Keeping Up the Good Fight in India

Keeping up the Good Fight: From the Emergency to the Present Day
Purkayastha, Prabir
New Delhi: LeftWord Books

Is it possible to talk of Prabir Purkayastha’s life up to now, as outlined in this memoir, without reference to his two spells in jail, one during the Emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the other during the undeclared Emergency under Prime Minister Narendra Modi that we have been living through for a decade now?

When this memoir was published in 2023, Prabir was in jail, having been arrested in October that year, following a convenient story in The New York Times repeating allegations floated by Delhi Police and the Enforcement Directorate for about two years, that among Chinese propaganda outlets funded by American tech millionaire Neville Roy Singham, was NewsClick, the online news portal helmed by Prabir. In February 2021, Prabir’s home and office had already been raided by state agencies following up on such allegations. The NYT story was immediately weaponised by the government, with the Delhi Police FIR closely mirroring the NYT story.

Prabir and NewsClick’s HR head, Amit Chakraborty were arrested under multiple sections of the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, accused of unlawful activities, terrorism, conspiracy and threatening witnesses, along with other sections of the Indian Penal Code to do with promoting enmity between groups and criminal conspiracy. NewsClick reporters were alleged to have been sent to participate in protests, to distribute money among protesters and to incite violence against the state. The only corroborative evidence regarding reporters being given money to distribute among protesters were statements by Chakraborty (wheelchair bound and not in the best of health) who had turned approver, and by two of the eight unnamed “protected witnesses”, according to a detailed report by News Laundry which studied the 169 page primary charge sheet filed by Delhi Police Special Cell in detail.

The fact is that the persistent persecution of Prabir and of NewsClick and everybody associated with it by state agencies, has to do with its unflinching coverage of massive protests such as the ones against the CAA and the farmers’ protests, among others. NewsClick is among the last remaining handful of news outlets that have not been bought over, persuaded or intimidated by the current regime and it has stood for the highest standards of journalistic ethics. Every independent media outlet of any integrity has faced harassment at the very least over the past decade, while several journalists and academics, teachers and students, have been in jail for years on trumped up charges for raising their voice against Hindutva politics and predatory crony capitalism.

In May 2024, after Prabir had spent 7 months in prison, the Supreme Court ordered his release, holding that his arrest and remand were illegal. The previous day the Supreme Court had upheld the bail order of Gautam Navlakha in another case, five months after the Bombay High Court had passed it, Navlakha being a close professional associate and friend of Prabir and also named in his case. These two releases (although conditional) so close together, raise some hope that the judiciary may be waking up to the fact that it is the last frontier of defence against a violent and authoritarian regime.

So to answer the question one began with, can Prabir’s life be spoken of without being overshadowed by his stints in jail? Obviously not. But it is not only the serious and principled defender of democracy, lifelong student of Left scholarship and long-time member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) who emerges from these pages. It is also the Prabir whose irrepressible sense of humour has a life of its own. Talking about the ED raid at his residence in February 2021, one of the longest raids of a private residence, lasting for five days, over 113 hours, he adds with a straight face, as it were, that the record for the longest raid lasting ten days, was held by one at the Jaigarh Fort of Rajmata Gayatri Devi, an estate of three square kilometres, “somewhat larger than my second floor flat.” Later, while reminiscing about anti-US protests in Calcutta during the Vietnam war, he says that Calcutta not having any mighty symbols of US power, they took their march to the US Information Service, not, he adds, “the most impressive outpost of imperialism.”

This lightness of touch prevents the memoir from becoming a self-important account of a political activist’s life, although it begins with an unflinching account of the growing authoritarianism of the Hindutva driven government and the “lawfare” it has conducted through state agencies on dissenters and the media. It spans Prabir’s coming of age as an Engineering student into a life of ideas and politics of the Left, the period of the Emergency and the politics of resistance at Jawaharlal Nehru University where he was by then a doctoral student at the School of Computer and System Sciences. From JNU he was arrested and spent a year in various jails under the other draconian law Indian democracy can boast of, the Maintenance of Internal Security Act. This arrest was really a case of mistaken identity – he was kidnapped from campus and hustled by several men into a black Ambassador car, after being asked if he was DP Tripathi, the President of the Students’ Union, which he told them he was not. Prabir’s account of what happened is so ridiculously funny that one can for a moment forget the horror of the situation. Quoting from the statement of an eye witness who later deposed before the Shah Commission, Prabir says: “This unheroic picture of my being whisked away…with my arms and legs waving in the air while my body was in the car is not an image I would like posterity to remember. In my defence, I was tall, skinny and mostly arms and legs those days.”

The chapter, “A University under Emergency” is also valuable from an archival point of view because it reproduces some leaflets of the time by the Student’s Union, by the Students’ Federation of India; and by “The Resistance”, its secret arm. It recounts the internal bitter debates among different sections of the Left on campus, which were either not in agreement over whether the Emergency was anti-democratic or on what the strategy to fight it should be. This chapter also has sections from the proceedings of the Shah Commission, set up in 1977 to probe the excesses of the Emergency, and altogether it reads like a thriller. Albeit a thriller for nerdy Leftists, a niche audience, I admit.

Prabir writes movingly about his romance with Ashoklata of the “mischievous eyes”, a fiery student leader at the time, whom he married. He quotes an account of Ashoklata’s performance in her admission interview at JNU, written about recently by a faculty member at the time, Atiya Habeeb Kidwai in JNU Stories. The First Fifty Years. Reading it as a former student of the 1980s and current faculty member of the university, one is struck by how the journey Ashoklata made, is so inspiringly familiar from so many of our students (including some jailed by this regime!):

“She broke down when the first question was put to her in English. Even our persistent assurance that she would lose no marks if she replied in Hindi could not stop her tears, and I had to take her out of the room to console her. Within a span of four years, the same Ashoklata became the Chairperson of the JNUSU Council, organised the Janwadi Mahila Samiti and addressed huge rallies at India Gate.”

Prabir’s account of his year as a prisoner will join others in this distinguished genre of writing by political dissidents globally, dwelling on himself only as part of a larger prison community both of political prisoners (of whom there were not an inconsiderable number, given the Emergency) as well as convicts and under-trials under criminal law. When he is finally released, “the pushing and shoving required to get into an unreserved compartment in Indian Railways [was] a refreshing change from my cloistered life of the last 12 months.”

The Emergency ends, Indira Gandhi loses the elections, and Prabir has to learn how to “live politics” as he puts it, through his passion for science and technology. He loses Ashoklata to a sudden cerebral haemorrhage when their son is not even two months old, and in the midst of the grief and loss he learns to be a single parent, while continuing the commitment that had brought Ashoklata and himself together.

Writing his memoirs of that period on the eve of his second stint in jail, he concludes:

“I am as old as the Indian republic…I have learnt how I can be part of my rich, diverse country, and equally, part of the fascinating, complex larger world …

People’s movements provide the larger world with its only rays of hope. And for me, in my life, they have taught me meaning and given me purpose.”

We do not know where India is headed as we go through a third term of Narendra Modi’s government, which has come to power after one of the least trusted and quite likely, most manipulated General Elections this country has seen, but we do know two things. First, that people like Prabir will always stand up to injustice, and second, that our powerful, not-so-secret weapons against state authoritarianism are the lawyers who tirelessly pursue constitutional rights in our courts.

Nivedita Menon teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.