Book Review - M.K. Nambyar - A Constitutional Visionary

Nikhil Sanjay-Rekha Adsule

21 Dec 2023 5:28 AM GMT

  • Book Review - M.K. Nambyar - A Constitutional Visionary

    Benjamin Disraeli, the thinker moots for reading biographies as they are life without theories. I would have accepted this theory of Disraeli earlier but hesitate to accept it in toto as a lived life may not always be laden with vapid theories but principles that illuminate a person, infact take away her out in the sunshine of real knowledge; as Plato explains in his Allegory of...

    Benjamin Disraeli, the thinker moots for reading biographies as they are life without theories. I would have accepted this theory of Disraeli earlier but hesitate to accept it in toto as a lived life may not always be laden with vapid theories but principles that illuminate a person, infact take away her out in the sunshine of real knowledge; as Plato explains in his Allegory of cave, breaking the chains of bondages, liberating a being.

    What I expressed above comes after reading a series of biographies that have permeated the neo-liberal market but certain texts stand out as the case has been of a beautifully crafted; biography of Legal Doyen, a visionary and Constitutionalist to the core, M.K. Nambyar. The biography is an epitome of hard work of three brilliant legal scholars; K.K. Venugopal (his son and former attorney general of India), Suhrith Parthasarathy (practicing advocate at Madras High court) and Suhasini Sen (practicing advocate in Delhi). Nambyar belonged to the period where India as a nation was in the process of becoming a Nation-State after adoption of a principled text that would lead to institutionalisation of Rule of Law.

    Chapter 1 gives the readers the background that led to the formation of a being, M.K. Nambyar. Rich in citations, the chapter delved into the sociological nuances of Northern Malabar. Its an educational experience for a person who is not very well aware of modus-operandi of caste(s). The text here puts forth the graded hierarchical system of caste(s). As Nambyar belongs to the Nair community, the text deals with the mythological as well as pragmatic discourses of the origin of Nayars before finally settling to describe the life in Tharuvaads. What attracts and makes the chapter brilliant is the spatiality and its politics that reflect the religious hold over conscience and conscious of the people. The banal details that delve into the everyday lives of the people points to the banality of evil of caste(s). The introduction of English, the role of christian missionaries, the acrimonious notions of purity and pollution- caste(s) markers throw a light on the makeup of fractured modernity that thrives on inequalities.

    Chapter 1 was more sociological in its inclination but chapter 2 deals with the history of the Nambyar's evolution paralleling the Indian National movement. Though larger strand of Nationalist movement was visible in the form of Gandhian mass movement especially Khilafat movement that adopted an eclectic approach vis-a-vis Hindu-Muslim unity but what makes this chapter standout is the foregrounding of dialectics of Religion, Region, Colonial Modernity and Feudal agrarian relations, giving rise to new synthesis in the form of Subaltern movements. The uprising by farmers-Koots, armed uprising in Mangalore, Moplah rebellion, Kayyur riots, a hand in gloves rule of colonial rulers and feudal lords point to the above mentioned deontological processes. This chapter also delves into the left-socialist strand that developed within the larger national movement like the revolutionary communist movement, the birth of Congress Socialist Party. We are introduced here to freedom fighter K. Madhavan, who participated and led the Nationalist movement in Kerala.

    Chapter 3. is more of personal yet familial details of Nambyar. It illuminates the readers about the lives and deeds of Nambyars family members along with the personality of Nambiar. This chapter portrays the rich architectural history of Madras High Court by a thick description of finer details which mark cosmopolitan architectural underpinnings of Madras High Court. The following lines reproduced below depict my experiences while reading the text,

    The stained glass behind the chair of the Chief Justice carries the image of an elephant between two owls, with the elephant symbolizing strength and the owls, wisdom. Likewise, the recurring motifs on the outer walls of the high court are swans and snakes, with swans referring to 'Anna Patchi', which has the capacity to separate milk from water, as a judge might separate truth from falsehood. The snake symbolizes the concept of karma in Hinduism, which, of course, has a fundamental relationship to the concept of justice.

    Nambyar during this phase of life has an opportunity to visit and study in England and the understanding of Constitutional and Administrative law that he comes up with is evident in the later part of the chapters. Thus, Nambyar paved a way for a due process based, liberal yet individuality upholding, human dignity enhancing teleological reading of the Constitution of India.

