My Friends Prabir and Amit are in Jail in India for Their Work in Media
Prabir Purkayastha holding his recent book, Knowledge as Commons. Pic: Counterpunch
On October 3, 2023, the day after MK Gandhi’s birthday, over five hundred officers of the Delhi Police fanned out across India to detain either at their Special Cell station or at their homes over a hundred journalists and researchers. They held them for interrogation for the entire day – an average of eight hours per person – and asked them if they had covered the epochal farmers’ revolt of 2020-21, the anti-Muslim violence in East Delhi in February 2020, and the disastrous government response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These three events are part of the great processes of our time, and not covering them would have been a dereliction of duty for a journalist and a researcher.
The journalists in the government’s dragnet came largely from Newsclick, a web-based news site that began in 2009; the researchers came from Tricontinental Research Services, which provides materials to Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. After an entire day of harassment and intimidation, including violence against some of the people detained, the Delhi Police arrested two men – Prabir Purkayastha and Amit Chakravarty, the founder and chief editor of Newsclick, and the portal’s human relations chief, respectively.
Both Prabir and Amit have been my friends for years. I first met Prabir about 30 years ago, when I was a young journalist and researcher in Delhi, and he was one of the key figures in the Delhi Science Forum (DSF). Sitting on one of the little desks in the DSF office in Saket (it was in J block, I think), I met with Dr. Amit Sengupta (who died tragically in 2018) and Prabir. Amit Sengupta was a leading advocate for better public health systems, having edited Drug Industry and the Indian People, 1986, and Prabir is an engineer who had led the fight for building public energy systems that would place people before profit. We talked about the 1986 General Agreement of Trade and Tariffs round, which seemed to change the rules for intellectual property rights; the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, would be established as international law in 1995. I remember being dazzled by their intellect, by their great love for people, and by their sense of humour (Amit and Prabir both have distinctive laughs).
Prabir, Amit Sengupta, and others like them in the Delhi Science Forum built a research agenda to favour the 1948 Charter of the UN Education, Science, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), whose Article 27 says, “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” The charter was signed by 194 countries, that’s all the countries in the world, which obliges them to follow its mandate.
Restrictive intellectual property laws go against the UNESCO Charter, which is often ignored. But not by people like Prabir, who played a part in the first All-India Peoples Science Congress in 1988 that established the All-India Peoples Science Network, and later who played a part in building and then leading (as President) the Free Software Movement of India.
In 2002, Prabir and I published a book on the scam led by the Enron Corporation to build a liquified natural gas plant in India – Enron Blowout: Corporate Capitalism and the Theft of the Global Commons. A few years later, at the Mumbai World Social Forum, which Prabir helped organize, we were able to share our ideas on this kind of tech-led scam before thousands of people.
Prabir, who built a professional life as an engineer, remains nonetheless one of the fiercest advocates for the democratization of science and technology. His new book from LeftWord Books – Knowledge as Commons: Towards Inclusive Science and Technology (2023) – builds on a lifetime of battle to make sure that the gains of science and technology are not held by a few but are owned by everyone.
As the US war on Iraq steadily destabilised West Asia, and as the hybrid war on Iran began to escalate, a group of us (Prabir, Aijaz Ahmad, D. Raghunandan, myself, and others) discussed the need to create a media outlet in India that focused on these issues. In the basement of a house, with the books of Aijaz as the backdrop, with a camera bought by Prabir and another by Aijaz, Newsclick was born. Here, we would gather in the evening – when everybody left their actual places of employment – and we would interview each other about West Asia and about science. “Hello and welcome to Newsclick. Today we have with us Professor Aijaz Ahmad,” I can hear that opening in my head, and heard it today as I watched Prabir being taken to prison, tears in my eyes.
Newsclick was one of the few outlets in India to seriously cover the events in West Asia and North Africa, particularly in Iraq and in Iran (around the US pressure campaign over nuclear energy from 2006). Raghu, Satyajit Rath, and Prabir – along with a host of others – introduced us to current debates in the world of science and technology, wondrous ideas about tremendous possibilities.
Over the years, Newsclick grew to become one of the most important voices that covered people-centered news. It was well-known that the main people involved in Newsclick were from the Left, and it was well-known that the coverage from Newsclick took seriously the views of people’s movements and of people’s lives. As Newsclick began to cover India more seriously, the website became one of the few places that paid attention to the struggles of workers, peasants, women, Dalits, Adivasis, and others who were fighting to make the country a better place.
Over the past three years, journalists across India working for mainstream publications would go to Newsclick to read up on the strikes of workers and the struggles of caregivers, on the waves of farmers’ protests and the uprisings of Dalits and Adivasis, as well as of the severe attack on Muslims in general and on Kashmiris in particular. The site built a remarkable body of work, a catalogue of protests inside India to deepen democracy against a democracy that the writer Arundhati Roy recently said is being “systematically disassembled.” When the journalists whose heart beats with the people are silenced, then it becomes impossible to even know if the people are struggling to brighten their country.
