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Political Autobiography of a Midnight’s Child | John Dayal

Saturday 17 February 2024, by John Dayal


Book Review

Keeping Up The Good Fight

From The Emergency To The Present Day

by Prabir Purkayastha

LeftWord Books, New Delhi
2023, 230 pages

For any of his contemporaries born in a freshly minted independent India, Prabir Purkayastha’s book, “Keeping Up The Good Fight”, is a total recall, in lightning-fast picture flash cards, of the last sixty-years of our own life after leaving school. With the difference that Prabir bookends the narrative between his two arrests and incarcerations by two powerful regimes separated by half a century.

Most of us may have, in our own mind, led similar but certainly less intense lives. But we have never been arrested or incarcerated by dictatorial regimes. He has been. Twice.

He shares those experiences and insights with the reader in elegant prose of a consummate writer, not just one of the country’s most experienced engineer-scientists in the critical area of controls in nuclear and other power plants.

He speaks of the most awful experiences with a matter-of-factness that dismisses his own trauma; and with a self-deprecating humour that sharply brings out the cruelty, the absurdities, of life in jail, and in the political arena where he has, been an active participant, not an observer.

Indira Gandhi’s government arrested him from the lawns of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in a case of mistaken identity, which however didn’t shorten his one year in jail under MISA, the Maintenance of Internal Security Act.

The Narendra Modi regime has arrested Prabir under UAPA, the Unlawful Activities Prevent Act, from the Delhi offices of NewsKlick, one of the few independent news platforms in these times, which he had founded some gut-feel that it would be needed not too far in the future.

NewsKlick has been perceptively documenting momentous movements which challenged the regime, forced it to call back black laws such as the anti-farmer Bills. It has, with integrity and finesse, brought to us stories of the suffering of Individuals and communities in times of purblind and bigoted governance. And NewsKlick’s video and short films beget respect for the struggles of the common people reclaiming their human dignity. “Struggles and victories like these keep people’s movements and the will of the people alive,” he writes.

But it is not of NewsKlick that he talks, though its output — a repository of our times — was the trigger the government used to cook up a case of receiving funds for spreading pro-China propaganda.

The backdrop is the Emergencies, then and now. Prabir gives a foreshortened glimpse of his own coming of age from an asthmatic second son of a city-hopping Indian Revenue Service officer through cities such as Calcutta, Allahabad, Kanpur and Lucknow till he made Delhi his base and home.

Of all the places, he is most nostalgic, it would seem, of the JNU, where he marked his presence both as a student trying to write a complex these on an emerging area of science, and as a non-student involved in the political debates. It is here that he also opens his heart, tenderly speaking of his wooing of the young woman and student union leader, Ashoka, who he would eventually marry at the end of his first jail term. Tender but with a moist humour that would make you put a red emoji on it, if it were a Facebook post. The book is dedicated to Ashoka, who passed away soon after giving birth to their son.

In retrospect, Prabir mentions the young Naxalites — with whom he clashed politically in college, and whose ideology he blames for the split in the Marxist movement — with a sense of respect. But spelling out his own pacifism, he is scathing in his criticism of violence as an instrument of change.

“To the Naxalites, Indian independence had not happened, and India was still semi-feudal, semi-colonial, and its bourgeoisie was completely parasitic or comprador. I disagreed with this politically, as also the CPI’s understanding that the Congress was fundamentally changing Indian feudalism and travelling possibly towards a non-capitalist path. One grossly overestimated feudalism and the other underestimated capitalist forces in India,”

In the present times, the Left is working as a coalition, with the Marxist party, the Communist Party of India, the CPI-M Marxist-Leninist, and the Forward block still in government in Kerala and in earlier long stints in Tripura and Bengal. Prabir remains an active member of the CPM.

The book, as promised in the title, is an illustrated analysis of the difference between the Emergency that Indira Gandhi declared in June 1975, after the Allahabad High court declared her election to the Lok Sabha void because of her use of unfair means, and the “undeclared Emergency” that the people of India experience in the two terms of the National Democratic alliance led by Narendra Modi. It is illustrated not that it has cartoons, graphics, or photographs — other than one of Prabir’s parents and of his late wife was a CPM leader in her own right in the women’s movement where she was a contemporary of Brinda Karat. But imbedded in it are shining nuggets and insights on various facets of politics and life spinning half a century.

As a reporter in Delhi those days, I entirely agree with him that the people at first seem to have approved of the Emergency; then rejected it summarily when they found an opportunity — the 1977 elections called by Mrs Gandhi.

They had borne the brunt of the extra-constitutional coterie that actually ruled India, chaired by her younger son Sanjay, and his henchmen in the bureaucracy such as Jagmohan, later governor and central minister, and policemen PS Bhinder, later Delhi Police Commissioner, political thugs such as Arjan Das, Sajjan Kumar, and hordes of others who sought the fruits of power. This is the group that planned the mass demolitions and settlement of the old “bastis” in Delhi and ordered mass sterilisations in the country at least in north India, their main playground.

“These ‘ordinary’ people were the real protagonists of the rejection. The real significance of the Emergency lies in the confidence the Indian people gained in 1977: the people could teach their leaders a lesson if they strayed beyond the permissible.”

