Kalpana Kannabiran’s research over the years has focused on a range of questions – historical and contemporary – that are critical to an understanding of India today. She has worked extensively with quantitative data, ethnographies, legal hermeneutics and creative literatures in Indian languages (Hindi, Tamil and Telugu as well as other Indian writers in translation in English) to explore the different dimensions of inequality, disparities, diversities, entitlements and genealogies of free speech, rights sensibilities, resistance and radical ideas. Her research has been closely intertwined with interventions in policy, strategic litigation and peoples’ initiatives for justice.
Law and Society
Kalpana Kannabiran has written extensively on various dimensions of law and society. Three books, two that she has edited and one of which she is author, are especially central to her endeavour to chart the field of law and society over two decades during a time when there were very few scholars from the social sciences engaging seriously with the law: Challenging the Rule(s) of Law: Colonialism, Criminology and Human Rights in India (Sage 2008), is a collection of original essays of which she is co-editor that attempts a layered and counter-colonial approach to criminology and criminal jurisprudence. Her own essay in this volume, “Contexts of Criminology in India” maps this field in some detail. The second book, of which she is author, focuses on constitutional law and the layered relationship between non-discrimination and liberty opening out the fields of disabilities, caste, gender, tribe, religious minority and sexualities – Tools of Justice: Non-Discrimination and the Indian Constitution (Routledge 2012). This was one of five titles worldwide voted for the Authors-meet-Critics session at the VIII World Sociology Congress at Yokohama, 13-19 July 2014.
The third book, which she edited, Women and Law: Critical Feminist Perspectives (Sage 2014), is one of the few books on the subject with original essays that straddle fields not conventionally associated with “women and law” – forest rights, anti terror laws, labour legislation, land rights – and unconventional explorations of habitations gender discrimination in the family and workplace.
The constitutional questions around adivasis (indigenous/aboriginal communities) has been another major preoccupation. She has led a major programme supported by the Ford Foundation on Realising Social and Economic Rights of Adivasi [indigenous] Communities – that has involved research, curriculum building, teaching, strategic litigation, lawyer training, para-legal training, and extensive archiving and documentation of legal cases relating to land and adivasi communities. As part of this ongoing work she is coordinating a fellowship programme for lawyers belonging to scheduled tribes aimed at strategic rights litigation and the development of practice guides for lawyering.
Kalpana Kannabiran has worked with indigenous communities since 2004, initiating discussions on the meanings of constitutionalism in indigenous habitations, especially the scheduled areas, to develop a mutual common ground on the place of popular constitutionalism and its significance. As part of this work, she has done extensive surveys of schooling for indigenous children in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and led, at the invitation of Professor SK Thorat, a major research project that looks at socio-economic status and educational attainment among 76 Denotified, Nomadic and Semi Nomadic Communities in nine states in India. This study was supported by the Indian Council of Social Science Research, and its findings were published in a coauthored essay titled “Education and its Discontents: Barriers to Education among the Denotified and Nomadic Communities,” in July 2018.
In the area of indigenous rights Kalpana Kannabiran has combined rights advocacy and rights education with strategic litigation on a case-by-case basis, situating incremental gains in individual cases within a larger context of securing collective rights. Notably, she has coordinated the successful defense in courts and administrative tribunals and secured bail, reinstatement in service and acquittal from convictions for murder following unfair trials.
Her recent paper that looks at constitutionalism and indigenous rights is titled “Constitutional Geographies and Cartographies of Impunity: Human Rights and Adivasis/Tribes in Contemporary India” was published in the Economic and Political Weekly, 5 November 2016. A revised version of this paper is forthcoming in Geoffrey V. Davis and Ganesh Devy eds. Key Concepts in Indigenous Studies: Human Rights (Routledge).
From petitioning the Supreme Court of India to release Dr. Saibaba on grounds of disability, and arguing for the specific rights to life and dignity of prisoners with disabilities, to participating in the deliberations around the disability rights legislation in India, making comprehensive recommendations to the Parliamentary Standing Committee in December 2014, Kalpana Kannabiran has been actively involved with disability rights groups in the country organising around legal reform and constitutional interpretation on questions of representation and equal opportunity. She has also been closely involved with collaborative research with Marcia Rioux and Disability Rights Promotion International, York University.
