[Book Review] MK Nambyar: A Constitutional Visionary by KK Venugopal

Nambyar’s illustrative and enlightening life is a glimpse into the early post-independence period of constitutional history that defined the base of constitutional Jurisprudence.
M.K. Nambyar: A Constitutional Visionary
M.K. Nambyar: A Constitutional Visionary

Reading a biography always takes me to a beautiful quote by Abraham Lincoln,

“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It's life in your years.” 

I chanced upon a slim biography of legal doyen and visionary lawyer, Mr MK Nambyar. I felt lucky for the fact that the text and the context of this book was permeated by three brilliant scholars - KK Venugopal (his son), Suhrith Parthasarathy and Suhasini Sen.

The book begins with a quote by Ernest Hemingway that portrays the debt owed to the father by the son, himself an accomplished, brilliant lawyer. The brief introduction gives a terse intellectual glimpse into the life of the subject, MK Nambyar.

The very first chapter itself gives the readers an organic view of Nambyar; a tangible yet qualified extension of the Malabar region of Kerala. I thoroughly enjoyed being educated about the inequalities in the realm of caste and class of Kerala.

The authors have cited references that delve into the sociological trajectory of Kerala, especially its caste system and its link with religion, materiality and class.

The jenmi system and its peculiar modus operandi is well brought out for readers like me who are aware of certain facets only like Jajmani, Balutedari and Idangalai-Vadangalai methodological  operations. How this oppressive system worked during the pre-independence, the nationalist and post-independence movements becomes a subtle thread permeating this book.

The book then moves on to the journey of Nambyar from the mofussil courts to his established practice. The chapter becomes interesting owing to its peculiar descriptions of uprisings termed koots, armed uprisings, Gandhian and Khilafat syncretism, Kayyur riots and other such interesting episodes. The second chapter intangibly sketches the intellectual as well as experiential making of Nambyar, who would later pave new paradigms to understand the Constitution of India in its organic and principled form. But what is unmissable here is the close kinship and social ties that had an effect on Nambyar, which would go on to inspire his standpoints in the future.

Chapter Three delves into the personal life of Nambyar in macroscopic detail, and also provides a poignant view of the judicial setup at the Madras High Court, highlighting the continuities and discontinuities of the Indian Judiciary. I could feel almost everywhere the presence of Kalyani, Nambyar’s partner, who slogs in private domains to keep the traditional family closely knit together during his voyages in his advocacy years.

The next chapter begins with VG Row asking Nambyar to take up the case of AK Gopalan in the Supreme Court of India, which would go on to define the ethics and contours of Constitutional Law and its interpretation.

It is rich and meticulously detailed with autobiographical facts of AK Gopalan, unpublished articles of Nambyar, accounts of Inder Malhotra and the arguments on Article 22 of Constitution of India.

The brilliance of this biography that makes it worth a deep dive lies in its descriptions of Nambyar presenting his arguments; his method of looking beyond the banal, understanding the depths of Constitutional Law, and formulating arguments that ultimately paved the way for future constitutional interpretations.

Nambyar does this in his very first appearance before Supreme Court. His arguments of the constitutional text in the context of due process of law and the judiciary’s strict textual reading of the Constitution is a delightful read. But in the end, one can’t stop thinking that Nambyar, the lawyer, was far ahead of his time.

Though he lost the AK Gopalan case, Nambyar became known for his legal acumen and this chapter documents his public life post that case.

We get a more nuanced view of Nambyar’s arguments, style of his usage of rhetorics, and how he, as a principled person, believed in his cohesive and holistic reading of the Constitution, which forms his own unique essence in latter cases.

One can’t escape the fact that in his entire life, human dignity and integrity were his most valued possessions; whatever side he took up as a lawyer. This facet paved the way for understanding the idea of citizenship too, resting on the tripod of Articles 14, 19 and 21, that later were upheld by Supreme Court in various cases.

The book then builds upon this, using Nambyar's arguments in another detention case, S Krishnan v. State of Madras, highlighting his meticulous take on the provisions of Article 22 of the Constitution dealing with preventive detention.

His arguments that question the division of powers theory and abuse of the due process, the widest and wildest interpretation of the terms that could disturb the balance of powers between the arms of the State, are beautifully brought about.

What makes it more exciting are the standpoints of apathy of personalities like C Rajgopalachari towards Communists of India; branding them as fanatical radicalists; equating them with communalists and black-marketeers. The rich case laws and arguments of Nambyar seemed to become normal as well as more sharper now.

In Chapter Seven, the book deals with Nambyar’s argument on the controversial take by the government on the right to property (initially a fundamental right) through enactments of the First, Fourth and Seventeenth Amendments.

Rather than just legal arguments, the chapter paints the viewpoints of various leaders on land reforms in the context of the Nehruvian socialistic model adopted by the welfare state. Nambyar, once again in the fray, resists the Leviathan elements of the State and calls for clarity in actions and constitutional probity while enacting the reforms by paying heed to the fundamentality of organic whole fundamental rights, linking it with the principle of right to life, livelihood and human dignity.

In all these legal arguments, the part I most thoroughly enjoyed was the microscopic view of land relations in Kerala. The caste-class system of jenmis, kanamkars and verumpattoms, coupled with the British Ryotwari system. How Nambyar’s arguments and the parallel landmark judgments in the Shankari Prasad Case, the Atma Ram Case, the Karambil Kunhikoman Case and the Sajjan Singh Case defined the positionality of the State vis-a-vis amendability i.e Article 368 of Part Three of the Constitution, is superbly illustrated in this chapter.

The final chapter details Nambyar’s tightrope walking in the IC Golaknath case, his continuity in arguments that earlier found mention in the dissenting opinions of Sajjan Singh and their culmination into the Kesavananda Bharati case - a milestone in the history of India and the basic structure doctrine. Nambyar’s arguments on the power emanating from Articles 245, 246, 248, the logos of Article 368 and the provisions under the right to religion as per Articles 25 and 26, showed his visionary, democratic and philosophical approach that assumes more importance in today’s times.

The inner nuances of Nambyar’s arguments cannot be discussed, but can only experienced while reading this text. The final parts of the text deals with various administrative case laws that Nambyar dealt with, nevertheless important in the evolution of administrative jurisprudence.

In toto, Nambyar’s illustrative and enlightening life is a glimpse into the early post-independence period of constitutional history that defined the base of constitutional Jurisprudence. But it is also an educative experience for any legal scholar as well as any layperson to understand the fundamentals of constitutional morality from a person who doesn’t adhere to dogmatic compartment, but led a principled life that still attracts Indians who are on the quest to understand the Idea of India.

Nikhil Sanjay-Rekha Adsule is a Senior Research Scholar at IIT-DELHI.

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