The Passing Away of a Hero – Goodbye Balagopal

A sense of irony is the only way for me to describe how I felt when I heard about Balagopal’s death. Ordinary people leading ordinary lives die of heart attacks. And despite the simplicity with which he led his life and interacted with people, every time one met Balagopal or heard him you always  knew you were in the presence of someone extraordinary. Whenever he left after any meeting, Balagopal left you a little scared about whether you would ever see him again. As a result of the position that he took- against the violence of the state as well as the violence of the Maoists, you were always left with the lurching fear that any point of time, you would be given the news that Balagopal had been killed in an encounter.

At the same time it is perhaps not surprising that despite living a life which was scripted towards a violent death, it was only appropriate that his death transcended any partisan act of violence. Film maker Deepa Dhanraj captures the essence of Balagopal when she describes him as a ‘moral force’ whose authority emerged from the integrity with which he led his life and the courage with which he stood by his belief. If Balagopal was a regular anti violent activist or a pacifist, then there would have been nothing surprising about his stance on violence, and to argue for the importance of non violence would hardly be an act of courage. But for someone who had spent a better part of his life in struggles, and in battles against the impunity of the state, the commitment to an ethical position on violence becomes a deeply ethical choice of bravery.

In an ironic way Balagaopal 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. In an interview with Janam Saxi, Balagopal once stated  “The Indian constitution has had a habit, right from its inception, to destroy democratic values completely in practice without any recourse to laws. This has grown very much recently. The apparatus of the police is the chief machinery for this destruction. The duty to safeguard democratic values from these limitations is a very important duty……. While performing this duty it is of no use to as the question in this form: is there or is there not at least a bourgeoisie type of democracy”. I can think of very few who followed this duty with the same kind of clarity, conviction and humility as Balagopal did.

The first time that  I met and heard Balagopal was in a workshop organized by PUCL in Chennai. I was a young student, and like many young students, whether of the revolutionary or the conservative variety, my main attribute was a nonchalant cynicism. Curiously Balagopal began by speaking of his initial love for mathematics. He did his bachelors, his masters a Phd and even a post doctorate in mathematics, and spoke with immense fondness of his obsession with abstraction. He then moved on to his encounter with various peoples movements and struggles, and his descent from the world of pure abstraction to the very material world of injustice and violence. For those who have heard Balagopal speak and have been amazed by his clarity of thought and analysis, you cannot help but think of how his love for mathematical precision clearly survived in a very different form.

It was one of those moments when you felt you just had to drop everything and follow this man. In a world where the epithet of hero is just too generously used, I can safely say ‘Balagopal you were a hero in the truest sense of the word to many of us’.

And at the same time I cannot help but feel that perhaps this descent from the heights of abstraction to the very ordinary and fragile business of activism is also what marked Balagopal as different from most activists. An abstract transcendental idea of rights was certainly not something for Balagopal, and yet he did not allow himself to be so immersed in the reality of struggles so as to forget any kind of moral claim that may be made of a movement. In an article on moving the debate beyond the terms set by the binaries of violence- non violence Balagopal argued that “To say that one should not be dogmatic about violence may be morally a little unsettling but it is a defensible position even without adopting a relativistic attitude towards the preciousness of life or a casual attitude towards one’s moral responsibility for injury caused in the course of a struggle”.

There will be a lot of time for us to think about ways in which we learn from his life and work, but for the moment let us spend sometime remembering the man who would be found standing outside a meeting venue selling books and pamphlets before he proceeded to go to the podium to make the most insightful speech you were likely to hear. Let us remember the man who when told that finally Justice Pasayat had retired, remarked that it was unfortunate that his decisions would not be retiring with him, and let us remember him most importantly in the days to come when violence and non violence will be offered to us again to choose, as though it were a real choice. Goodbye Balagopal, we will miss you immensely but thank you for giving us the freedom to not have to make false choices.

30 thoughts on “The Passing Away of a Hero – Goodbye Balagopal”

  1. The rare conviction and spirit you were carrying around to defend the cause of human liberties will rather not die than be remembered, unless your dream about a society that respects its laws comes true.

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  2. Thank you Lawrence for sharing your memories of this truly remarkable person. I got to know Balagopal during the years I spent in Hyderabad.

    His simplicity and integrity extended to paying little attention to himself or the state of his health. Friends from Hyderabad report how ill he looked in recent weeks, and how, finally, he was taken to hospital… So perhaps this was not quite an ordinary heart attack, but part of a model of dedication that one so rarely witnesses anymore, but with such tragic consequences.