Her research in this area has included a theoretical exploration of the category of “worker with disabilities” under the NREGA programme, and the publication of the first development report to focus on disability rights in India, of which she is co-editor (with Asha Hans): India Social Development Report 2016: Disability Rights Perspectives (OUP 2017.
Kalpana Kannabiran’s published work has focused on the question of caste since 1991. After her first co-authored essay (with Vasanth Kannabiran) on “Caste and Gender” published in Economic and Political Weekly in 1991 in the aftermath of the massacre of dalits in Chunduru, and widely cited as the first attempt to theorise the connections between caste, gender and violence, she contributed the entry on “Caste” in the Routledge International Encyclopedia on Women, and has written widely on caste-gender-violence intersections. “Sociology of Caste and the Crooked Mirror: Recovering BR Ambedkar’s Legacy” in the Economic and Political Weekly; and “Cartographies of Resistance: The National Federation of Dalit Women” in a volume she co-edited with Nira Yuval Davis and Ulrike Vieten, The Situated Politics of Belonging (Sage 2006) are an important part of her writing. Much of her writing on caste has been in the form of Op-Eds in the national press or commentaries in the Economic and Political Weekly as an immediate response to caste violence in contemporary India – “Annihilation by Caste,” published in Economic and Political Weekly is one such essay.
The concern with violence has been a running thread through much of Kalpana Kannabiran’s writing – caste violence, family violence, gender violence, communal violence, state violence, free speech and a host of related concerns. Most recently, at the invitation of Mahnaz Afkhami of Women’s Learning Partnership and Yakin Erturk, former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, she revisited feminist campaigns to end family violence in India over a three decadal period, and traced its impact on family law. The essay “Feminist Activism, Violence in the Family, and Law Reform in India: A Three Decadal History” is in press as part of an edited collection on the subject in 2019 (Routledge). Her first co-authored (with Vasanth Kannabiran) collection of essays on violence, De-eroticizing Assault: Essays on Modesty, Honour and Power (Stree 2002), her two edited collections, Violence of Normal Times: Essays on Women’s Lived Realities (Women Unlimited & Kali for Women 2005) and Violence Studies (Oxford University Press, 2016), together chart the field of Violence Studies in the social sciences in India and its gendered inflections. Here most recent essay on “Violence against Women in Telangana” draws on district level data published by the National Crime Records Bureau from 1991-2016.
Literatures and Dissent
From filing a writ petition in the High Court of Andhra Pradesh seeking action against elected legislators who attacked Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin during her visit to Hyderabad, to translating Muvalur Ramamirthammal’s Web of Deceit from Tamil to English, to speaking about and publishing an essay on the work of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, “Storytelling in the Time of Hate”, the question of free speech, and the indispensability of storytelling and poetic expression in a democratic society has been a core area of interest.
At the invitation of Professor Ganesh Devy, Kalpana Kannabiran has recently anchored an ambitious project of selecting and translating progressive Telugu writing that challenged the status quo over six centuries into English in order to counter the rising conservatism and censorship of writers in contemporary India.
Dakshinayana: Selections from Telugu Literature is part of a series on progressive thought in Indian languages consisting of one anthology in every major language containing important texts — songs, poems, stories, essays, letters, non-literary articles, extracts from iconic books, etc. – already existing in published form. With no restrictions on the period/s from which these texts are selected, Kalpana Kannabiran has co-edited (with Volga) the Telugu selection which consists of extracts from the work of 90 writers from the 12 century CE to the present that are strikingly ‘progressive’/social-reformist, taking readers beyond caste-creed, religious orthodoxies and gender-bias. As an effort to remember a plural and counter-hegemonic intellectual history in contemporary India, this volume has been compiled in Telugu, and has been translated into English. It is to be published both in English and in Telugu. The completed manuscript is in press.
