associated personal experiences that made him change his career from a Mathematics teacher to a full time practising lawyer.
On one of our many trips together, he told us in a lighter vein that his activism started in the same campus, at around the same time, as Chandrababu Naidu, the then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. But it was with the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee that he made a mark. APCLC and his activism against state violence also gave him endless trouble with the state which incessantly tried to punish him.
In one of the most well documented cases of state harassment, he was charged with the murder of a sub-inspector of police – first under the Indian Penal Code and later under the then Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act in 1985. In 1989, he was kidnapped and held hostage by an outfit allegedly promoted by the police. There have been many other incidents of intimidation including physical violence. But the strategy of harassment backfired – it only served to strengthen Balagopal’s commitment. Perhaps, it was also a catalyst in Balagopal giving up his academic career with the Kakatiya University and embracing fulltime legal practice.
Having served for a long time as the General Secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee, he parted ways and, along with M T Khan, G Haragopal and Kancha Ilaiah founded the Human Rights Forum (HRF). The internal difference that led to this rift and marked Balagopal's political positions thereafter is captured in the HRF website:
"The Human Rights Forum (HRF) was formed in October 1998. Most of the members of HRF were members of Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee, who fell out on the question of what should be the perspective of a rights organisation. The HRF strongly believes that the State alone is not the centre of rights violations. "
It was his abhorrence of violence, regardless of the perpetrator, that led to the split with APCLC. That, and his forthrightness, made him an undesirable element for the Naxalites as well. Despite this, he has played a pivotal role in attempting mediations between the State and the Naxalites within the Constitutional framework.
His unparalleled clarity, scholarship and experience contributed hugely to the human rights discourse in India. What distinguishes his activism is the brilliance with which he theorised and articulated its justifications. In a marked departure from the position held by traditional civil liberties activists, while condemning Naxal violence and its inherent hegemony, he located the Naxal movement in a larger context of socio-economic justice. The HRF and Balagopal ventured into and linked denial of socio-economic rights to civil liberties violation. The evidence of this departure from the usual can be seen in his writings and the diverse array of issues that HRF has worked on.
Fact finding missions with Balagopal in Andhra Pradesh were always intense academic experiences, apart from the emotional upheaval one had to grapple with in many of these situations. For one, apart from intimately knowing the geography and the socio-political map of the region, he was always the most prepared amongst the entire team. The experience could only be complete with his anecdotes marked with characteristic humour. He dealt with victims of violence with uncanny sensitivity, with the police and agents of violence with firmness, and handled the media with tact.
The police were wary of the man. At one police station we were turned away on the pretext that the Station House Officer was not available though probably it was because of Balagopal’s presence. At public meetings and discussions he was erudition personified - I remember particularly his intervention when the late Abdul Ghani Lone was visiting Hyderabad (among other cities) on a lecture tour.
As a lawyer, he was thorough, but more importantly, he epitomised the ethics of legal practice to the point of being irksome. I remember being irritated with him when I paid him a rare visit at his home once, for not demanding the fees due to him from a fairly well-to-do client.
Balagopal demonstrated that much could be done while leading an austere life style. For instance, he insisted on travelling either sleeper class in trains or by ordinary bus. It must be his strong will, austerity and inherent abhorrence of violence that led one of the obituaries to claim that “In an ironic way Balagopal could be seen as a true inheritor of the Gandhian legacy, of leading a particular kind of life, and through such a life aspiring to change the world around you.”
Nothing could be more unfair to Balagopal. While Gandhi’s notion of ahimsa is constructed and practised in a spiritual context, Balagopal’s position on violence evolved on the basis of material reality and is very often critical of the Gandhian position.
After leaving Hyderabad, I often bumped into him at conferences and meetings, and returned enrichened by his fresh perspectives. Our last meeting was a couple of years ago at the India International Centre in New Delhi at a conference on the changing trends in Criminal Law hosted by the Human Rights Law Network. At lunch he was lamenting the regressive role being played by Dr Madhava Menon in meddling with Criminal Law reforms.
His demise comes at a juncture when his clarity and erudition are needed the most. At a time when the Government of India is making noises about waging war against Naxalism, disregarding constitutional norms, when the central and state governments are busy figuring out excuses to quell dissent, and when ‘shining India’ looks awry, a very important voice of sanity has gone silent forever.
Personally, I have lost the person, whose informal tutelage honed my understanding of the human rights discourse and criminal justice jurisprudence.
By Bobby Kunhu is a human rights lawyer and activist.
Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.