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  3. Can’t tell you how sad I feel. A great man and a great mind. I’ll always cherish the memory of my interaction with him.

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  4. OBITUARY BY THE PUCL

    The PUCL is bereaved at the untimely demise of one of our finest civil liberties activists and advocates Shri K Balagopal of Human Rights Forum, AP. For the Human Rights movement the loss of Shri Balagopal at this juncture is very severe, especially when a war is being fought in this country between the Maoists and the various States and the Central Government. His boldness, understanding and interventions were needed most in the present turbulent times.

    We share our grief with his wife, son and the large group of friends and admirers that he had.

    K G Kannabiran, President
    Pushkar Raj, General Secretary

    Office:
    270A, Patpar Ganj, , Mayur Vihar-I, Delhi-110091
    ph. 22750014
    http://www.pucl.org

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  5. I never bowed my head to anyone other than my parents. I met him only once but read his articles many times. I bow my head to a great simple living intellectual marxist . My tearful farewell to you

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  6. I never met him, and I was a little intimidated by his formidable reputation, but I seek indulgence to record my fascination with the struggle that he pursued and my condolence: to his biological and intellectual family.

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  7. Thanks Lawrence. Those of us in Hyderabad right now are speechless. But here is another message from Biju Mathew which gives words to what it means to our generation: The Cold White Light Has Just Gone Out.
    —————————————-

    When you grow up in Hyderabad, there are shadows that you grow up under. These are shadows that nurture you – give you the courage. First, Balagopal was a phenomena. We heard about him. Never saw him. In some part because he was in Warangal, not Hyderabad. That’s where he began to be known, politically. A mathematics lecturer, who was deeply committed to revolution. His writings began appearing in the press and the incisiveness of each word he wrote was striking. He never minced words. There was a clarity in his writing – especially his early writings — that was absolutely rare – a kind of illuminative capacity so well described by the Brechtian idea of “the cold white light” of truth. That was Balagopal. Fiercely honest. Armed with the toolbox of Marxist theory that he had mastered even as he mastered Stochastic Environments, he taught many of us to think.
    By the mid 1980s, the legend was visible In the making. As the General Secretary of the APCLC, he guided the organization through the severe period when the NTR government had mounted an all out attack against Peoples War. Balagopal himself was arrested under TADA in the mid 1980s on trumped up charges of murdering a sub inspector. The repression was so great that there was a choice to be made and he did it without fear or furor. He gave up his professorship and moved full time into politics.
    When he decided to distance himself from the Naxalite movement, it was something that came from an intense period of self reflection. His critical essays that signaled his departure and a new beginning were incisive and moved a generation into thinking about the future of left politics in Andhra, if not in India. The mathematics professor turned himself into a lawyer – and he was there at the service of the people.
    Balagopal was not a friend. His reticence made it difficult to judge what he thought of you. He was not a mentor for he said little. He offered no personal advice. He just told you things as he saw them – not pushing you one way or the other. And yet, I can say, that there hasn’t been a stretch of time of any significance in my life, when I haven’t thought about him. Every few weeks, something would happen and I would think of something he had written, something he had said, something about the way he led his life. In the wake of Babri Masjid, he wrote a piece in EPW that even today comes to mind – whole paragraphs from it. I think it was that early moment of neo liberalism in India – and here I was reading an article on communal strife and came out feeling that the future of capitalism in India had just been mapped. There have been moments of deep political confusion over the last decade, and often at those moments, I would ask myself – “so what would be Balagopal’s analysis of this?” I would search to see if he has written anything recently – reading him, brought back clarity and a resolve.
    A few years ago I met him consistently over the period of several months. I needed some advice on the legal twists that a campaign had taken and I would go to visit him. Each time I would go to meet him, I would walk in with some trepidation: “Will I be disturbing him from some more important work?” because he was always at it – never off. “Will he talk much?” I would ask myself. And then, I felt, I had discovered a secret. I began to see him just after he returned home from court. He would be home alone with his young cricket crazy son. Prabhas would be lighting up the apartment with a rapid fire series of transformations from one cricketing persona to another. . Vasanthalakshmi, his wife, he knew, would come home soon from her day at work as a journalist. And he would cook dinner. Something, I felt, was different about him when was cutting vegetables. He would talk more freely suddenly, in the context of that moment where he was just involved in caring for those immediately around him. After that I would joke with people. “If you want Balagopal to talk, get him when he is cooking” I would say and laugh. He was not a friend. He was not a mentor. But he was simply put – an inspiration and a compass – like I have not known.
    And how is it, that many like me, saw him this way. He started out as a beacon whose very stature as a teller of truth gave us courage. Even after he moved away from the Naxalite movement, his stature only grew. The sheer breadth of work he did made him that bearer of crystalline truth. He not only wrote for the popular press. He not only practiced law. He not only contributed theoretical writings to journals. He not only spoke at numerous public events. He not only served on fact finding teams and gave testimony. He did all this and more. Even with the rigorous schedule through the week, his weekends were always fixed. He was out. Visiting this jilla or that village, this struggle or that community. There was rarely a weekend when he stayed home. It was popular knowledge in left circles in Hyderabad that if you wanted to see Balagopal you had to do it during the week, for come the weekend, he would board a bus and head out. This summer in Hyderabad, on a couple of occasions, I was supposed to go with him and a few others to visit different SEZ and other land struggles. Once to Medak, another time to the open cast mines in Karimnagar. Both times I missed the trip and I wonder now, what else I would have gained from a man who has already given me so much, if I had been there.
    I just spoke with a friend, who had seen him just yesterday morning – Gita. Little did she know that it was the last she would see of him. He had agreed, sometime ago, to translate the book “Curfewed Nights” on Kashmir by Basharat Peer into Telugu. “How come you are not pestering me about it?” he asked Gita, the wry smile across his face. It was all important to him. Kashmir or Polavaram, Chhatttisgarh or Polepally.
    The cold white light of truth that guided several generations has just gone out.