Since 2009, when she co-authored “On the Telangana Trail” published in Economic and Political Weekly, Kalpana has been engaged in conducting research focused specifically on Telangana state, the newest state in the Indian union. With its stunning seven-decadal history of resistance to hegemonies of caste, community and state (as old as the country itself), and widespread and diverse political participation, the new state faces challenges of keeping the space of resistance and insurgent cultural expression alive even while addressing core concerns of development. Since 2015, she has led a team of researchers in CSD to publish the Telangana Social Development Report 2017 and Telangana Social Development Report 2018: Gender, Access and Well Being – these are the first state-level reports on social development in the country.
Women’s Studies and Gender Studies
Cutting through, intersecting with and informing her work in all the fields listed above, Kalpana Kannabiran’s work in Women’s Studies and Gender Studies, has looked at intellectual histories of feminist organizing on the Indian sub-continent, colonial jurisprudence, unorganised labour, violence against women and gender based violence, feminist jurisprudence, gender and privacy, and feminist methodologies among others. Two decades ago in 1997, Kalpana, along with S. Anandhi and Meera Velayudhan, conceptualized and conducted the first month long residential course in women’s studies at Asmita with support from the Ford Foundation, Summer School in Women’s Studies, the first such initiative in the country. The residential course, which involved the compilation and distribution of 15 volumes of seminal writing in feminist scholarship, lectures by feminist scholars from across the country, with a focus on the global south and South Asia, involved a close mentoring of the scholars who enrolled for the course over a year, several of whom now head women’s studies/feminist collectives and departments in universities. She also compiled the only bi-lingual pictorial history of women who shaped modern Andhra (with Volga and Vasanth Kannabiran), Mahilavaranam/Womanscape (Asmita 2001), and co-edited (with Volga and Vasanth Kannabiran) the first text of feminist essays in Telugu, Sarihaddulu Leni Sandhyalu ([Twilight without Borders], Asmita 1998).
A contributor to the Routledge International Encyclopedia on Women, she has co-translated and co-edited (with Vasanth Kannabiran) Muvalur Ramirthammal’s Web of Deceit: Devadasi Reform in Colonial India (Kali for Women 2003).
Bridging the activist-academic-rights advocate spaces, her work in the fields of gender has encompassed advocacy on questions of women’s rights and LGBTQI rights, provision of legal assistance, services and training, engaging with diverse publics through op-eds in the national and regional print media, and books, monographs, and research articles in academic journals. Kalpana Kannabiran led the three-year Ford Foundation supported project on Combatting Child Marriage both at Asmita (where the advocacy and public education was located) and at CSD (where the survey research was located). A research article on causes and patterns in female age at marriage, one of the first of its kind covering all districts in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, was published in April 2017 in Economic and Political Weekly. During this period she helped conceptualize and supervised a related study of age at marriage among Muslims in Malappuram, Kerala, by a post doctoral fellow located in CSD, which was published in the in-house working paper series, Hyderabad Social Development Papers, of which she is editor.
Straddling these various spaces, she compiled and edited two successive NGO Alternative Reports on CEDAW for the National Alliance of Women-India – the 2nd & 3rd Combined Reports presented in January 2007 in New York; and the 4th & 5th Combined Reports presented in July 2014 in Geneva and has been active in lobbying on the Concluding Comments of the UN Committee on both occasions. She also led the South Asia Litigation Initiative research in India on tracking compliance to CEDAW in Indian jurisprudence, the findings of which have been published both in Economic and Political Weekly and in her edited collection on women and law. She is member of the Editorial Advisory Committee of the half yearly Review of Women’s Studies of the Economic and Political Weekly since 2011, which plans, conceptualizes and puts together the special segment for the journal.
She has a book, of which she is co-author (with Swethaa Ballakrishnen), forthcoming (2019) from Zubaan Publishers: Gender Regimes and the Politics of Privacy: Constitutional Conversations on Sociality in India, which picks up on the current debates on the right to privacy consequent on a 2016 decision of the Supreme Court of India declaring privacy to be a fundamental righ