“Prabir Purkayastha’s Memoir”

Emergency Then and Now

Joydip Ghosal

Prabir Purkayastha was incarcerated by two regimes. Both are authoritarian and tend to suppress any kind of dissent. Both the incarceration happened half a century apart. His book Keeping Up the Good Fight From the Emergency to The Present Day (Leftword) is a personal narrative but it is inalienably linked to the tumultuous events of the time which makes it a compelling account. He is a science activist in software, power and telecom sector. He is the author of Knowledge as Commons: Towards inclusive Science and Technology. Along with Ninan Koshy, MK Bhadrakumar he wrote Uncle Sam’s Nuclear Cabin. With Vijay Prasad he co- authored Enron Blowout: Corporate Capitalism and Theft of the Global Commons. Apart from that he is the co-editor with Richa Chintan and Indranil of Political Journeys in Health: Essays by and for Amit Sengupta.

RomilaThapar aptly says “Prabir Purkayastha’s memoir” recalls the past, with thoughtful comments on the present, and hopefully he will be free to project his vision of the future. “Sanjay Hegde wrote that the book was written in the twilight zone between the registration of criminal cases against his news portal and the arrest on 3 October, 2023.According to him the entire case today seems to be as insubstantial as in 1975.

The book began with the quotations by Karl Marx and B R Ambedkar. The quotation by B R Ambedkar “They cannot make history who forget history “resonated throughout the book. Foreword by Lalita Ramdas succinctly summed up the spirit of this memoir – the personal is political, the political is also the personal. The book helps the readers to traverse the complex maze of contemporary political dynamics. They also witness the warp and weft of different elements that ultimately shaped and define the worldview of a person who wanted to be a committed political activist. Powers-that-be tried to intimidate the person who raised his voices. This book is a saga of relentless fight against majoritarian regimes written in unpretentious style. According to Lalita Ramdas as a techno professional he had used technology and media to tell the most important stories of present times, especially through a visual medium. He holds within himself deeply held convictions about justice and equality for all and it had caused tremendous impact upon him to eschew conventional path and use unorthodox trajectory using media as a powerful tool “to attract those who might not, otherwise, hear many of these stories in any other forum.” Prabir asked a pertinent question when he named his first chapter “Does every generation have to face emergency”?

 On September 25, 1975 the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi had called for a strike. Ashoklata Jain, an elected councillor of students’ union had faced expulsion. The strike was against this expulsion. Three months before an emergency was declared and on the second day of the strike cops in mufti abducted Prabir Purkayastha. He was on the lawn of the School of Languages that morning. A black ambassador stopped near them and a burly man got out. He came up to him and asked him if he was D P Tripathi, the president of student union. He replied that he was not. The questioner was DIG – range cop P S Bhinder. In broad daylight he and his associates abducted him. He spent next one year in jail. On February 9, 2021 ED raided his home. Their target was the digital web platform News click. He had set up the platform in 2009 and it had grown over the years in terms of viewership and expansion. The raid continued for 113 hours. In truth it was one of the longest raids. Previously in Jaigarh fort of Rajmata Gayatri Devi a raid was conducted which lasted for nearly ten days.

The emergency was promulgated on June 25, 1975. It remained in force till March 21, 1977. Preventive detention and widespread arrests muzzled the existing democracy. A sense of paranoia, persecution was prevalent in the air. In truth fear psychosis gripped the entire society. According to the author fundamental rights were curtailed to the extent that they seemed in those months non- existent. That was a shocking development because till the emergency India boasted of its democratic tradition. The author described it thus “It was as if , in one stroke, dissent, free speech and all the other characteristics of democracy could be struck down by the administrative machinery of the state.” But he stressed that it was not a matter of one stroke which was swift and prompt. Rather a host of matters exacerbated the creation of authoritarian regime. Today when young people asked him how emergency could happen there was more urgent counter question he asked himself. “Are we in the midst of another emergency by another name?” It was like the old emergency in some ways. It had its own unique features. Today with increasing use of state machinery against rights activists, progressives and minorities an atmosphere of hatred and threat had gradually built up in the country. Riding on the wave of majoritarian propaganda vigilantism coupled with arm twisting policies made the situation grimmer. In this book he tried to find out how this hatred driven attack, detention, trolling and the spurts of violence began. The politics that is based on hate is restricted to the narrow vision of society. The diabolical plan of muzzling people is quite different from earlier emergency. The reprehensible plan is to remould the state without any dissidence. Stan Swamy’s case is a glaring example. It wants to create a culture of petty subservience. Repressive organs of the state try to control every aspect of life.

 In order to discern the changing nature of authoritarian regimes this book is an essential read.

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Vol 56, No. 41, Apr 7 - 13, 2024