Prabir Purkayastha | The fight goes on

The NewsClick founder was released from jail after the Supreme Court stated that his arrest under UAPA was ‘invalid in the eyes of law’

Updated - May 26, 2024 10:41 am IST

Published - May 26, 2024 02:05 am IST

“The more things change the more they remain the same”— this adage by 19th century French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr possibly holds best for Prabir Purkayastha, founder of online news portal NewsClick.

Incarcerated twice, half a century apart, during two very different time periods in India’s political history, Mr. Purkayastha has had a long career as a public intellectual. He has been an advocate for self-reliance, an activist in the literacy and free software movements and an expert in the power and telecom sectors, besides being a journalist.

His two prison sojourns — first under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) during Emergency in 1975 and then in 2023 under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) have brought his life and work into spotlight. “Prabir has been a lifelong activist. I have been making the argument in public on several occasions. I have been saying why was he jailed is because he is a good citizen,” says Sudhanva Deshpande, a theatre personality and a close associate of Mr. Purkayastha.

Born in 1949, Mr. Purkayastha has trained as an engineer at the universities of Calcutta and Allahabad and joined Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, as a research scholar in the School of Computers and System Sciences in 1975. It was in JNU, after Emergency was imposed by the Indira Gandhi government, where he was arrested, on September 25, in place of D.P. Tripathi in a case of mistaken identity.

Editorial | Malign motive: On the arrest and remand of NewsClick founder 

According to the book Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point, by historian Gyan Prakash, Mr. Purkayastha had gone to JNU to carry out a strike called by the Students’ Federation of India, the students wing of the CPI(M), to protest the university’s action when a team of plainclothes policemen picked him up.

Cut to 2023: this time, Mr. Purkayastha was arrested by the Delhi Police Special Cell on October 3 under the UAPA. He was accused of using Chinese funding to promote “anti-national propaganda” through digital media.

Multiple journalist collectives had termed “chilling” the raids at the homes of 46 journalists, editors, writers and professionals connected to NewsClick, and seizure of their electronic devices, culminating in the arrest of its founder.

Scientific temper

The Supreme Court, however, on May 15 ordered his release from custody, saying it felt “no hesitation” to declare the arrest and remand of the 74-year-old journalist under the UAPA by the Delhi Police as “invalid in the eyes of law”.

But what lies behind this man with these controversial prison innings is someone who colleagues and friends describe as a person committed to rationalism, scientific temper and justice for the country’s most oppressed people.

“He is really funny. He has a fantastic sense of humour. I have hardly had a conversation with him without rolling up in laughter,” Mr. Deshpande says.

Adds CPI(M) Politburo member Brinda Karat, who has known Mr. Purkayastha since his student days: “He has courage. That courage he has shown many times both in his political and personal life. That courage is also due to his clarity on the ideology he believes in”.

Most of his friends also emphasise his commitment to enabling the use of technology by the masses.

His commitment to science can be seen in the numerous organisations he has established or is part of whose objective is to promote scientific temper among people. He is co-convenor of the Just Net Coalition, a global coalition on internet governance, data privacy and digital independence. He is a founder member of the Delhi Science Forum and the All India People’s Science Network. He is also president of Free Software Movement of India, set up in 2010.

Mr Purkayastha had also filed a number of Public Interest Litigations (PILs) to safeguard India’s interests in the telecom sector.

The title of his autobiography, Keeping up the Good Fight—From the Emergency to the Present Day, seems to be the best way to describe his life’s journey.

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