The death of journalist and activist Praful Bidwai is a profound personal loss for me. But Praful himself would always have placed the political ahead of the personal. He was to my mind India’s finest political commentator and analyst from a Left perspective. Public life is poorer with Praful gone.
In the last few years of his life, Praful had been unhappy at being squeezed out of mainstream spaces, but he carried on writing his weekly column syndicated to several newspapers. Each column was methodically researched. Indeed, Praful was arguably the most methodical journalist I knew. He once told me that every morning he would cut clippings from newspapers and file them. I had joked with him if I could please inherit the clipping files. It was after the hours of reading and making clippings that Praful would start calling his friends, usually around 11 am, to discuss what is happening in the country. In the last few months, I remember many conversations about the Aam Aadmi Party. He described their victory as ‘Stalingrad’ but was also disappointed about the direction they were taking on some policy issues. The environment was big on his list of concerns and just last month at a book event in Delhi he lectured the AAP’s Ashish Khetan about how the Kejriwal government needs to put a cap on the numbers of cars people are allowed to own. He had worked out the numbers and the logic as to why this should be done.
Just before he died, Praful was putting the finishing touches to a major book on the Indian Left. Although a journalist, Praful also had the rigour of an academic. He has conducted several interviews and looked at old documents to work on a book he described as a life’s work. He had been happy about finding a mainstream publisher for it as opposed to an academic one. The title he sounded me out on was Indian Left: the Phoenix Moment. Would everyone understand the word phoenix, Praful had wondered. It is important for his many friends to ensure that the book comes out, as it will be a significant contribution to understanding the Left in India.
Praful was also a pioneer of the anti-nuclear movement, having been among the first journalists to research and critique the Indian nuclear programme and its various flaws, including the issue of safety, diversion of the peaceful programme towards nuclear weapons and runaway costs. Before travelling to Japan in 2012 for a fellowship, I went to Praful for a ‘crash course’ on understanding the nuclear issue. (I would eventually even travel to Fukushima, the site of the 2011 nuclear disaster, and take courage to write an article on it). Thank you, Praful.
Actually, the truth is that Praful was an expert on so many things. He was a ceaseless champion of Indo-Pakistan friendship, with numerous friends across the border whose writings strove to bring sense and humanity to a fraught relationship between the two countries. He was also a tireless campaigner for communal harmony in India, bearing the brunt of hatred directed against him by Hindu extremists for decades. Less known perhaps is the fact that he was also a very fine commentator on science and technology, given his own background as an engineering graduate from IIT Bombay in the ’70s. He wrote on numerous issues, from antibiotic resistance to climate change, authoring an entire book on the latter theme.
More than anything else, Praful was a humanist, backing his moral and ethical concerns with meticulous research and writing based on evidence. At the heart of all his writings and concerns was a tremendous compassion for the poor, the dispossessed and those who would end up so because of the public policies pursued by our governments that Praful consistently opposed.
Praful the friend could be difficult, demanding and picky. He would make a plan and insist we all work our time around his convenience. But he was the senior whom all of us admired tremendously for his integrity to ideas. I had always intended to look out for Praful as he got older but now the opportunity is gone. He never believed in God, so I’m not going to say he is up there smiling at all of us.
In one of the last conversations we had, Praful pointed out a grammatical error in something I had written. I valued his criticism and realised he was right and I had made a mistake. If there is a place for us to go to after our passing, for Praful I would hope there are some comrades there, good scotch, brilliant conversation, a genuine exchange of ideas and information. He would be happy in such moments.