Pellisary Anthony Sebastian: His passion for justice was matched by his bellowing laughter

The might of the Indian State could not crush his indomitable spirit.
Pellisary Anthony Sebastian: His passion for justice was matched by his bellowing laughter

For Pellisary Anthony Sebastian, who fearlessly fought against the powers that be, the fight against his own failing health was what broke him in the end. The might of the Indian State could not crush his indomitable spirit. Nor could the gargantuan and hierarchical maze of the judicial system stop him from fighting the most improbable of cases. Just before his 78th birthday on February 18th this year, he had suffered a stroke and on Thursday, July 23 at 10-am, he breathed his last at an old-age home at Nagao Verna, Salcette, Goa.
While the word “selfless” describes Sebastian perfectly, he was not “other worldly” in his disdain for amassing comforts for himself. He loved to wine and dine, he could light up a somber conversation with his body shaking bellowing laughter and he even enjoyed the occasional gossip sessions with close friends and associates. Fiercely independent, he would refuse anyone’s help despite being paralysed waist down, while he would cover the most formidable of terrain including the winding stairs of the Bombay High Court with admirable ease. Probably what Sebastian hated most was hypocrisy and dishonesty and a “bloody fool” from him was enough to straighten out those who dared to take him for a ride.

There is a common thread in what his friends and co-travellers remember about Sebastian – his passion for justice and truth, his wry humour, his jiggling laughter, his arguments, his knowledge and his steadfastness, and most of all his love for the common people.

Sebastian was a living example of all that he fought for. Despite being born into an affluent family, he denounced the idea of private property by consigning himself to a room at the YMCA at Colaba. This is where he moved after becoming a lawyer, in the mid-1970s. In the three and a half decades that he worked in Bombay (he refused to refer to it as Mumbai), he never thought of building a home for himself or saving up for his old age. In his last days, when it became impossible for Sebastian to continue to live at the YMCA, he was shifted to Goa by his large-hearted nephew Joe Luis, a senior Director of Fomento. Sebastian did find peace and dignity in Goa but he missed his beloved city, Bombay.

PA Sebastian with his elder brother PA Varghese and his niece, while leaving Mumbai in June 2014.

When I told him to allow me to ghostwrite his autobiography, he waved the suggestion away. “I do not want to leave anything behind,” he said. But the colossal legacy PA Sebastian has left behind is indeed well worth documenting.

From Kerala to Bombay

Born to the wealthy landed Pellisary family at Ammadom, Trissur, Kerala, Sebastian (Sabby to his friends) was afflicted by polio at a young age because of which he was home-schooled. From a young age, he proved to be a fiery rebel. Initially, rebelling against the constraints of his physical disability, as well as the confines of a Roman Catholic upbringing, Sebastian decided to leave Kerala and the comforts of a “settled life” to come to Bombay in the 1970s. He enrolled himself in Sydenham College and later Government Law College. He joined the Government Hostel at Churchgate, from where began his life as a permanent hostelite in the city.

During his college days, Sebastian came to the fore as a radical thinker and fiery orator. Came the declaration of Emergency in June 1975, and Sebastian was involved in covert and overt protests in the city. With the lifting of Emergency two years later, the country was aflame with mobilisations in defence of civil liberties and democratic rights. Sebastian initially associated himself with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties founded by Justice VM Tarkunde.

Later, he worked for building up the democratic rights movement in the country. A network of organisations came up in the country: the People’s Union for Democratic Rights in Delhi, the Association of People’s Democratic Rights in Calcutta, the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee in Hyderabad and the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights in Mumbai, for which Sebastian worked tirelessly. For a long time, Sebastian was the last man standing from the gallery of his contemporaries such as Gobind Mukhoty, Sudesh Vaid, Anuradha Ghandy, K. Balagopal and Kannabiran who passed away much before him. It is worth mentioning here that the black and white picture above shows PA Sebastian and K Balagopal at Indian People’s Human Rights Commission in Chintapalli in 1988.

Tireless crusader

It is difficult to enumerate the number of causes that Sebastian espoused. From the release of the political prisoners of the Emergency, to the Iranian students detained for protesting against the despotic Shah of Iran, to the hundreds of mill workers jailed during their historic 1981-’83 textile strike, or the evicted slum dwellers – you name them and will find that Sebastian was there, working for their release. He would cover punishing distances and trails to set up People’s Commissions and Tribunals to expose State excesses such as in Punjab’s thousands of “disappeared” militants, army excesses in the North East and Kashmir.

Sebastian’s contribution in keeping afloat the Mumbai city’s tattered secular fabric came post the 1992-’93 after Shiv Sena-led anti-Muslim riots tore the city apart. He had an unforgettable role to play in setting up the Indian People’s Tribunal led by two retired judges of the Bombay High Court, Justices H Suresh and SM Daud, the precursor to the official Srikrishna Commission.

Sebastian was a giant of an intellectual. Rarely do you get this combination of a brilliant lawyer who would regularly write polemical pieces on Indian jurisprudence in leading journals and who would without a second thought join fact-finding enquiries into atrocities on the most marginalised sections of society. That the President of The Bombay Bar Association has announced a condolence meeting for Sebastian on August 10 at 5.15pm at the Bombay Bar Premises Room No 57 of the Bombay High Court shows his mark as a highly respected Member of the Bombay Bar Association.

One of the last pieces Sebastian wrote was a searing critique of the Supreme Court. Published in the December 11, 2010 issue of Economic and Political Weekly, weeks after the Allahabad High Court judgment in the Babri masjid-Ram janmabhoomi case, in the piece titled Secularism and the Indian Judiciary, Sebastian argued that the Supreme Court had let down the secular ideals of the Indian constitution the day it allowed the central government to acquire the area around the masjid after it was demolished, instead of handing it back to Muslims. The January 1993 Act under which the government acquired the land had been challenged in the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, while dealing with the challenge to the Act, said that “What was demolished was not merely an ancient structure, but the faith of the minorities in the sense of justice and fair play of majorities to restore their faith in the rule of law and constitutional process”. Then what did the Supreme Court do to redeem the lost faith of minorities in the sense of justice and fair play of majorities in the rule of law and constitutional process? The Supreme Court further lamented: “Commitments to the court and Constitution, pledges to Parliament and the people were simply cast aside. Therein lay the failure, therein the betrayal.” What did the Supreme Court do to remedy the betrayal and to retrieve the pledges? The Court rationalises: “Today India seeks to heal and not reopen its wounds, to look forward with hope, and not backwards with fear, to reconcile reason with faith…”

The sequence of omissions and commissions committed by the executive and judiciary manifests a consistent tendency that, when the dispute is between the views and faiths held by some fundamentalist forces among Hindus and the views and faiths expressed by other religious elements, they take a stand in favour of Hindu fundamentalists.

The Indian state has deviated from the path of secularism. Who will make the course correction?  The judiciary could have done so. But it seems to have disqualified itself from performing this august function.