Prabir himself was an indirect victim of Sanjay Gandhi’s wrath. Sanjay Gandhi’s young wife Maneka was a student at JNU and was blocked from going to her class by student union leaders who had organised a protest. Maneka went home, complained to her husband who ordered Bhinder to arrest the guilty students. Binder commandeered a police car, formed a posse, drove to the campus, physically picked up Prabir from the lawns where he was sitting, shoved him into the car and drove off. They soon discovered they had the wrong young man. They were hunting for student union president, D P Tripathi. Instead of admitting they had made a mistake and letting Prabir go, Bhinder invoked MISA, sending him to prison for a year.

Today, Modi is the Prime minister, but around him is an unseen coterie of non-state actors who saturate social media with brain-numbing hate, bending the minds of young and old to accepting the Leader Modi as a vishwaguru and a demigod. The Prime Minister’s Office is once again the single point controller, with nary a person of the stature of PN Haksar who could, and would, caution India Gandhi.

Unfettered by any democratic, secular, or liberal tempering, government is now at the mercy of a nucleus that devices ever new ways to build up the image of the boss, while curtailing, if not eliminating, any resistance. Thousands of crores of rupees have been spent advertising Modi as the all-powerful superman who sleeps but two hours a day and singlehandedly oversees economy, development, and defence.

Another point of comparison between then and now is the Modi regime’s use of government agencies to harass or intimidate critics, whether individuals or organisations, as well as opposition parties and political figures. Every day, there are reports of hounding and harassment through police cases and investigative agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Economic Offences Wing (EOW) or the NIA (National Investigation Agency). FIRs are filed by a huge number of people making the targeted person run from court to court in half a dozen states. Subordinate judges are not beyond been scared by the might of the political leader.

“I think that’s one clear distinction between the Emergency then and the ‘emergency’ now. Control by the state blends seamlessly with the intimidation unleashed by the ground-level stormtroopers. During the 1975 Emergency, the Sanjay Gandhi Goon Brigade was not an organised movement; the Emergency did not have an organised force supporting the government on the streets.”

The ground-level stormtroopers on the rampage now are different, and their reach too is more wide-ranging — from censorship with bullets, of scholars and rationalists, to gau-rakshaks trolling on social media. They are an adjunct to the state, involved in actual physical violence, including lynching, in the name of protecting cows.

But, says Prabir, the critical difference between then and now is at the fundamental level of ideology. The Congress ideology did not view certain sections of the people as outsiders, to be treated either as second-class citizens or excluded from citizens’ rights.

The Congress was not following the Savarkar thesis which plays out today both formally and informally: Minorities can remain in the country but only as second-class citizens. Since 2014, there has been a dramatic increase in what we can only call hate crimes. Muslims have been the target in a significant number of these crimes; Dalits, Adivasis and women form part of the list as well, as do secular activists.

The structure of the state is apparently the same; but it is being hollowed out. There is an organised force that has risen to complement state power. This organised force takes on any resistance that comes from the people, and there is a compact between the state and this kind of intimidation politics. It’s important to remember that these forces do not comprise fringe elements; they are a significant political force in the country, they are ‘mainstream’.

Prabir reminds readers that the role of the RSS-BJP is quite often overlooked in this story. “It has been forgotten that L.K. Advani and Atal Behari Vajpayee sat on a dharna asking for armed forces to be sent into the Golden Temple. The RSS cadre supported the Congress and participated in the anti-Sikh riots. The RSS supported the Congress in the 1984 elections. According to an RSS pracharak, it is the first time the Hindus had acted as Hindus post-independence, and so the RSS felt that Hindu consolidation — because of the anti-Sikh riots — required a vote for Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress. This Hindu consolidation would help them later.”

In 2019, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 was amended and now has ‘special measures’ to deal with terrorism, including shifting the burden of proof onto the accused, and making bail the exception, not the rule.

“The draconian nature of UAPA has been amply proved by the Bhima Koregaon case in which as many as 16 citizens, activists and teachers and writers among them, have been arrested and held without a trial. One of these 16 political prisoners, 84 year old Jesuit Fr Stan Swamy, an activist for Adivasi rights, died in detention. Five out of the 15 — Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Anand Teltumbde, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves — are out of jail on bail. Gautam Navlakha is under house arrest. The others continue to languish in jail.

UAPA can now be used against individuals who are labelled terrorists. The amendment violates the principle of innocence till proven guilty, as also the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1967).

Prabir is in jail now under this law. He knew that sooner or later he would be arrested by the Modi government. He has studied the law in detail. “No objective criterion has been laid for categorisation, and the government has been provided with “unfettered powers” to declare an individual as a terrorist.”

Prabir writes towards the end of the 200 page main script, “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. All I need to do is fight for a better world for all. Living politics needs, of course, a firm commitment to struggling for equality — in the broadest emancipatory sense — and justice for all, both within the country and among countries. But on a day-to-day basis, living politics means sustained work to build movements; to build a strong network, an alliance of movements. 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.


(Prabir Purkayastha was arrested under UAPA soon after completing this manuscript. He remains in jail at the time of this review of his book.)

[This review appeared first in The Federal and reproduced here for non-commercial use]

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