    – – Biju Mathew

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  8. We just heard him at the Meeting on Militarization of Fundamentalism on July 4 in Delhi…

    The Human Rights Movement has lost a great activist and the masses have lost a great pro-people intellectual.

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  9. True that the loss of Balagopal sir is unmeasurable, but now the task before all of us is to stand with his ideas and methods and serve for the human rights cause which is precarious under “development” massacre and Dr. Balagopal has set concrete methods and tools to combat it.
    Sridhar,

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  10. It’s a moving obituary. But the veracity of the analogy with Gandhian non-violence is doubtful. Balagopal’s aversion to violence, regardless of its origin, is just a decade old, strengthening as he moved away from maoist politics. The passage that is quoted from his essay “reflections….” is more of a dilemma of the efficacy of agitation in opposing state policies and has little to do with violence as such.

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    1. I am sure there will be more appropriate occasions to debate this, just as I am sure there will be many competing versions of who or what he was. For now, let me just say that Balagopal, as the voice of a particular collective consciousness that emerged in the early 80s, was fundamentally concerned about violence as a mode of conducting politics. Not as some kind of a universally applicable tenet. (This is equally true of Gandhi). In several articles in EPW between 1982 and 1987, he establishes analytically and then demonstrates concretely why violence should be the fundamental issue to contend with in India. In the early 90s, he (and others in APCLC) revisited that issue. The concern with violence does as a mode of conducting politics does not change. The spotlight is turned to the conduct of revolutionary movements without turning away from the state. Since then, transformations in the operation of the Indian ‘state’, his own engagement with it as a practising lawyer led him to adopt new ways of thinking about the coherence of the state itself as well as about the incipient state (or state in waiting) that the Maoist movement contains within itself and the risks that are attendant upon it. In short, to say that Balagopal developed an aversion to violence a decade ago is to miss the complexity and robustness of a human rights tradition that emerged in post emergency India.

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  11. Taught us to question everything which stood against the well being of poor and oppressed.

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  12. I did not know this wonderful man, but knew about his work through my brother in law, Madhusudan of Yakshi and my sister, Sagari Ramdas of Anthra.

    Their grief and sense of loss were palpable when I spoke to them over the phone. I can only say that from all I have learned reading this eulogy and posts from those who knew and loved him, that we are lucky to have had him in our world.

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  13. I never heard him, never met him but heard so much about him that i looked forward to meet and talk to him someday. Sadly that day won’t ever come…He will be deeply missed in these troubled times for there are fewer people with such commitment and integrity to the causes he worked for.

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  14. The memorial meeting for Balagopal started at 4pm sharp and closed at 9.10pm on Monday October 12th. Well over a thousand people attended it. The main auditorium in the Sundarayya Vigyan kendra in Hyderabad was jam packed, many sat on the floor and many more stood on the stairs and in the street. The entire meeting was telecast live by HMTV. Only 30 people got an opportunity to speak. Many more were disappointed. Among the speakers were K G kannabiran, Vara Vara Rao, Mrinalini (Balagopal’s sister). Many speakers shared with the audiencepersonal memories of Balagopal as student, teacher, friend, philosopher and guide and most of all as a moral force. SOme were overcome by emotion even as they spoke.
    At the end of the day, there are two groups of people – workers unions and tribal groups who will have some immediate problems due to Balagopal’s departure. There are a large number of cases pending in the court filed by Balagopal for his union and tribal clients. These clients have come to depend on Balagopal’s integrity and legal acumen. It is going to be an uphill task finding an alternative.

