Prabir Purkayastha: Voice of resistance

Blending memoir with political history, Purkayastha chronicles his media career from the Emergency to the present “undeclared emergency” in this book.

Published : Feb 22, 2024 01:02 IST - 7 MINS READ

Prabir Purkayastha speaking on Social Media and Constitutional Rights, in Hyderabad on March 25, 2018.

Prabir Purkayastha speaking on Social Media and Constitutional Rights, in Hyderabad on March 25, 2018. | Photo Credit: K.V.S. Giri

Does a democracy automatically guarantee freedoms or do those freedoms need to be fought for? Progressive sections in the Indian media believe that a fettered media is a fettered democracy. There is also no denying that the last one decade coinciding with the installation of a new government in 2014 has proven that even the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms cannot be taken for granted and need to be defended. This has also been one of the most testing times for journalists, academics, and activists in the country.

Keeping up the Good Fight: From the Emergency to the Present Day
Prabir Purkayastha
LeftWord Books
Pages: 229
Price: Rs. 425

Targeting of journalists by individuals is not new, but when the state becomes partisan, as it did during the Emergency, such targeting assumes a completely different dimension. People have been booked under draconian laws that presume guilt over innocence, or arrested for alleged economic offences where the process itself is the punishment. Where dissent has not been jailed, the troll army bullies into submission any position that is not supportive of the ruling party.

In mid-January this year, Prabir Purkayastha, an engineer by training and a mediaperson by circumstance, completed hundred days in jail. The founder of the online news portal NewsClick, Purkayastha was booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), for alleged anti-national activities. His arrest was viewed as a message to mediapersons, especially those in the digital media, to fall in line.

Also Read | Why UAPA is a threat to media freedom in India

Purkayastha is no stranger to political harassment and witch-hunts. As old as independent India, the 75-year-journalist narrates his political journey in this book, published by LeftWord. Purkayastha draws parallels between the Emergency and what is loosely called the ‘undeclared emergency’ that characterises present times. There was authoritarianism then and there is authoritarianism now. The central agencies were used then and are being used now. A large section of the media was compliant then; today the entire mainstream media, barring some notable exceptions, are.

If Emergency 1.0 had MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act), Emergency 2.0 has the UAPA, a legislation brought by the Congress but strengthened and put to good use by the present government. Amendments to the Act in 2019 placed the burden of proof on the accused, making bail the exception rather than the rule.

On September 25, 1975, three months after proclamation of the Emergency, the Delhi police picked up Purkayastha from the JNU campus, where he was a student. He was a student activist and a close friend of one of the office bearers of the JNU Students’ Union (whom he later married). It was a case of kidnapping, of mistaken identity as the police were looking for the union president D.P. Tripathi, a member of the Students’ Federation of India. DPT, as he was called, was closely allied with the student politics of the Left, years before he gravitated to the Congress and then took over as general secretary of the Nationalist Congress Party. The police later picked up Tripathi.

JNU was known to be a bastion of Left presence and students of all leftist hues had organised strikes and protests within the campus against the Emergency, the preventive detentions and the crushing of dissent and protest. It was not easy for the police to enter the campus. But they did, on the pretext that some students were stopping others from attending classes.

In this particular case it was on the alleged complaint of Maneka Gandhi, then an undergraduate student, that the police entered the campus. Despite the mistaken identity, Purkayastha was jailed for a full one year under MISA and even kept in solitary confinement briefly. It was his first bout with incarceration.

In his memoir he narrates how he got the chance to meet a range of political persons from Socialists like Surendra Mohan to Jana Sangh members. Some from the latter category went on to become BJP ministers like the late Arun Jaitley, former Union minister Murli Manohar Joshi and the late O.P. Kohli, former Rajya Sabha member. In the book, he narrates overtures by the RSS to the Congress government for an earlier release of their members. But those are among the minor highlights of the book.

The book details the sum of experiences that shaped his understanding over the years. Beginning with his own transition from comfortable middle-class Bengali moorings, the book traces his journey and exposure to a world of ideas that led him to become a political activist of the CPI(M), a party he continues to be a member of. “The real question is about the side of history that you are on,” he writes. What is the “good fight’” or why is it necessary to keep up the good fight and who is to fight the good fight are some of the questions he poses. He says that he has no desire to become the news and is clear that the “good fight” does not begin or end with him.

Also Read | Crackdown on NewsClick signals erosion of democratic values

The book, a kind of a personal and political memoir traces his evolution as a person who is fairly equipped with a sense of justice, scientific inquiry, and fair play, all of which gets further expression and an outlet in being part of the Left and its understanding of society. Even as the book contrasts the two periods, Purkayastha writes that it is important to be mindful of the “larger context of 75 years of the secular, diverse, democratic, constitution-guided republic of India.”

He recalls the murders of people like the rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and the scholar M.M. Kalburgi, the trade unionist and rationalist Govind Pansare, and the journalist Gauri Lankesh, and the arrests of sixteen activists and academics under the UAPA in what is now known as the Bhima Koregaon case. All of those killed or arrested stood, in their own way, for reason, and the democratic right to protest, and challenged reactionary, sectarian, and right-wing Hindutva. In these Right-dominated times, cow protection vigilantism, assault on inter-faith marriages and the demonisation of minorities became par for the course.

Also Read | Assault on NewsClick marks the lowest point for media freedom in India since Emergency

Purkayastha launched NewsClick in 2009 and did not view it as doing anything unique. It covered, as did some other digital platforms and mainstream media outlets, the “assaults on people, livelihood and reason” and the public protests that took place in response. Many of these incidents, cumulatively, galvanized writers, artists, educationists, and other members of the intellectual class to come out of their comfort zones. The scientific community, of which Purkayastha was a part, also did its bit.

NewsClick also ran reports and opinions that would otherwise not make it to the mainstream media. To illustrate the conscious exclusion of certain kinds of reports in the media and perhaps the class character of the media, Purkayastha writes that he used to always find it “disturbing that when workers march in the city, news reports were too often about the traffic jams they caused, rather than their demands.”

But he also acknowledges that some sections of the mainstream media that were pro-government previously reported on excess COVID-19 deaths in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh which they paid a heavy price in the form of income tax raids across their offices.

The book contains seven chapters, two annexures and a foreword by Lalita Ramdas. When Purkayastha was writing the book, NewsClick had already been raided twice by Central agencies under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. The charges have been contested in court. And on October 3, 2023, Purkayastha himself was arrested along with a colleague. (The arrest has also been challenged in court.) Two weeks later, the company’s accounts were frozen, ensuring that none of the Newsclick staff could be paid in the new year.

Purkayastha is currently in jail, after repeated extensions of his judicial custody. He has health issues but his spirit is unbroken, as is the spirit of those associated with him. NewsClick continues to publish despite a freeze on its funds. The day the book was released at the Press Club of India in New Delhi, the hall was overflowing with friends, colleagues and sympathisers.

Those who know Purkayastha are familiar with his wit. His writing is laced with generous doses of his characteristic wit and infallible faith in the people of India. If the attack in the present times is more pervasive, he writes, so is the resistance. Ordinary people were the protagonists of the rejection of the Emergency in 1977. It is these people, he adds, who will “teach their leaders a lesson if they strayed beyond the permissible.”

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