Sebastian, who passed away in Goa on Thursday morning after a prolonged illness, was at the forefront of combating various kinds of rights violations, first participating in students’ movements, before going on to institute the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights after the Emergency.
Sebastian grew up in Kerala, but moved to Mumbai after matriculating, where he trained as a lawyer and practiced in the Bombay high court. Though hobbled by a polio-affected leg, friends and supporters, to whom he was known as "Saby", remarked how that never came in the way of his work. He went on to be elected as chairperson of the International Association of People’s Lawyers and vice president of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners.
“He fought many valiant battles, inside and outside courts,” wrote Anand Teltumbde, the general secretary of the CPDR, Mumbai, in a blog post on Thursday night. “His indomitable spirit came alive in protest against draconian laws and anti-people legislation. Two years back, in one of the public meetings, he dared the government to arrest him on the charges of sedition. He thundered that criticising the government was actually a democratic duty of a citizen and hence to charge people for sedition for doing that is the most unlawful act one could imagine.”
Sebastian was instrumental in helping those affected by the 1992-1993 Bombay riots appear before the Srikrishna Commission appointed to enquire into the violence. Activists remarked on his major contribution: championing the format of the people’s tribunal to help expose personal testimonies of suffering and victimhood. Hundreds of people died or were injured in the Bombay riots, and Sebastian worked to bring their stories before the Commission, as Anand Patwardhan's documentary film Jai Bhim Comrade documents.
In Memoriam: Advocate P.A. Sebastian
“All of us in the radical left and civil liberties’ movement owe such a lot to the work of Sebastian and people like him who really fought violations, especially against Dalits and Adivasis, custodial killings and matters which few others would be willing to talk about,” said Kavita Krishnan, 43, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association. “He was among the pioneers of civil liberties and democratic rights and a powerful voice on various issues. His death is an enormous loss.”
As a lawyer, Sebastian also defended Anand Patwardhan in court, helping fight attempts at censorship. Patwardhan remembered him as a “quintessential peoples' lawyer”, working for the dispossessed. “He was handicapped by polio but never let this interfere with anything he did as he traversed the Indian countryside and its forests and mountains to contribute his mite to the cause of justice,” he said in an email. "It was Saby with whom we won our many court battles against the censor board and the national broadcaster Doordarshan. And it was thanks to Saby we overturned the ban on James Laine's book on Shivaji. We will never forget you Saby. If there is ever again anybody like you, this country will be blessed.”
Sebastian wrote scathingly of a judgement holding Binayak Sen and others guilty of sedition, remarking that the Indian judiciary was moving backwards. He fought against laws such as the UAPA, TADA and AFSPA and for the release of political prisoners.
“He was an integral part of the radical movement in Maharashtra,” said Kamayani Bali Mahabal, 40, a human rights activist. “He was the light within the dark tunnel, especially for the dispossessed.”
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