PA Sebastian, the indefatigable lawyer who lent India’s democratic rights movement its contours, is no more
PA Sebastian (pictured) hated being reminded of his disability. Not one given to unnecessary etiquette at the best of times, he would be positively rude if you tried to help him out of a spot that looked too difficult to negotiate with his crutches.It was sheer bad luck that Sebastian, known across the country as a rare untiring crusader for human rights for the past 40 years, spent his childhood in a Kerala village where the necessity of anti-polio vaccination had not spread. But this did not for a moment deter him from breaking away from an environment he could no longer identify with, and coming to Mumbai to make his own life. “This city has made me what I am,“ he told me last year on the eve of his departure from Mumbai. “I know I won’t be happy anywhere else.“He was proved right. On the morning of July 23, Sebastian passed away in Goa where his family was tending to him, at the age of 67. He had suffered a stroke in February. Last year, with his health slowly deteriorating, and needing frequent hospitalisations, he had become practically immobile.

Sebastian left a wealthy propertied family to strike it out on his own in Mumbai in the 60s. He first got his commerce degree from Sydenham and then went on to study at the Government Law College.

If Mumbai gave him the courage to stay on without a conventionally successful practice, in a tiny room at the YMCA in Colaba to call home, Sebastian too gave back to the city in full measure. Always a radical, Sebastian was one of the founders of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR) after the Emergency, and remained its face till he left Mumbai last year. It was in Mumbai’s courts that Sebastian created legal precedents in the field of human rights, fighting historic cases against fake encounters and slum demolitions; against Doordarshan’s refusal to telecast Anand Patwardhan‘s National award-winning documentaries; against censorship and the ban on historian James Laine‘s book on Shivaji.

Ten years after CPDR was formed, Sebastian founded the Indian People’s Human Rights Commission (IPHRC) in 1987.His CPDR experience had shown that courts remained inaccessible to those who needed them the most. He described the IPHRC as a people’s commission, but this was no kangaroo court. Its tribunal comprised retired judges of the higher judiciary. Its first president was filmmaker Mrinal Sen, and its chairman retired Supreme Court judge VR Krishna Iyer. Its first case was the shooting down by police of 21 Dalits in Arwal, Bihar, in 1986, over a land dispute with a landlord. The Bihar government agreed to cooperate but did not appear before these judges. But such was the tribunal’s credibility that the landlord in whose defence the cops had acted, appeared before it. Similarly in Andhra Pradesh, such was the faith of the tribals who testified in front of the tribunal in December 1987, about police burning down their hamlets in Chintapalli earlier that year, that the cops disrupted its proceedings.

From the 1992-93 Mumbai riots to the 1994 massacre of 150 Gowari tribals in Nagpur, the IPHRC held hearings across the country and as its secretary, Sebastian travelled to these proceedings ­ by train, as he had for CPDR fact-findings, because both CPDR and the IPHRC were self-financed. His disability must have made these journeys hell, but he always regaled us with uproarious observations. Seated in his favourite place ­ the Bombay Bar Association’s bar room, he would recount how, after making his way across the overcrowded compartment to the toilet, in the interminable journey to Arwal, he found he couldn’t use it because a goat was occupying it.

As unique as Sebastian’s humour was his oratory. His speeches, delivered ponderously, had a grand historic sweep, his favourite starting line being: “From times immemorial…“

His wealth of learning, be it in law, history or the scriptures, shone through them as did his open disdain for the state. “I am bringing the state into contempt, arrest me for sedition,“ he declared at one of his last public appearances in 2012. By the time Sebastian left Mumbai, his YMCA room had become an open house for victims from all deprived groups and dissenters from across the country. While his protective circle of friends missed him badly, the State must have heaved a sigh of relief at his departure. That was his ultimate success.