In February 2021, India’s Enforcement Directorate launched raids on eight locations associated with Newsclick. The raid on Prabir’s house lasted for 113 hours. It was a gruelling process, the agents of the State interested in financing that Newsclick had received and alleging that Newsclick had been paid by foreign interests to undermine India. The idea that reporting on farmers’ protests and workers’ strikes is against India is to immediately suggest that Indian farmers and workers are not Indian. In an interview shortly after this ordeal, Prabir was asked about the funds that had allowed Newsclick to grow. Prabir’s answer is instructive:
“The investments that have come are public—on the balance sheets of the company, and that have come through the Reserve Bank of India. Now, our income—today, foreign investment up to 26 percent is legal in digital platforms. Our foreign investment is much lower than that, around nine percent. There was nothing illegal about it in any case because till then, there was no bar on foreign investment in digital platforms. So, what is the issue I have not understood? Why is this being raised, even that I don’t understand.”
The Role of the New York Times
The case against Newsclick and Prabir continued, as the harassment did over Tricontinental Research Services. The harassment seemed to be the punishment. Low-level officers of the intelligence services and the police suggested that there was no evidence of any crime, but that they were being pushed to keep the investigation alive. The case remained alive, but it appeared as if the final destination for the journalists was Purgatory and not Hell.
But then the New York Times (August 5, 2023) appeared with a hallucinatory article on the foundations funded by Neville Roy Singham, who had made his money in the tech industry and who had decided to give his money away – unlike the normal fashion – without fanfare. There is no Singham Foundation, no Singham anything really. Roy’s idea was to give his millions away to enhance media that covered people’s voices and to build left-wing institutions around the world. Nothing in any of this is illegal. The story by the Times was built on public information but pretended to be a major scoop that revealed the existence of a network guided by the Chinese government. The article is incoherent, but it had its impact.
The day after the Times article came out, India’s Minister of Information and Broadcasting Anurag Thakur held a press conference, where he launched another attack on Newsclick. Now, the Times article had said explicitly that the Modi government had raided Newsclick and accused it of having “ties to the Chinese government but offering no proof.” The Times linked to their own article from 2020 with a headline, “Under Modi, India’s Press is Not So Free Anymore.” But the Times allowed itself to be a weapon in the hands of people like Thakur.
The entire fracas in India was not even about Newsclick but about the leader of the Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi. Gandhi’s popularity has been rising due to his Bharat Jodo Yatra (2022-2023), when he walked from one end of India to the other to argue for a different dispensation for the country. A fierce attack on Modi’s proximity to the businessman Gautam Adani – whose businesses have been shown to be financed by a fraudulent scheme (as reported by the Financial Times in August 2023) – led to Gandhi being disqualified from parliament in March 2023. On August 7, thanks to the intervention of the Indian Supreme Court, Rahul Gandhi was to return to Parliament. Thakur used the New York Times article to argue that Rahul Gandhi was somehow related to Newsclick and, therefore, to Singham. None of this is true, but it was useful political theatre with Newsclick as the collateral damage.
Ten days after Thakur’s press conference, and after news media in India published leaked (by the government) emails from Roy to Prabir and myself, the Delhi Police filed a suo motu case against Prabir and Amit under the hugely draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act [UAPA] (in 2022, the Foundation of Media Professionals filed a motion in the Indian Supreme Court saying that this Act has “manifestly arbitrary” provisions and has a very broad definition of “unlawful activity”). The raids of the houses and the arrests of Prabir and Amit were conducted under the shadow of this UAPA law. “This is India’s McCarthy-like moment,” said former editor of The Hindu N. Ram to one of India’s leading television anchors Rajdeep Sardesai. “This is an attack on the freedom of the press,” Ram said.
Prabir, age 76, and Amit are now in custody. They are both people of great sensitivity, who has spent their entire lives trying to make the world a better place. My friends are in prison. Since this case started, Prabir would laugh and say that he prefers to cover stories than to be the story, a line that journalists often use. A few weeks ago, Prabir (a frequent contributor to CounterPunch) and I spoke about his new book for Peoples Dispatch, where he reminisced about how we “used to sit in that little basement of ours.”
I remember those days fondly. We believed in building a press that would be alive to the needs of workers and peasants and would be instructed by the need for peace and not war. That’s the press we wanted then, and it is the press we need now.
India sits at 161 out of the 180 countries counted in the World Press Freedom Index. As more and more Indian journalists become a guest of the State, India will likely slip all the way to the bottom.
Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.
Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022). The views are personal.
Get the latest reports & analysis with people's perspective on Protests, movements & deep analytical videos, discussions of the current affairs in your Telegram app. Subscribe to NewsClick's Telegram channel & get Real-Time updates on stories, as they get published on our website.