Obituary: Praful Bidwai’s narrative on human liberation will live on

By Amit Sengupta,

Just about two weeks back, Praful Bidwai wanted to eat fish. He knew that Sagar Chatterjee, who started his Bengali food business on a bicycle in my neighborhood, was my friend. Sagar and his wife cook delicious East Bengali cuisine. So I called up Praful and invited him over. He said he was stressed out with the last phase of his book on the challenges before the Indian Left and he desperately needed a break. Hence, this was also an occasion to enter the vast repertoire of his knowledge system on the history of the Left and contemporary politics, in India and across the world, including the trade union movement in Bombay in which he played a crucial role when he was young.

Praful Bidwai
Praful Biwai speaking at the condolence meeting of Mukul Sinha organised last year

Few know that Praful has authored and edited a few rigorous volumes on the labour movement in India. His knowledge kaleidoscope was large and luminescent, and he combined his brilliant academic and scientific rigour of his IIT Bombay days, from where he dropped out, with the open-ended, critical research and journalistic forays into society and politics. His last published book was a masterpiece on a complicated and specialized area, and no one but Praful alone could work with such relentless dedication and rigour: The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis: Mortgaging our Future, published by Orient BlackSwan.

I helped in typing one of the chapters on one of his ancient, dilapidated desk-top computers, and the meticulous labour which had gone in writing, re-writing and corrections, in long-hand, was obvious. “We have to see the big picture,” he would say. To combat the dangerous future scenario of war, climate change, militarism, unbridled consumption and accumulation of the affluent society, mass poverty and injustice, and fascism, we need a non-sectarian and magnificent coalition of all civil society groups, peace fighters, the united Left, feminist, socialist and ecological movements. A new politics of hope.”

In the preface, he wrote, “In the last analysis, the climate agenda can only be transformed if flesh-and-blood people, in particular, the underprivileged, participate in decision-making on climate issues. They have a high stake both in combating climate change, of which they are the principal victims, and in equitable development. It is only when grassroots movements seize the climate and development agendas and bring them down to earth that the world will have a comprehensive solution to the climate crisis.”

Praful changed two metros and we met in the house of a journalist friend in East Delhi. She is a veggie and cooked what he loved: arhar ki daal with a heeng ka tarka and bengan ka bharta, etc. But the bonus was the fish — prawn malai curry and Rohu cooked in mustard, East Bengal style. Plus, there was a substantial bit of left-over single malt called ‘Dalmore’ and Praful was truly happy. Particular as he was always about little specifics, he drank the drink neat with just a drop of water at room temperature. No ice.

He had recently come back from Agartala after doing an extensive interview with Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar and was all praise for this honest communist who has led the CPM to several successive victories in Tripura. Why don’t they showcase Sarkar as a symbol of integrity and exemplary leadership, he asked. And yet, he thought, it would be nice if Sarkar could get out of the limited official Left mindset and exercise a bigger leap of imagination, especially during these “Rightwing fascist times”. So why is the Left inevitably stuck in a rat trap, he asked, when they should be on the streets?

Praful would know. He always had an open channel with the top leadership of the Left. Once on his terrace for a ‘lunch’ graced by greats like Romila Thapar, top editors and sundry vice-chancellors, I came a bit early to find that three topmost Left leaders were standing mesmerized near the bar. Indeed, they did not touch a drop. And, yet, they joined. Surely, from BT Ranadive and Basavapunnaiah, to AB Bardhan and Prakash Karat, he was integral to the critical narrative of the Indian Left.

He was enthused with the nation-wide resistance across the IITs and elsewhere on the banning of the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle in IIT,Madras. “Sita (Sitaram Yechury) should have rushed to the IIT in solidarity. How can they miss such a fantastic opportunity to connect with the progressive discourse against the forces of xenophobia,” he was angry.

That night he was introspective. He said that he too has contributed in his own manner to build a better world. “The world has become better because of progressive forces,” he said. “I am optimistic that despite these times of pessimism, Indian society too will discover true democracy, equality and justice. I have great faith in the people’s struggle. I still have faith in the Left.”

One of the last articles he wrote on Narendra Modi’s one year was perhaps one of the best amidst a flood of eulogies with many in the media ready to both bend and crawl. Every article he wrote was based on multiple interviews, fact-finding and research. He would routinely call up journalists and pick their brains.

There would be not one frivolous sentence in the gigantic kaleidoscope of his writings on a wide spectrum of subjects, published all over the world media. Every word, fact, idea and concept was tested with the fine rigour of an extraordinary mind. “You should never stop writing,” he said that night. “Keep writing, week after week.”

He was planning to use the mythical metaphor of the ‘Pheonix’ as a moment of resurrection and life-affirmation as the title of his new book on the Left. He had finished most of the chapters. I used to often tell him to write a short and slim volume like the brilliant, ‘An Essay on Liberation’ by Herbert Marcuse. He would find that tempting. With him gone, that essay will never arrive now, but, surely, Praful Bidwai’s brilliant and life-long narrative on human liberation will continue to live and inspire.

The writer is Associate Professor, English Journalism, Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi and edited and translated version of this article has appeared in The Tribune and BBC Hindi respectively