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  15. I am amazed by the extraordinary simplicity and moral courage of this man. When the police eliminated some young men in Warangal, Balagopal was among the very few who pointed at the constitutional and moral impropriety of extrajudicial killings at a time when there was an all round clamour for their execution.

    He softly and yet courageously pointed at the pusillanimity of the Chief Minister in occupying his own chambers fearing the “faction scions”.

    I was never fortunate to meet this man. In fact I never even heard him before. It was only after his death I came to see him and listen to his voice in a program aired by hmtv. And I was stuck by the spirituality in his eyes and the voice.

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  16. It will be a while before any kind of transcription of the eulogies at the memorial meeting yesterday will become available.. I didnt want to be distracted by my own camera. There were dozens of cameras all over as it is – all scanning the hall for newsworthy weeping faces.

    There was something very strange about all this for me – I quit being a newspaper man at the end of 1997 – when TV channels were just beginning to divide and multiply. I have known how media cameramen think – there is a template in their minds – one which has a slot for each saleable emotion. They are labeled – heart rending, bucolic, joyous, fervor, so on and so forth.

    What was strange however was that, at the time I quit working in a newspaper – the print man was still somehow in control. The visual image had a purpose that was first envisioned by the analytical and the contemplative mind. I see little evidence of that culture now.

    Yesterday, as soon as Kannabiran said, he with his hands put the black gown on Balagopal when he became a lawyer – and choked – the cameras rushed towards him – like a flock of hungry birds. Kannabiran said – go away! Cannot I even have a moment of privacy ?

    A moment of privacy at the podium in an auditorium bursting at the seams? It is possible. It was palpable yesterday to some. Without the mental, visual, intellectual clutter that seems to pervasive in this city perhaps it would have been palpable to more.

    Several years ago, Balagopal once said Hyderabad is a ‘vanity fair’. You must go there with a clear purpose in mind, get the job done and get out of it immediately. Since then apparently he has mastered the technique of living in Hyderabad and keeping the clutter out.

    If anyone still has any doubts about how anyone could possibly do that — here is Amitav Ghosh writing about Satyajit Ray.

    “Ray was for me, not just a great artist; he was something even rarer: an artist who had crafted his life so that it could serve as an example to others. In a world where people in the arts are often expected, even encouraged, to be unmindful of those around them, he was exemplary in his dealings with people. This was, I think, one of the reasons why he was able to sustain his creative energies for as long as he did: because he refused to make a fetish of himself. As a student I had heard him speak on several occasions: it always seemed to me that there was something very private about his manner. I had the sense that it was by holding the world at arm’s length that he had managed to be as productive as he had. This was a stance I respected then and respect even more today, now that I am more aware of how easy it is to be distracted by the demands of public life.”

    The above could easily have been written about Balagopal. In fact, it is quite possible that Balagopal learnt that art of embracing the world and yet holding it at arm’s length, without much fuss when he was a student at the Warangal Regional Engineering College. Jeevan Kumar, president of Human Rights Forum said yesterday that he first met Balagopal at the screening of Pather Panchali in the Film Club in Warangal in 1975 and remained a steadfast friend since.

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  17. Eminent human rights activist and lawyer Balagopal sir, who fought for the rights of the poor, tribals and labourers………..
    He is the Legend.

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  18. Yes, Anant, he had a knack of being with the world and not. Torture chambers or Vanity fairs – he could hold them at length, and yet write of them, imaginatively, wryly, with conviction… In 1994-95 he used to visit Chennai regularly. He was compiling and editing 10 years of APCLC reports. I had the chance to work with him on that. Evening after evening we would sit and sift through stories, each of which turned out to be more horrific than the other. I was shocked, disgusted and upset in turn, and would not sleep nights thereafter. I remember being both bewildered and fascinated by his ‘calm’ if one may call it that…not that there was no anguish in him – who could for instance forget the piece he did on Gujarat 2002, where he invokes the power of hatred, and wonders about the possibilities of compassion… those were the years, he mid-1990s, when he was working through this discomfort with Marxism, reading up on psychology, existentialism – and he thought a lot about the human condition, and our capacity for dissembling, causing hurt… So much and so much more could be said of what he was – but this much is clear, one can’t mourn his absence enough. Or stop grieving…

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  19. Federation for People’s Rights (FPR), Puducherry express deep heartfelt condolence for the sudden death of Dr. K. Balagopal, a prominent Human Rights Activist of India and it is a great loss to Human Rights Movement.

