“The funeral for Praful Bidwai is scheduled for the 27th June 2015”. The bald announcement on June 25, 2015 emailed from the South Asian Citizens Web newsletter run by our mutual friend Harsh Kapoor came as a shock.
Born in Nagpur in 1949, veteran journalist and peace activist Praful Bidwai had just celebrated his birthday on June 12. He wasn’t ill that I knew of. What was this about his funeral? I had been traveling. What had I missed?
Frantically scrolling through Facebook and the Internet, I could find little information. I finally learnt what happened after getting through to our mutual friend, the journalist Kalpana Sharma in Mumbai. Praful gone to Holland for a meeting of the Transnational Institute (TNI), the Amsterdam-based international think-tank for progressive politics where he was a long-time Fellow. He and other participants were having dinner when he choked on some food. Help arrived promptly but he was gone within minutes.
Another friend, the sociologist Amrita Chhachhi was accompanying his remains back to India. It had taken some effort to trace Praful’s next of kin (two sisters) and get the body released to Dr Chhachhi. His long-time domestic helper, like all his friends, is devastated and struggling to come to terms with this unexpected tragedy.
How does one come to grips with the fact that this low-key but vital journalist, scholar and activist, one of India’s finest writers and columnists, a true humanist, secularist, and peacenik, is no more? Perhaps by remembering that the only thing certain in life is death.
Bidwai had worked with the Times of India where he was a Senior Assistant Editor before embarking on “a freelance career that made his byline a household name across India” to quote The Wire.
He had a long association with the wire service Inter Press Service (IPS), where I was also a contributor. “Hard to think now that Praful used to write two pieces for Inter Press Service every week,” recalls our former editor Ranjit Devraj. “His pieces on nuclear proliferation and the Indo-US deal really threw the establishment into a tizzy!”
Besides being a journalist, Bidwai was a scholar with solid academic credentials. He was a Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Social Development, New Delhi, and a Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. He had served as a member of the Indian Council for Social Science Research, the Central Advisory Board on Education, and the National Book Trust.
His books included “An India That Can Say Yes: A Climate-Responsible Development Agenda for Copenhagen and Beyond” (Heinrich Boell Foundation, New Delhi, 2009) and the critically acclaimed ‘New Nukes – India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament’, co-authored with Achin Vanaik (Interlink, 1999). In 2000, the International Peace Bureau awarded Bidwai and Vanaik the Sean McBride International Peace Prize in recognition of their work opposing nuclear weapons development in South Asia.
He had just finished the manuscript for his new book, a critique of the Indian Left (forthcoming, HarperCollins). “Just in the last hours before his so shockingly sudden death, Praful had been cheerfully badgering each of us about ideas for broadening access to his book,” writes Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think-tank in Washington DC. Also a Fellow of the Transnational Institute, she was with Bidwai in Amsterdam. “…when I asked him about an Urdu version for publication in Pakistan, his eyes lit up with excitement for what was obviously a longstanding wish.”
As an activist, Bidwai was one of the founders of the Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament (MIND), a member of the International Network of Engineers and Scientists against Proliferation, and one of the leaders of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, India, set up after India’s nuclear tests in 1998.
Bidwai was an incredibly hard-working and prolific writer wedded to his profession and the causes he took up. His syndicated columns were published in over 20 news outlets around the globe. The subjects he took up ranged from climate change, to nuclear (non) proliferation, and human rights issues such as discrimination against Muslims and Dalits in India.
In a recent piece, he invoked the civil liberties movement of the United States that as he pointed out “had to wage a prolonged and bitter struggle to achieve de-segregation.” Along the same lines, he argued for an anti-discrimination law to stop the ghettoisation and the growing Hindu-Muslim segregation in Indian cities. He urged the launch of a special initiative by civil liberties groups, and conscientious citizens “cutting across religion, to file criminal complaints” against companies that openly discriminated.
They should also, he argued, “petition the Supreme Court to seek clarification that the spirit of the Constitution’s anti-discrimination and equal-treatment-of-citizens articles applies to non-state institutions too. That will help prepare the ground for the legislation India sorely needs.”
There is little doubt that he would have been at the forefront of such a movement, supporting it through his talks and writings and providing guidance where needed. His advice would also benefit activists in other South Asian countries, including Pakistan, where discrimination against one or other community regularly takes place.
I don’t remember when we first met but I think it was the activist Shabnam Hashmi, sister of the slain street theatre director and actor Safdar Hashmi, who had introduced us in Delhi the early 1990s. Soon afterwards, we had more opportunities to meet at joint India-Pakistan conventions thanks to the formation of the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) in 1994.
Despite the difference in our age and experience, he always treated me with respect and as an intellectual equal. I believe that this was due to his innate humility and generosity of spirit. In the year 2000, we collaborated on an essay for Bina Sarkar’s magazine Gallerie. It was an honour for me to co-author a piece with this already well-established journalist but Praful never let me feel that I was junior or less well informed, both of which I was. The essay, titled “Hostility & Reconciliation”, was part of Gallerie’s special edition on Pakistan.
As op-ed editor of The News in 2004, I suggested a weekly opinion piece for Praful, an opportunity he jumped at. His weekly column continued regularly for over two years, always delivered on time, within the word count, and requiring no editing. Freelance writing was his sole source of income but he kept up The News column despite massive delays in payment caused by bureaucratic issues. He re-started the column again later; some archives available here
The last time we met in Delhi a couple of years ago, I was privileged to be a passenger in his tiny ‘bubble car’ — an acquisition that testified to his commitment to the environment. He drove us to the India International Centre where he was a regular at the bar.
Not surprisingly, many Pakistanis grieve his untimely departure. They include my 90-year old uncle Zawwar Hasan, himself a former journalist who admired Praful’s “clear-headed and sensible” articles. He also remains personally grateful for Praful’s “out-of-the-way help” in Delhi some years ago. My aunt and uncle’s visa to India was running out and they couldn’t find seats on the Delhi-Lahore bus. Using his influence, Praful ensured that they were on the bus in time.
Karachi-based activist Karamat Ali who travelled to Delhi for Praful’s memorial remembrance held on July 8 says, “We must remember him for his tremendous contributions towards peace and friendship between India and Pakistan and the people of South Asia.”
He is among those talking of holding a reference for Praful Bidwai in Karachi and Lahore some time later this month.
“What an honest and clear headed person. A great man for India Pakistan friendship,” says Dr Tipu Sultan of Pakistan Doctors for Peace and Development. Terming Praful’s death “a rude shock,” he has offered to host the reference in Karachi.
A true nationalist — not the flag-waving kind but someone who sincerely loved India and wanted to see her people prosper and be treated with respect and justice — Praful Bidwai was a flag-bearer of the anti-nuclear and anti-communal, leftist movements at home and abroad. He stood for human rights for all, regardless of nationality, gender, religion, caste or sect.
Praful Bidwai’s departure is not just India’s loss, but a loss for secularists, peaceniks and humanists everywhere. He lives on in his legacy of writing and in the movements he supported and nurtured.