Praful Bidwai: a tribute by M V Ramana

PrafulBidwaiIt is hard to imagine that my dear friend, Praful, is no more. In my mind, I still expect that the next time I visit Delhi, he will be there to greet me, as he did every time we met, with a big hug saying Hello Comrade. And we would have a drink and a meal together as always.

I first saw Praful in 1993, when he came to give a talk at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, USA, under the auspices of an organization called the Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia that some of us had formed in response to the Babri Masjid being taken down. I still remember his precise and incisive replies to the questions from the audience, especially a small coterie of Hindutva supporters that tried to heckle him, and his analysis of the situation in India influenced me greatly. Some years later, in 1996, after I made my decision to stop pursuing a career in theoretical physics and start worrying about nuclear matters, I crossed paths with Praful again, and once again it was a talk at MIT, but this time on India and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, that brought him my way. In the days preceding and following the talk, we spent a significant amount of time together and he gave me a lot of sage advice, which was really critical for a beginner in the field. That mentoring has continued ever since, till 23 June 2015, i.e., and I owe Praful a huge debt of gratitude.

Once one got to know him, it is hard not to be friends with Praful. He was generous to a fault, knew a great deal about many different topics, was passionate about a number of causes, and could offer a clear and cogent analysis of whatever important was happening. But he also loved good food and music, and was extremely knowledgeable about both. In the last few months, we had two lengthy email exchanges: the first, not surprisingly, on the “nuclear deal” between Modi and Obama, and the second, somewhat more unexpectedly, on what music to play at a memorial meeting for the writer and political activist Mike Marqusee, who was very fond of Carnatic (south Indian classical) music. After several emails, we settled on a composition by Tyagaraja called Vararagalaya in Chenchukamboji, which was then followed by some more emails on whose rendition of the song should be played. Praful listened to a few versions and then agreed with my suggestion of a recording by the late musician G N Balasubramaniam. That was Praful, comfortable discussing both the intricacies of the nuclear liability law and the differences between Maharajapuram Santhanam and G N Balasubramaniam.

Praful’s death is a profound loss for the global nuclear disarmament movement, for the struggles against nuclear power plant construction, for the environmental movement, for human rights, and for left politics at large. As we keep on with all these struggles, let us remember and salute Praful for his numerous contributions.

M V Ramana is a physicist in Princeton University, associated with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace(CNDP)