Activist, humanist, pacifist, journalist, columnist, uncompromising secularist, Praful Bidwai (1949-2015) was passionate about his quest for justice and equality.
According to Suhas Paranjape, who was Praful’s room-mate at that time, it was during his sojourn at IIT that he was radicalised through his interactions with a progressive group on the campus (with Kumar Ketkar, Sudhir Bedekar, Suhas Paranjape and others as members).
Javed Anand, who was Praful’s course mate and who too became a journalist later on, says he is indebted to Praful for prodding him to join the progressive group. Suresh Khairnar, one of Praful’s friends in Nagpur, recalls that Praful considered Kumar Ketkar (currently Chief Editor of Dainik Divya Marathi), who was then working in the Computer Science & Engineering Department at IIT Bombay, as one of his earliest mentors.
It is interesting to note that this progressive group in IIT Bombay was formed under the influence of the institution’s alumni who had emigrated to the United States and Europe and who in turn were influenced by the radical movements that were emerging in those regions, especially in the late 1960s. The impact of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. and the movements initiated by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the U.S. and by their counterparts in Britain, France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe was felt in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Students across the world sought not only educational reforms but also raised their voices against all kinds of injustices and inequality in society. They opposed all forms of colonialism and imperialism; they felt outraged by the continuance of Apartheid, Zionism and the U.S. war in Vietnam; they called for the elimination of nuclear weapons and drastic reduction in all other types of weapons and weapon systems. They also supported the adoption of confidence-building measures between peoples and nations and the bridging of the gap between developed and developing nations on the one hand, and between the poor and the rich on the other.
The happenings in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere were extensively covered in the Indian print media as well as foreign publications available in India, which were the major sources of information then.
Radical political activist
In India, inequality was so stark and the plight of marginalised sections —particularly Dalits and Adivasis —was so pathetic that any person who was aware of this reality would have been deeply distraught by all that was happening around him or her. Praful was so overwhelmed by his new-found awareness that he initially began working with trade unions and Dalit youth in the slums of what was then Bombay. Subsequently, in 1969, in the third year of his five-year course at IIT, he decided to discontinue his studies to become a full-time radical political activist and devote his energies to the cause of the people.
He joined the Shahada movement in Dhule district of Maharashtra to defend the rights of Adivasis against the oppressive practices of the non-tribal people. Later, this movement breached tribal and caste boundaries and evolved into a peasant movement. Along with activists like Kumar Shiralkar (who later emerged as one of the foremost leaders of the peasant and agricultural workers movement in Maharashtra), Praful became a part of the Shramik Sanghatana.
His sister Meera recalls that his parents were aghast at his reckless decision to discontinue studies. As a reaction to his parents’ admonition, Praful practically severed all ties with his family for a fairly long period. However, his mother’s illness led to a reconciliation with the family and he maintained steady contact with the family thereafter. By not being constrained by family responsibilities, he was able to devote his time to activities of his choice. He was also a connoisseur of music, especially of Hindustani classical music.
After a couple of years with the Shramik Sanghatana, Praful was forced to move back to Bombay reportedly due to indifferent health. In May 1972, he, along with Sudhir Bedekar, Suhas Paranjape, Anand Phadke and others, established Magowa (Search), a progressive group in the quest for building a new society, in Bombay. The group attracted scientists, engineers, doctors, social scientists and other professionals from leading institutions in the city such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), IIT, and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), and from similar institutions in Pune and elsewhere in Maharashtra. Although the proclamation of Emergency in 1975 curtailed the group’s activities, with only some 12 full-time campaigners, Magowa managed to remain active until around 1978.
As a journalist
Meanwhile, Praful gradually moved away from Magowa and started spending more time with the Workers Democratic Union. He also began contributing articles to the Economic & Political Weekly (EPW). After a brief stint as a proofreader with the Oxford University Press (OUP), Praful joined Business India in 1978 as a journalist. He shifted to The Times of India around 1981. (One of his closest friends at The Times of India was Achin Vanaik.) Praful remained with The Times of India until about 1993, when he opted to become a freelancer. His articles were published regularly in several newspapers and magazines in India and abroad. It may be noted that Praful unfailingly contributed to Frontline for over 12 years. Speaking at a condolence meeting held in Thiruvananthapuram to pay homage to Praful, veteran journalist B.R.P. Bhasker said:
“Unlike the journos of the present times, he used to write an article only after deep study and research. He managed to gain an independent space of his own for expressing his political views. He was a person who refined the raw material called information.”
