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For Prabir: No Jail Can Arrest March of Time Towards More Just Tomorrow

Prabir’s ever-growing legacy continues to inspire the struggle for Indian intellectual and material self-reliance, regardless of the misguided attempts of the RSS-BJP to throttle and subjugate the masses’ aspirations for a better and more inclusive tomorrow.

Image credit: LeftWord Books

On December 2 and 3 of 1984, a toxic mix of gases leaked from the Union Carbide Pesticide Plant into the city of Bhopal, in what has come to be known as one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. The leak spread across 40 sq km of the city, covering 36 of Bhopal’s 56 municipal wards. Over 5.5 lakh people have come to be affected in the immediate aftermath of this disaster that resulted in the wanton death of over 20,000 men, women, and children. Between December 9 and 11, a fact-finding team from the Delhi Science Forum comprising Prabir Purkayastha and Dinesh Abrol, both then young engineers and founding members of the DSF, was tasked with formulating a technical analysis of the disaster.

Over the span of two days, the team visited the regions around the plant that was the hardest hit in this episode of wholesale murder sponsored by the logics of corporate greed; they spoke with survivors, with workers who manned the plant, and with local journalists, politicians, social workers, and doctors, amongst others. The outcome of this investigation was a landmark – it provided the basis for much of the demands that were raised by popular mass movements to follow, including on matters relating to industrial licensing and the regulation of occupational safety. When on December 4, 1985, an oleum gas leakage took place in India’s capital from a factory operated by the Shriram Food and Fertilisers resulting in the hospitalisation of more than 700 of Delhi’s residents, the Supreme Court of India appointed a three-member Expert Committee including DSF’s Prabir Purkayastha to examine the leak and suggest corrective measures. The subsequent case and ruling are said to be a landmark case in environmental jurisprudence. However, it remains to be noted that neither Union Carbide Corporation nor Dow Chemical Company – the American multinational who having acquired all of UCC’s assets and liabilities in 2001 now owns the company – have ever been held to account; Warren Anderson, chief executive of UCC at the time of the disaster never stood trial, and passed away on a Florida beach at the age of 92. India’s political and juridical establishments stand complicit in this contravention of justice.

It is this same Prabir Purkayastha that the Delhi Police has now arrested in a case registered under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, despite the decades he has spent in furthering the cause of an independent and sovereign Indian polity. On October 3, 2023, in an authoritarian display of governmental malfeasance, the Delhi Police arrested Prabir, founder and chief editor of the online news platform NewsClick, and Amit Chakraborty, NewsClick’s Head of Human Resources. This arrest was preceded by early-morning raids against nearly 50 journalists and contributors to the platform, who were quizzed, amongst other issues, as to whether or not they had covered the courageous farmers’ struggle against the Union Government’s draconian farm laws. The attack against free, independent, and fearless journalism under the RSS-BJP has been long drawn. One study notes that since 2014, over 135 journalists have been arrested, detained, interrogated, or served show cause notices. It is to be necessarily viewed as an attack against the anti-colonial legacy of the Indian freedom struggle and as an attack against India’s sovereignty at the altar of the imperialist enterprise, underwritten by the anti-people and parasitic sensibilities of global business. It is to be seen as an attack against rationality and against the progressive mass movement’s project to build a democratic and constitutional consciousness.

Although India has had its own flavour of McCarthyism in the decades-long attack that the country’s political establishment has waged against agents of socialism in India, that the latest instantiation of the undermining of the fourth pillar came on the back of spurious claims made in the pages of the New York Times took many by surprise. However, when situated in context of NewsClick’s and Prabir’s staunch support of people’s movements across the world and the portal’s increasing importance as a voice against the social, cultural, environmental, and moral destruction wrought by neo-colonial campaigns that have come to enwreathe the globe, it is but natural that mouthpieces of the US empire would facilitate an exercise to tarnish and tame beacons of hope that brought to light the lies and deceit of anti-people governments everywhere. It is therefore that in this latest campaign to do away with an important catalogue marking people’s resistance against oppression, exploitation, and deceit, we see the comfortable alignment between the RSS-BJP and various shades of the US empire’s imperialist machinery.

When one speaks about Prabir Purkayastha, one often speaks about his courage during the Emergency when as an activist of the Students’ Federation of India at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, he was kidnapped by the Delhi Police and then subsequently kept in jail for a year under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act. A story just as inspiring, if not even more so, is how for years after his release from jail he has nurtured and continues to cultivate the progressive mass movement in India, both as an advocate of democracy and of science in the service of the people. Prabir’s ever-growing legacy continues to inspire the struggle for Indian intellectual and material self-reliance, regardless of the misguided attempts of the RSS-BJP to throttle and subjugate the masses’ aspirations for a better and more inclusive tomorrow. It is in the upkeep of this dream on whose foundation the Indian anti-colonial freedom struggle built its roots that Prabir has dedicated the vast majority of his working life – towards ensuring prosperity for the people whose sweat and tears continue to stitch together the fabric of Indian society. This is not a dream that can be snuffed out through arrests or the petulant protestations of the bigoted, for there aren’t enough jails in all the world and not enough bullets in all the world’s armouries that can arrest the march of time towards a more just tomorrow.

The author is the secretary of SFI, United Kingdom. The views are personal.

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