Purkayastha Autobiography: A Personal Story Weaved Into the Nation’s History of Standing up to Authority

In the slim 200-odd pages of this modern masterpiece, Purkayastha weaves his own personal story with the nation’s story of standing up to overbearing authority figures.

Prabir Purkayastha’s slim autobiography Keeping Up the Good Fight was written in that twilight zone between the registration of a criminal case against his portal NewsClick and his arrest on October 3, 2023. It tells his life story along with events that impacted the nation and the lessons that he learnt along the way. In his own words: “ I am as old as the Indian republic. In my life of more than 75 years, I have learnt a thing or two, maybe even three. To put it simply, I have learnt how I can be part of my rich, diverse country, and, equally, part of the fascinating, complex larger world. All I need to do is fight for a better world for all.”

Prabir Purkayastha
Keeping Up the Good Fight
LeftWord Books (October 2023)

His fight and arrest this time, mirrors his arrest and “daylight kidnapping” in 1975 during former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. “I was on the lawns of the School of Languages that morning, with a few friends from the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), when a black ambassador stopped near us and a burly man got out. He came up to me and asked if I was D.P. Tripathi then president of the students’ union. I replied that I was not, but my questioner was a cop, DIG Range P.S. Bhinder, and he didn’t believe me. He and his men, all in plainclothes, swiftly proceeded to kidnap me in broad daylight. I would end up in jail, [was] kept there for a year under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA),” Purkayastha recounted.

There is no telling how long his incarceration will last this time. But Purkayastha is one of those for whom “the real question is about the side of history you are on.” And he believes that when he looks back, to the 1975 Emergency or at the one today, he does not not want to look at it from the point of view of a victim.

He says, “Victimhood robs us of participation in the creation of history; it reduces us to mere objects of history. Instead, I would like to assume the vantage point of people as makers of history. Yes, the government of the day wields powers that seem to overwhelm individuals and organisations. But it is people, and their actions, that finally determine history; not as we please and when we please, but in ways that neither the people nor their rulers anticipate.”

In the slim 200-odd pages of this modern masterpiece, Purkayastha weaves in his own personal story with the nation’s story of standing up to overbearing authority figures. Written in lucid prose, this autobiography is not an exercise in self-glorification or a boring story boringly told. It is a fighter’s examination of his own life and the people who shaped it. It is told without malice or rancour. Even those who have mistreated him are not made villains of choice but creatures of circumstance.

Also read: ‘The Difference Between Then and Now’: Prabir Purkayastha on Emergency and the Modi Years

Purkayastha is an engineer, a man of science, who has made a conscious choice in his politics and lived by that logic. He notes, “There were several milestones along the way, but the most important one was the discovery that I had three ‘passions’ I would always live with: science, technology, and, of course, politics. How these three would come together over the next four (and more) decades became clearer only with time.”

The book begins with a chapter titled, ‘Does Every Generation Have to Face an Emergency?’. It then segues into the author’s personal journey in subsequent chapters called, ‘Learning to Fight: A Personal Journey’ and ‘To Delhi and a Turning Point’. The next two chapters – titled ‘A University Under Emergency’ and ‘Life in Jail’ – cover his recollections of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in the 70s and his experience in prison. The book then looks at ‘The Last Chapter of Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency’ before recording the major portion of his working life in ‘Living Politics’.

NewsClick owner and editor Prabir Purkayastha. Photo: YouTube screengrab

“Don’t take people’s silence for assent: This was the crucial lesson of the Emergency for our generation,” Purkayastha wrote, adding that “Mrs Gandhi knew that she needed the affirmation of the people through an election that was truly free. The current dispensation believes that the facade of freedom, combined with control over media, including social media, is enough. Yes, it may be possible to do this for a short time, maybe in a few states, often by creating warlike conditions with a neighbour, and, throughout, appealing to people to close ranks behind the great leader. But not for long, not across the country. As Shelley’s immortal line says: ‘Ye are many, they are few’!”

I wish that this book had been released before his arrest and the orchestrated media campaign about Purkayastha and NewsClick’s links to China through American businessman Neville Roy Singham. Purkayastha states in chapter 7, “…Later, while I worked as a consultant with Steag, I set up a small news portal, NewsClick, in 2009. I would commute every day from Gurgaon, where I lived, to the office at Noida, and to Malviya Nagar in the evening to NewsClick before returning to Gurgaon late at night. Later, I joined the software company Thoughtworks, then owned by the tech wiz Singham, in 2013, and worked there as a consultant till 2017”.

These events in the course of his life occurred before the Modi samvat (era) began in May 2014. The entire case against Purkayastha today seems to be as insubstantial as the one in 1975. I do hope that someone in authority pays attention and releases the man who has always fought the good fight. If not, this book will stand as a testament to his times and ours. The book rewards the reader in so many ways and I do hope that it is translated into all major languages of India.

Sanjay Hegde is a senior advocate, Supreme Court.