Such was his standing in his profession. Some of the causes that he tried to highlight through his writings include the following.
Praful covered the Bhopal gas leak disaster of December 2-3, 1984 extensively in the columns of The Times of India after taking due care to study the impact of the disaster and analyse the causes that led to it. He also kept track of the court proceedings in the case and was highly critical of the unjust Bhopal settlement, which took place on February 14-15, 1989. He continued to express his support to the cause of the Bhopal gas victims in several ways.
Narmada Bachao Andolan
As a person who was sensitive about the ecological and social impact of reckless development, Praful was sympathetic to the cause upheld by the Narmada Bachao Andolan. In an article titled “Fighting the New Green War: Medha Patkar’s contribution” (December 7, 2014), he wrote: “NBA was set up in 1985 to oppose the displacement of lakhs of people by the Sardar Sarovar project and other giant dams on the river Narmada, and demand their just rehabilitation. The agitation, relentless but always peaceful, highlighted the projects’ ecological, social and economic irrationality and horrendous human costs, and led to the World Bank pulling out of the Sardar Sarovar project, and the creation of an independent complaints mechanism in the Bank—a major gain for the global ecology movement.”
Praful supported the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in earnest as is evident from an article he wrote opposing the views expressed in 2010 by a Union Minister of State. It was his considered opinion that:
“Non-alignment, along with the other pillars of the Nehruvian consensus—democracy, secularism and self-reliant equitable development—retains much of its relevance. Today’s world is even more conflict-ridden and unequal than in 1950, with income differentials of 90:1. If India is to do any good to the world, it must promote global equality, justice and peace, and speak for the poor and underprivileged— and not ape the West.” (“India’s non-aligned policy”, January 18, 2010, The News, Pakistan.)
Message from Palestine
Praful was a staunch opponent of Zionism and an unwavering supporter of the cause of the Palestinian people, who have been striving for the last seven decades to free their land from Zionist occupation and who are intent on creating an independent state of Palestine. His contribution to that cause through his numerous writings was so significant that the Palestinian Embassy in New Delhi issued a condolence message. The message reads as follows:
“Deepest condolences from the Embassy of the State of Palestine and its people. Mr Bidwai’s support towards the cause of Palestine will always be etched in our heart. An upright man, an uncompromising journalist and a public intellectual with a conscience, Mr Bidwai’s departure will be sorely missed.”
Praful’s writings covered several other areas. He was shocked and dismayed by the wanton destruction of the Babri Masjid. He condemned communal riots in no uncertain terms and demanded that the guilty be brought to book. He expressed his strong opposition to the attempts at communalisation of education. He was an uncompromising secularist and was opposed to any type of discrimination on religious grounds.
Praful supported nuclear disarmament. In fact, he was a proponent of unilateral nuclear disarmament, a position many of us could not agree with. Similarly, he was a proponent of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as well as the so-called Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ)—again positions that many of us deeply disagreed with. Despite these differences, what was germane to our understanding of the issues was the united and firm opposition to the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any manner and …our demand for global nuclear disarmament. Praful was one of those (along with Admiral Ramdas, Lalita Ramdas, N. Ram, Achin Vanaik, Prabir Purkayasta, D. Raghunandan, T. Jayaraman, Vivek Monteiro and others) who took the initiative to form the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) in 2000 in response to the nuclear weapons test conducted by India and Pakistan in 1998.
Similarly, while all of us were strongly opposed to the unbridled expansion of the nuclear power industry in violation of safety norms, Praful was opposed to the production of nuclear energy in any manner. He was equally concerned about the impact of climate change and about the manipulative tactics adopted by Western powers to hoodwink the developing world by exerting pressure to sign discriminatory treaties.
As a humanist, Praful was passionate about the concerns of the people of his homeland; as a pacifist he was an internationalist to the core. In the sudden and untimely demise of Praful, the world’s democratic, secular and progressive movements—especially those in India and Pakistan—have lost one of their most ardent campaigners. His friends in Pakistan—Pervez Hoodbhoy, A.H. Nayyar, Karamat Ali, Beena Sarwar and others—are deeply distraught at his passing away. Praful was a Fellow at the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. It was during his visit to the city to attend a conference at the TNI that he died under tragic circumstances.
The younger generations have a lot to learn from his writings, which have covered a wide range of topics. Of course, one need not necessarily agree with all that he said and wrote at face value; the spirit, intent and intensity with which he expressed them is what matters. The most enduring tribute to Praful would be continuing to uphold the causes and concerns that were dear to him.