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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 28, June 27, 2009

Symbol of a Heroic Age

Thursday 2 July 2009, by P.C. Joshi

In the passing away of Nikhilda at the ripe age of eightyfour the country has lost the doyen of Indian journalism and a vigilant watchdog of national interest and democratic rights. And the common people have also lost a friend who was sensitive to their hardships and their striving for a better life.

The loss caused by his passing away is hard to fill. For in his own way he was the symbol, one of the few left, of a heroic age—the age of India’s epochal fight against British imperialism and her emergence into independent nationhood.

Nurtured in his youthful years by the values of the Bengal Renaissance and by the impact of radical Western thought, of Marxism and Russian Revolution, Nikhil was like many others essentially the child of the Indian Revolution. A Revolution which, as Nehru aptly said, had lifted up ordinary men and women of destiny, into architects of a new India. The Indian Revolution had resulted in the flowering of India’s creative spirit in every filed—in politics, culture, journalism, law, social reform, education, science, humanities and industry.

Nikhilda’s medium was journalism which he pursued for more than half a century not as a career as is in fashion today but with what was once called a sense of calling—as social engagement and a political mission. Nikhilda had learnt the art and science of journalism not in any modern school of journalism but as a political activist in the liberation struggle, as a member of the then undivided Communist Party of India. That was the time when the tallest leaders of the national movement like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad were also the trail-blazers in the field of patriotic journalism. But the role model for young activists making their entry into journalism was the revolutionary leader, P.C. Joshi, the pioneer of Left-wing journalism at its best. He began with National Front and then became the founder-editor first of People’s Age followed by New Age. Nikhilda and others who had worked with Joshi recalled how he was always present with his pencil and scribbling pad at the scene of momentous national developments and for a face-to-face encounter with the people who were many a time the objects but also sometimes the subjects of epoch-making historical processes. They also recalled how Joshi shot into fame as a down-to-earth reporter of the living conditions and struggles of ordinary workers in the slums and their workplaces, of peasants in their huts and their fields, of ordinary middle class wives in their homes, and of the bridal girls and boys in their fight for a livelihood and in their song and dance. They recalled also with pride how Joshi and his devoted colleagues like Nikhilda had given voice to Bengal’s sons and daughters, who were dying in their millions in the Great Bengal Famine; and to the holy wrath of the people against a heartless colonial regime which had allowed the perpetration of one of the greatest tragedies in human history. Joshi’s writings like “Who Lives if Bengal Dies?”, “Humanity Dehumanised!” alongwith the photographs by Sunil Janah and sketches by Chittaprosad had stirred the conscience of the intelligentsia all over India. They had helped to transform the silent sympathy of many with the victims of the tragedy into activism for the cause of the famine-stricken. That was the golden age of Left journalism and indeed of Left-wing activism which had created celebrities in the field of journalism, creative writing, photography and painting, films and theatre out of absolutely unknown and ordinary middle-class sons and daughters of India.

It is this ethos, this élan and this harnessing of professionalism for social purpose that had left a deep impress on Nikhilda.

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We do not know what had led him to turn from History teaching to journalism. It is a fact, however, that the Bengal Famine had left a lasting impact on every sensitive Bengali youth of that period. The eminent economist, Amartya Sen, who was much younger than Nikhilda, had remarked that he could never erase the memories of the millions of starving poor who were dying in the streets of Calcutta from his mind. He wanted to do something and he thought economics could help him unravel the causes of the phenomenon of mass hunger afflicting poor countries which led to death or semi-dead existence due to chronic starvation on a vast scale. It seems that the tragedy of the Bengal Famine and the role played by Left journalism in anti-famine mobilisation had clinched Nikhilda’s choice in favour of journalism. He saw in practice the social conscience-stirring role of journalism and its vast potential for rousing social consciousness preparatory to social intervention. Nikhilda had thus resolved to follow the footsteps of his mentor, P.C. Joshi, and to combine activism with journalistic writing. He was destined to develop into the most distinguished ‘reporter’ of post-colonial India always ready with his pen and scribbling pad to visit different parts of India and to report directly from the field not only his view of events but also the perception of the people involved in these events. Nikhilda was not an armchair editor or desk-bound correspondent or analyst trying to cover events from the Capital of India or from State capitals. At his best he was a field-worker, a communicator constantly interacting with activists and the people on the ground. P.C. Joshi’s dictum “without investigation no right to speak” and “without field work no right to report” had become Nikhilda’s credo for his best years as a journalist.

No wonder even three months before his death he who was now in his eighties was hopping from Delhi to Assam and to Kerala so as to have a feel of the political situation in terms of ground level realities and perceptions as he had been doing in his younger days.

Like the proverbial Narada of Hindu mythology he had access to the highest and the tallest in the land. But unlike Narada he kept the confidence reposed in him even by those ‘opposed’ to him. In his reporting, however, he was unsparing though fair. He moved freely in the corridors of power without carrying any taint or blemish from association with people in high places. He interacted with leaders and activists from all political parties and groups and he was one of the few who had gained an “above party” image. Some thought he was becoming de-ideologised and losing his old moorings. But to be fair to him he was by temperament not given to strong ideological or personal fixations. Even as a party functionary he could easily switch over from P.C. Joshi to B.T. Ranadive or Ajoy Ghosh who succeeded Joshi. He was in the habit of attaching himself not to persons but to institutions and to larger causes than to ideology in the narrower sense of the term. How he grew from a Communist Party activist into a national figure respected by all political parties and by people from different walks of life is a fascinating story full of human interest and of lessons for succeeding generations.