    Chapter 4 details his journey as to how he handled the first important landmark judgment, A.K. Gopalan case, that was a landmark judgment that dealt with the idea of preventive detention. Rather than using a legalistic jargon that could be boring for a layperson, the authors have delved into giving a background of the case. It puts forth various standpoints of the national leaders who look at communist party from a very negative perspective, equating it with injury to democratic setup. Infact one could make sense of these perceived stereotypes and prejudices that eventually led to the enactment of Art.356 in the State of Kerala i.e imposition of President Rule in 1959. A.K. Gopalan's biographical sketch makes the chapter interesting, giving a sneak peak into the Indian communist meta-narratives within the freedom movement. Nambyar's professional ethics are reflected as though not being a communist or leftist he stood for the rule based order; thus defending the civil liberties and due process doctrine borrowing the American precedent evident in the fifth and fourteenth Amendments, though noble in intent but the content were misused during the Lochener era. The chapter has rich citations from the biography of A.K. Gopalan, M.C. Setalvad, B. Sen and Nambyar's own unpublished articles that portray the multifaceted view of the case.

    Nambyar's poignant articulation using a syncretic approach citing western and Indian dharmic tradition; jus naturale, that hobbes deems as based on rational reason, portrayed originality of thought and action. A rich illustration of the arguments between two stalwarts- Nambyar and M.C. Setalvad is an enjoyable read.

    Chapters 5 and 6 produce a coherent linearity as well as continuity of the stand of Nambyar. His adherence to the cohesive reading, interweaving of Art.14, Art.19, Art.21 that later were constituted as Golden triangle in Minerva Mills Case (1980) point to his sagacity. Nambyar's actions oriented towards, Fiat Justitia ruat caelum; relentless struggle to expand the contours of Constitutional Law feels like a debt that We, The People owe to him. Similarly, in S. Krishnan case, he questions the relationship between the legislature, executive and Judiciary; in the context of Montesquieu's subjectivity of separation of powers. The arguments Nambyar presents also compels one to think about the question of Liberty and its extent in the light of Hobbesian behavior of Parliament and Judiciary. While reading these chapters one is reminded of Gautam Bhatia's, Transformative Constitution, where the infamous, Jyoti Chorghe case is a reminder of how important the discourses initiated by Ambedkar regarding Art. 22(4) to Art. 22(7) in the Constituent Assembly and Nambyar's interpretation of procedural law in light of American due process helped in shaping the trajectory of Hon. Supreme Court till its teleological destination reached during Maneka Gandhi case.

    Chapter 7, presents an important legal analysis of Right to Property - initially a Fundamental Right and later made a Constitutional Right via its trajectory through First Amendment,

    Fourth Amendment and Seventeenth Amendment. The drama of Ninth Schedule coupled with the Socialistic State supported Land Reforms, judgment of High Courts of Patna, Allahabad and Bhopal and amendability of Constitution in the light of Art. 13 is a music for a person who is interested to understand the agrarian land relations in light of the Constitutional framework in India. Nambyar's distinct arguments in the wake of Kerala Agrarian reforms in the systemic and historical ryotwari settlements is tersely put in the text. The fine balance of being an advocate, himself belonging to propertied class, higher caste(s) and the firm belief in the idea of right to freedom; extended to property gives a glimpse of how Nambyar was a gifted persona.

    In the last chapter, Nambyar's prowess in I.C. Golaknath case is portrayed. The chapter builds on the case laws of Shankari Prasad, Sajjan Singh and its dissent and its final culmination in the basic structure doctrine pronounced in Kesavananda Bharati case stands out. One feels a sense of personal victory when the very aims and principles for which Nambyar fights for his arguments document reach their final destination. This is expressed in the words of legal doyens like Soli Sorabjee. The concluding chapter as Nambyar lived his life portrays his case laws that deal with Administrative Laws and Right to Religion i.e Art.25 and Art. 26. Nambyar's journey as a lawyer and as a person doesn't stand at odds. His life is a reflection of the famous call of, Personal is Political as given by Carol Hanisch (1969).

    As one finishes this slim biographical volume, one feels a sense of awe and inspiration for tge person, Nambyar, though had social and cultural capital but rose with sheer hard work to become the legal doyen that every advocate aspires for but more importantly being an important agent in defining the contours of Constitutional and Administrative Law in Indian Republic.

    The author is a Senior Research Scholar at IIT-DELHI.

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