A journalist bothers the Indian far-right

Prabir Purkayastha created a vibrant publication in Delhi, connected to social movements and successful. He´s now imprisoned at 78 under an infamous law. The episode reveals much about the nature, methods, and vulnerabilities of Narendra Modi´s regime.

By Antonio Martins

In December 1984, a young Indian engineer produced a report that horrified the world. As the founder of the Delhi Science Forum (DSF), he was tasked, along with a colleague from the institution, with investigating a gas leak at the factory of the American multinational Union Carbide, in central India. The meticulous and sensitive work they carried out formed the basis for reports describing what was arguably the greatest industrial crime in history – the tragedy of Bhopal. The corporation´s negligence with an old warehouse where pesticides were produced facilitated the leakage of a highly lethal substance – methyl isocyanate. The shadow of death spread over the city. About 20 thousand people were poisoned and died in the hours and days that followed. Another 600 thousand suffer from the consequences to this day.

Prabir Purkayastha, the engineer at the time, is now incarcerated without trial in Delhi, India´s capital. He was the founder and is the editor of a website – Newsclick – that disturbed the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The circumstances of his arrest shed some light on the peculiarities of the Indian far-right, which participates in BRICS and buys Russian oil (contrary to Western sanctions) but at the same time accepts Washington´s embrace, which sees it as a counterweight to China in Asia.

On October 3, 2023, a campaign of persecution against independent press, initiated by the Modi government just over a year earlier, intensified. Delhi police raided the homes of about 50 journalists and seized their computers and cell phones. The central target was Newsclick. It gained surprising audience and repercussion by producing news and analysis about events in India and the world, sustaining a clearly anti-capitalist interpretation. It also allied with significant social movements, such as the large national farmers; protest of 2020-2021, which dealt a severe blow to Modi´s project by forcing him to abandon a set of neoliberal reforms in the countryside.

In addition to losing their equipment, Prabir and Amit Chakravarth, one of the administrators, were taken into “preventive” custody. This condition, which initially could be extended for a maximum of 6 days, has since been indefinitely extended.

The “basis” presented by the Modi government for the incarceration is as frivolous as possible: a foreign newspaper article. On August 5 of last year, The New York Times published a piece about an alleged international media network that would support China.

It would be sponsored by an American millionaire. Neville Roy Singhan, who made his fortune in the internet platform boom, reportedly decided to support publications with editorial positions favorable to Beijing with his wealth. Could there be illegality in this gesture? Media favorable to capitalist order constantly receive billion-dollar contributions from local and international advertisers interested in preserving the status quo.

A peculiar political scenario threatens civil and political liberties in India. Formally, the country is a democracy. There are regular elections and party freedom (the communists are in power in three of the 31 states). But this environment has been eroding since 2014 when Modi came to central power. The prime minister rides on strong economic growth (7% GDP increase in 2023). But he seeks legitimacy by restricting the debate of ideas and propagating a primitive nationalism and, especially, an intolerant Hindu supremacism that is hostile to dissent.

Prabir Purkayastha´s trial-free imprisonment is an example. It is based on the so-called Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Existing since 1963, it was completely overhauled by Congress in 2019, in a lightning-fast process (24 days in total, in both legislative houses). The pretext was “counter-terrorism”, but the scope is much broader.

Under the new text, the government has the power to designate groups or individuals as terrorism suspects – and to detain them during investigations. The grounds for “suspicion” can be as flimsy as those alleged against the Newsclick editor. The law also authorizes the confiscation of the assets of the accused – which has already happened with the publication. On the eve of Christmas 2023, the newspaper´s bank accounts were frozen.

Salaries and other commitments have not been paid since then. The suffocation attempt is evident.

In its post-Modi version, the UAPA was deemed, by a special UN report, as infringing on various articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The main threat comes precisely from the easily extendable preventive detentions, such as the one affecting Prabir. Indian government data pointed out, in 2022, the mass political incarceration resulting from this provision. In four years, 24,134 people had been arrested under the law. Of these, only 589 were brought to trial (386 of whom were acquitted). 23,545 remained in custody – or 97.5% of the total…

Next May, there will be parliamentary elections in India. In the country´s complex electoral system, Narendra Modi has a great chance of winning a third term. In terms of vote percentage, his lead over the opposing center-left coalition (I.N.D.I.A) is small – between 2.4 and 4 percentage points, according to polls. But the projection for Parliament suggests that the bloc led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will have a comfortable majority and at least a hundred more seats than its main adversary.