Nikhilda was too much involved in the present and he rarely reminisced about his past. But there were occasions, though very rare, when he reflected on his formative years and on how much he owed to the party, to his mentors like P.C. Joshi and to the overall impact of the era of Gandhi and Tagore, Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose. About ten years back when I was the Chairman, Indian Institute of Mass Communication and he was an Executive Council member, we often shared our thoughts on the communication scene today. We agreed that though there was more technical sophistication today, there was much less of that sense of social purpose, empathy and sensitivity which had enabled a much smaller community of communicators to make their impact on their society and their times. We also agreed that this great heritage must be captured and transmitted to the young people who were making their entry into communication in large numbers. I had then requested Nikhilda to make a beginning and speak about his experiences in the form of lectures to young trainees in IIMC and other places. The theme for his lectures suggested by me was: “My Experiences as a Reporter”. Nikhilda had agreed. But his busy schedule and, more importantly, his basic reticence to speak about himself did not allow this project to take shape. I had reminded him about it whenever we had occasion to meet later. I still feel this was a big loss for there was much of value for the younger journalists in his experiences which had remained unsaid, unrecorded and uncommunicated.

Perhaps some of those who knew him well could collaborate in the writing of his biography. One wonders whether he has left any personal notes or records which can help in such an exercise. Perhaps a selection of his best writings could also be fruitfully compiled for the education and information of budding journalists and for the assessment of the contribution of yesterday’s veterans.

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Nikhilda had his roots primarily in the print media. But he was perceptive and dynamic enough to appreciate the enormous role of the fast-growing electronic media. When the powerful bureaucrat-politician nexus in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting was determined to ignore and virtually suppress the report of the Software Committee appointed by the government itself of which I happened to be the Chairman and distinguished persons like Bhupen Hazarika, Sai Paranjapye, G.N.S. Raghavan, Alyque Padamsee, Rami Chhabra and Mohan Upreti were its members, Nikhilda had seized the initiative. He had taken the bold step of serialising the summary of the main observations and recommendations of this report through Mainstream.

Many had come to know about this report and its proposals through Mainstream only since the report published by the government became available much later. It was due to Nikhilda’s initiative that the report which would have gone into oblivion became the basis of nationwide public debate on communication policy and software planning.

Nikhilda and under his direction, Namedia, later carried forward this debate in a series of regional conferences, culminating in a National Conference at Vigyan Bhavan, Delhi on the theme. “The Vision for Indian Television”. Nikhilda’s chairmanship of Prasar Bharati had raised hopes that Doordarshan and AIR would contribute towards giving practical shape to this vision. But again the bureaucrat-politician nexus proved to be very formidable for any breakthrough in a new direction.

It is very difficult to have a full measure of Nikhilda’s many-sided contributors to India’s public life. But among all his outstanding achievements his contribution as founder-editor and builder of Mainstream as one of India’s leading political weeklies stands out as the most prominent. Over the years under Nikhilda’s leadership Mainstream had developed a character of its own combining catholicity with a sense of social purpose. It had acquired wide credibility for its authentic reporting and analysis of the national scene from diverse points of view. Nikhilda had ensured that it was radical and forward-looking in the best sense of the term without being partisan and sectarian and that it was critical without being vituperative as was the case with much of latter day Left journalism.

There was a time when everyone who counted in the field of ideas and social action had written for Mainstream. It had attracted persons from diverse fields holding widely divergent views. And that was Nikhilda’s unique achievement. This was not just an editorial feat. It had something to do with Nikhilda’s basic conviction that free debate and discourse was the essence of democracy. Indeed Indian democracy was richer and resilient because of journals like Mainstream and editors like Nikhilda. The two other names which come to mind are those of Sachin Chaudhury, the founder-editor of Economic and Political Weekly, and of Ramesh Thapar, the founder-editor of Seminar. It is no accident that all the three had their roots in Left-wing radicalism which in its best days was not self-isolating. It was eager to join and enrich the mainstream and be enriched by it.

The best homage that we can pay to Nikhilda is to help his successor-editor in sustaining Mainstream as a political journal of national importance—a journal that carries forward Nikhilda’s traditions and ideals.

I wish to conclude with an anecdote. I recall how we happened to be together to pay our tearful homage to the late P.C. Joshi when his body draped in red flag was lying at Ajoy Bhavan. Joshi’s last four years were years of great suffering as a half-paralysed invalid confined to bed. We were both looking at Joshi who was now lying in eternal sleep and were finding it difficult to say anything to each other. Then Nikhilda said in a quivering voice. “All the tension is now over. But he did not deserve to die like this inch by inch. One should be spared of such suffering!”

Nikhilda’s prayer was partly answered and he was spared prolonged suffering. He passed away as gently and gracefully as he had lived through most of his life. He was at peace with himself.

We are impoverished because one like him is no more in our midst. But we are enriched by the memories he has left behind.

(Mainstream, July 11, 1998)

The author is an eminent social scientist.

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