People's Union for Civil Liberties

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History of PUCL

India: Nehru takes initiative

In early 1936 Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to a large number of political leaders and intellectuals about his idea of the need of a non-political and broad based civil liberties organisation for purposes of collecting and disseminating information and educating the masses. This culminated in the founding of the Indian Civil Liberties Union on August 24, 1936. This was followed by the formation of Unions at Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, and in Punjab as its units. Rabindranath Tagore was the first Honorary President of the ICLU and Sarojini Naidu the President. KB Menon of the present day Kerala was appointed as the General Secretary. Rammanohar Lohia, M Venkatarangaiah, S Pratap Reddy made important contributions to popularise the concepts of civil liberties by writing booklets, articles, and pamphlets.

The Formation of Congress governments in some provinces resulted in a decline of initiatives of the Congress workers and slowly the first chapter of civil liberties movement in India came to a close.

The Seventies

It took about twenty-eight years for the second chapter to begin. The idea to form such a rights organisation in West Bengal took seed in 1968 resulting in the formation of the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) in Calcutta in 1970. The Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) was formed in 1974, and the Organisation for Protection of Democratic Rights (OPDR) in 1977 at Hyderabad. The Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR) and Lokshahi Haq Sanghathana were formed in 1977 and 1979 respectively in Bombay.


Indira Gandhi imposed internal Emergency in the country in 1975. Thousand of people were detained without trial; news was censored; private premises, telephones, letters were trespassed without legal authority and, above all, even the right to life could not be enforced by the courts. The 43rd amendment to the Constitution, drastically curtailed the rights and liberties of the people and the scope as also the powers of the courts, in the name of national crisis.

It became apparent, very soon, that this was a sinister step that would destroy the democratic fiber of the country and concentrate unlimited power in the hands of the Prime Minister,who would be then accountable to none.

Jaya Prakash Narayan called for a movement against this tyranny. This was the beginning of the third chapter in the history of the civil liberties movement. Lakhs of people joined the massive protest rallies on the call of JP’s movement and thronged the meetings organised by him. Mass opinion was mobilised in favour of safeguarding the Indian democracy.

The Precursors

Jaya Prakash Narayan founded an organisation by the name of the Citizens for Democracy on April 13, 1974 with Jayaprakash as its President and VM Tarkunde as the General Secretary. After JP’s death (Justice) MC Chagla (Rtd.) became its President. The CFD was established as a result of the mass movement built up by JP in response to the political and economic crisis in which the country had been plunged, before the Emergency was declared. JP founded the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights (PUCLDR), in 1976. This organisation was meant to be complementary to the Citizens for Democracy (CFD). Now, the idea was to make the PUCLDR, unlike the CFD, an organisation free from political ideologies, so that people belonging to various political parties may come together on one platform for the defence of Civil Liberties and Human Rights. Era Sezhiyan was made the Convenor of a committee to set-up PUCLDR.

A national seminar was held on October 17, 1976. It was inaugurated by Acharya JB Kripalani. The PUCLDR was a loosely organised group of people who were working with JP. V. M. Tarkunde was elected as President and Krishan Kant as General Secretary.

The Emergency was lifted in 1977. The Janata Party, formed with the blessings of JP, came to power.

A very large number of people who had worked with him assumed power at the centre and an impression started floating that now the liberties of the people were secure. The dynamic element in the PUCLDR subsided. The Delhi branch of the PUCLDR, however, remained active under the leadership of Gobind Mukhoty.

During this time, the police and the governments of states like Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Kerala, Bihar, Orissa, and Punjab started claiming ‘encounter killings’ of ‘naxalites’ with alarming frequency. A fear that these could be cold blooded murders covered up as ‘encounters’, made Jaya Prakash Narayan set-up the Andhra Pradesh Civil Rights Committee comprising V M Tarkunde, Arun Shourie, Nabakrishna Chowdhury, MV Ramamurthy, Kaloji Narayan Rao, BG Verghese, Balwant Reddy, K Pratap Reddy, and KG Kannabiran. This Committee recorded extensive evidence and issued two reports in May and June 1977, establishing the fact, and giving the details, of the killing of 16 young boys labelled as “naxalites”.

These findings of the Committee that the boys had actually been arrested by the police from different places and then killed while in police custody provoked wide spread anger in the country and there were demands for setting up an official commission of enquiry to look into these alleged murders. The Andhra Government, therefore, appointed a Commission, headed by Mr. Justice Bhargava. KG Kannabiran and MV Ramamurthy who then presented the findings of the committee about these so called ‘encounter killings’ before the Commission. In the middle of the enquiry, the state government suddenly declared that its sittings would be in-camera. Kannabiran and Ramamurthy withdrew out of protest and the Commission was wound-up. It has, though, been established beyond doubt that the facts presented before the Commission were incontrovertible.

Birth of the PUCL

Jaya Prakash Narayan died on October 8, 1979, after a prolonged kidney problem.

The year 1980 saw the return of Indira Gandhi to power. Her government resumed its assaults on rights of the people. Efforts were made to once again put some life in the PUCLDR and to bring about co-operation among various civil liberties groups. Learning a lesson from the past experience, it was decided that the organisation should be put on a more firm footing. A conference of all those interested in the cause of civil liberties was called. A consensus emerged among civil liberties activists and various political parties that such an organisation should remain non-partisan. The organisation was re-christened as the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). This founding conference, held in 23rd November 1980, also drafted and adopted the Constitution of the PUCL on November 23, 1980 and made it a membership based organisation, aiming to have branches all over the country. The Constitution laid down that the members of a political party will not have the right to hold any office if they joined the organisation; the number of members, belonging to political parties, in the national or state executive committees shall not be more than 50% of the members of the National Council and the National Executive Committee (and also of the corresponding bodies at the state and local level). Not more than 10% shall be members of any single political party.

This founding conference elected V. M. Tarkunde as its President and Arun Shourie as the General Secretary. Later, Y. P. Chhibbar was appointed as Executive Secretary. Those elected as President and General Secretary(ies) in the following year(s) were: President : VM Tarkunde (1982 to 1984); Rajni Kothari (1984 to 1986); Rajindar Sachar (1986 to 1995); KG Kannabiran (1995, continuing). General Secretary: Arun Shourie (1982 to 1986); Rajni Kothari (1982 to 1984); YP Chhibbar (1984, continuing); Dalip S Swami (1986 to 1990). VM Tarkunde was named Advisor in 1986.The National office of the PUCL is being run from the residence of YP Chhibbar since 1981.

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