Still very poor (its per capita GDP is 4.3 times lower than that of Brazil), India has ample room for growth. This potential is favored by strategic support – economic and military – offered by the West (especially the USA), which sees the country as a possible base in its effort to encircle China. Modi seeks to expand this movement by encouraging the entry of transnationals and foreign capital into infrastructure. Relations with Washington were particularly intense, as expected, when Donald Trump occupied the White House. In August 2017, the USA, India, Japan, and Australia relaunched an alliance called the Quad, alternatively seen as "a response to China´s Belt and Road Initiative or “a NATO of Asia”.

Biden maintained the approach, sealed in June 2023, when the Indian prime minister was received in Washington with rare cordiality. The Economist celebrated the event, saying it hoped the partnership between the two countries would be “the most important of the 21st century”…

In India, attacks on freedoms continue, as shown by Prabir´s arrest. Perhaps even more shocking is the exploitation, by the BJP, of an anti-Muslim chauvinism that often resorts to extreme violence.

It was central during the party´s ongoing rise since 1984 (when it had only two seats in Parliament). It´s becoming more alive. On January 22 last, Modi launched his re-election campaign by inaugurating, in the city of Ayodhya, a $220 million temple in homage to the deity Ram – one of Hinduism´s holiest. It was the culmination of a thirty-year supremacy campaign.

In 1992, a huge horde of Hindu fanatics destroyed, with hammer and pickaxe blows, the Babri Masjid mosque, which occupied the same site. Ten years later, following a pilgrimage to the site, there was a widespread wave of attacks on Muslims, with Modi – then the Gujarat state government leader – being the main instigator. Over 1000 people were killed. Since then, the BJP has maintained, among its central program points, the construction of the Hindu temple on the mosque´s ruins.

And it didn´t stop there. Its government has been implementing, since 2014, a policy of forced Hinduization that includes restricting citizenship rights for Muslims, rewriting school textbooks, and extensive collaboration with the Hindu paramilitary group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), involved in multiple episodes of violence (of which Modi himself is a member)…

Prabir Purkayastha embodies an India that opposes this intolerance and draws from Mahatma Gandhi´s tradition – for whom the country´s multiethnic makeup was one of its strengths. At 78, the editor of Newsclick has a trajectory marked by social struggles but also by curiosity about the world and the chances of transforming it. He joined the Communist Party of India since 1970. In his youth, in addition to the Delhi Science Forum, he founded the All India People´s Science Network (both still active and vibrant today) and coordinated the Delhi Literacy Committee.

He graduated in Engineering from the universities of Calcutta and Allahabad and joined, in 1975, the School of Computing and Systems Science at Jawaharial Nehru University. He worked in the IT and energy sectors for over 40 years and served on Indian state committees related to these issues. In a memoir released weeks ago [“Keeping up the good fight”], with the author imprisoned, he writes: “I discovered that I had three ´passions´, and that I would always live with them: Science, Technology, and, of course, Politics. It only became clear over time how they would combine in the decades to come”.

The passions combined in Prabir+s relentless struggle to free knowledge from the market barriers that limit its circulation. Among other initiatives, he articulated in India the international movement Knowledge Commons, which proposes alternatives to the concept and mechanisms of "intellectual property" to the Free Software Foundation.

I met him in 2003. Prabir was one of the architects of an extremely complex political experiment: to bring the World Social Forum (WSF), which had emerged at the turn of the century in Porto Alegre and had become a polyphonic meeting of those seeking alternatives to neoliberalism, to India. The task was even more daunting due to the immense diversity of the country, where an impressive profusion of ethnicities, languages, regional cultures, and political traditions coexist. I remember his discreet way of coordinating: speaking little, choosing decisive moments; incorporating others ideas into his interventions, avoiding explicit protagonism; cultivating a subtle irony and a discreet smile.

The success exceeded all expectations. The WSF-2004, in Mumbai, gave voice to movements from all over India, contributed to the unity of the left, and included many Asian and African countries in the movement that could not participate in Porto Alegre.

Times have changed. In the West (and also in India), the far-right has taken the offensive. But the dice are still rolling.

Imprisoned shortly before becoming an octogenarian, Prabir doesn´t throw in the towel. He refuses the victim´s condition. In his memoirs, he explains: “Victimization robs us of the role of participants in creating history. It reduces us to mere objects. Instead, I would like to take on the perspective of people who make history. Yes, the governments of the time control powers that seem to diminish individuals and their organizations. But it is the people, and their actions, that ultimately determine History; not as and how much we would like, but in ways that neither the people nor their rulers can anticipate”.

And he concludes, perhaps with the same irony he exhibited in Mumbai: “I am as old as the Indian republic. In my life of more than 75 years, I have learned a thing or two – maybe even three. I have learned how I can be part of my country, rich and diverse, and at the same time part of an even larger, more complex, and fascinating world. All I need to do is fight for a better world for everyone”.

This human being, Prabir Pukayastha, needs to be free.

Pressenza India