    Dr. K. Balagopal, was born in Anantapur District in Andhrapradesh, obtained Doctorate in Mathematics and worked as a lecturer in Kakadia University at warrangal. After leaving his job he dedicated to Human Rights as full time activist.

    On 8th October 2009, due to chest pain, he was taken to a private hospital at Hyderabad and the Doctors there told that he was already dead.

    As General Secretary of “Andhrapradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC)”, he struggled against the state oppression on Naxalite movement. He also concentrated in fighting against the Custodial Violence, Fake Encounter killings and Abolition of Death Penalty.

    Since, he had confident opinion against any form of violence; he developed difference with naxalite movement and quitted APCLC. Then founded “Human Rights Forum (HRF)” and continued his service on Human Rights.

    He worked for more than 10 years as lawyer at Andhrapradesh High Court at Hyderabad and argued to get a historical Judgment on fake encounter that if an encounter occurs, a case should filed under Section 302 IPC against the police personals who involved.

    He was a left intellectual and his uncompromised and honest writings were well recognized by the intellectual community around the world.

    I am closely associated with him from 1993 and in 1996 I was a member in an All India Fact Finding Committee and facing high risk from Police toured with him in naxalite prone four districts of Andhra to probe fake encounter killings.

    In 1998, his voice is the first against the Death Penalty, while 26 persons were awarded Death Sentence in Rajiv Gandhi murder case. Consulting with him, we organised a two day All India Conference in Puducherry for abolition of death penalty in India.

    I also participated in an All India Fact Finding Committee with him to probe the violence against Christians in Orissa and Karnataka. This is the last moment I met him. He concentrated and fought for the poor Tribal people, who were affected by the projects of Special Economic Zones (SEZ) in his last period.

    The people of different walks of life of Andhra including the political leaders of Congress and Marxist – Leninist Parties condoled for his death. I deeply convey my heartfelt condolence to the family members and associates of Dr. K. Balagopal.

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  20. As Kaloji, the people’s poet who embodied the finest sensibilities of Warangal once said you dont hold condolence meetings for some people. You hold commemoration meetings – so that in remembering that person you bring out the best in yourself to the fore.

    COmmemoration meetings are being held in many districts and towns… some organized by the Human Rights Forum – which Balagopal built in the last 10 years, but many organized by teachers, workers and students.

    At Khammam, the meeting was organized by CPI-ML New Democracy. It felt odd to be sitting in the meeting. ML groups rarely ever salute anyone who has not been a martyr in their party line.

    The most moving part of the meeting came towards the end — an old man – I dont even know his name — everyone called him grandfather — he had to be helped up to the dais. Grandfather said, he came to sing for Balagopal. A song he wrote for Balagopal and he had to sing it himself. He said he has known Balagopal for over 30 years on the streets of Warangal.

    I dont remember the words of the song. But I will never forget how two younger men stood on either side of grandfather and lent the strength of their voices to his trembling, trailing voice. And every now and then, grandfather’s voice rose above everyone else’s. Even minutes before the meeting if anybody had told me that it is possible to fill cliched expressions with conviction, I would have laughed. But I came away humbled that evening.

    Balagopal’s 1986 translation of DD Kosambi’s introduction to ancient Indian history has begun to reappear at book sales outside meetings. This book is among the lesser known one’s of Balagopal. But it is one into which he put his heart. In the introduction, he says that he was first introduced to Marxism when he read Kosambi’s interpretation of the Bhagavdgita in 1976 and he was in a way repaying the debt by introducing Kosambi to Telugu readers.

    And in many ways, by doing this, Balagopal has placed generations of school and college teachers in Andhra Pradesh in his debt. He gave them the tools to critically reflect on history and human consciousness.

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  21. The old man must be Kanuri Venkateswara Rao probably 98 years old. He lives in Warangal and has worked in the cultural movement for at least 50 years. I remeber his performances in the 80s in Guntur town.

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  22. most of the people who tried to serve the society for the sake of money or fame but this is a person who served and lives and died for the welfare of the society. most of the people spoke about civil liberties , but this a person who practiced and gave a meaning as to work seriously. i thin some big men have exploited. had he remained with mathematics,he would have won abel’s or noble prize and would have brought laurels to India. in some sense he did something more constructive for the welfare of the society, may be some polioticians did not take his suggestions. HE IS GOD SEND / OR GOD LIKE

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