Praful Bidwai and the nuclear discourse in India

Praful Bidwai’s departure has created a huge void. He took on the mighty and well-heeled nuclear establishment of India through his exemplary rigour and finesse. He democratised the Indian discourse on nuclear issues and filled it with people in flesh and blood, without which it would just have been a narrow lane with nuclear policy elites chatting among themselves.

Kumar Sundaram | Editor,

Praful Bidwai left us last week and passed away after a cardiac arrest in Amsterdam while visiting the Trans National Institute(TNI) where he was a fellow for last several years. mourns Praful Bidwai’s mourns the sudden and shocking demise of Praful Bidwai, one of our founding members and an outstanding journalist, thinker and activist from South Asia. He relentlessly pursued the dream of a world free of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. As a fine and fearless journalist, he wrote on wide ranging issues pertaining to democracy and people’s struggles in India.

Praful Bidwai is a name without whom the discourse on India’s nuclear programme will never be complete. Despite the government’s best efforts – to insulate the Department of Atomic Energy(DAE) from any public scrutiny, to almost deify the nuclear scientists by painting them as harbingers of hope and progress in this post-colonial country, by casting aspersions on any dissent on nuclear issues as being motivated and anti-national, if the discourse on nuclear programme of India didn’t remain confined to the policy elites and became a site of democratic debate and contestation, the credit goes to Praful Bidwai and a few others like him who never failed in summoning the courage required, but also had the necessary rigour to take on the fulltime propaganda machinery of the DAE. While his background in IIT-Mumbai helped him in demystifying the technological debates and their nuances, the seasoned journalist in him took utmost caution against any over-statement and sensationalism. The debates and activism on nuclear issues have been prone to these weaknesses which Praful consciously and successfully confronted.

Praful Bidwai was a founding member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace(CNDP) and its earlier avatars like the Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament(MIND) and Group on Nuclear Disarmament(GROUND), but he was an institution in himself. Linking the nuclear question to the larger struggles for widening and deepening democracy was his hallmark. He worked on diverse issues: from secularism and communalism in India, the vagaries of neoliberal definition of development, state and democratic polity, rights of workers, dalits and women, and the experiments of non-capitalist political-economy in the Latin America. Working on the frontiers where science and the society meet, he always strove to democratise the scientific debate in India – be it on nuclear issues, or the climate change debate which was his another strong area of concern.

When Praful exposed the financial and safety-related irregularities in his series of articles in the Times of India in 1982, he invited its wrath and none other than the DAE Chairman himself attacked him for being anti-patriotic. Praful’s article, based on the documents and internal investigations of the DAE that he had to steal, showed that over 350 workers at Tarapur got a dose of over 5 rads a year that, is excess of the amount stipulated by the Department of Atomic Energy itself. Subsequently, the DAE Chairman held a press conference where he didn’t deny about the excessive radiation doses but claimed that they didn’t have harmful health impacts.

Praful Bidwai spoke out against the DAE’s secretive culture and silencing of dissenters in in early ’80s, when not many people in India had the consciousness and courage to raise voice and go beyond the nationalist consensus on nuclear issues. His series of articles after Chernobyl raised alarm and might definitely have played its role in the governmental post-Chernobyl comprehensive safety audit, which highlighted the risks but was hushed off after being labelled ‘top secret’.

In the 90s, Praful Bidwai unequivocally called upon India to join the CTBT – the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. This was indeed a courageous act as many of his colleagues in the Left political spectrum differed strongly from him as they saw CTBT through cold-war and anti-imperialist prism. He cautioned about the intent of the Indian ruling elite behind its maximalist approach on nuclear disarmament – it wanted to keep the testing option open and had a strong desire to go nuclear as it fitted in the misplaced jingoist dream of a super power India. He crucially emphasized the difference between the NPT and CTBT – “While the NPT is discriminatory……The CTBT by contrast is a non-discriminatory and an equal treaty which imposes equal obligations on all states not to undertake explosive nuclear tests – which means that you measure not only horizontal non-proliferation but also vertical non-proliferation, that nuclear states cannot further refine them or build new designs.”

A relentless and fearless champion of nuclear disarmament, Praful Bidwai rose to the occasion when the Hindu-right government of the BJP in India conducted nuclear tests in 1998. Praful vehemently opposed the nuclear tests and the vulgar chest-thumping surrounding it. Not only he argued against the immorality of the n-weapons, but also exposed the hollowness of the claims that the atomic bombs have bestowed international power and regional superiority on India. Over the next two years, he used the promotional tour of his well-researched book ‘South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament’, co-authored with Achin Vanaik, to invigorate discussion on the perils of nuclear weapons in different corners of India and after several rounds of open discussions and at least two big conventions on the issue, he co-founded the CNDP with a score of renowned activists, scholars, journalists and citizens groups from across the country.

Personally, Praful Bidwai was consistently opposed to both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, but he was prudent enough to gauge the diversity of opinions in India and respect it by keeping CNDP’s position on nuclear energy open. It would take the undeniable problems associated with the reactor imported after the Indo-US nuclear deal and the Fukushima accident to tilt the activists’ opinion in India decisively against nuclear energy. Before that, a lot of people who opposed nuclear weapons thought of nuclear energy as necessary for national development. So it was kept open for the CNDP members to have an opinion on nuclear energy as they liked, while Praful and others continued to persuade the collective for a comprehensive anti-nuclear stance.  Even before Fukushima, in its tenth anniversary convention in December 2010, CNDP took a clear resolution of opposing nuclear energy in toto.

In the course of the Indo-US nuclear agreement, a landmark deal legitimising the Indian nuclear weapons and opening the nuclear sales route in India for the global nuclear corporations whose profits were dwindling, Praful Bidwai strongly opposed the deal on both the counts. He consistently wrote on the fine-prints of this deal which would end India’s nuclear isolation and unleash the unsafe, uneconomic and anti-people nuclear energy projects on the most vulnerable sections of the Indian society like farmers, fisherfolk, tribals and rural women. Praful also wrote and campaigned extensively against the channeling of the nuclear liability to the Indian exchequer in 2010 when the Nuclear Liability Act was being drafted to ensure liability-free playing field for international vendors.

When the nuclear deal that Manmohan Singh and George W. Bush espoused hit the Indian ground in the form of reactor projects in Maharashtra’s Jaitapur, Kovvada in Andhra Pradesh, Mithi Virdi in Gujarat and several other sites where the government is setting up ‘indigenous’ reactors, fuel-fabrication units and other facilities to fuel a massive anachronistic expansion of nuclear energy, Praful Bidwai used his columns and articles to highlight the grave dangers that this pipe-dream represents for the people of India. His prediction that it will be resisted strongly on the ground as it s going to destroy people’s lives soon came true and Praful stood with the struggles of Jaitapur, Koodankulam, Gorakhpur and other proposed sites. He amplified the concerns of the people’s agitations as a journalist, made efforts to create an informed debate by his rigorous articles and as a citizen stood strongly with the democratic rights of the grassroots communities to decide their fate and future. At a time when the media is either gagged or is an active party in propagating one-sided stories, Praful Bidwai could always be relied to speak truth to the power in his own inimitable and undeniable style.

Praful Bidwai’s departure has created a huge void. He took on the mighty and well-heeled nuclear establishment of India through his exemplary rigour and finesse. He democratised the Indian discourse on nuclear issues and filled it with people in flesh and blood, without which it would have just been a narrow lane with nuclear policy elites chatting among themselves.


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