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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 45, October 30, 2010

Commanding Moral Presence

Saturday 30 October 2010

by Hiranmay Karlekar

It is only with time that the magnitude of the void created by Nikhil Chakravartty’s passing becomes clear to some of us. Initially, we took the news with resignation; sorrow was tempered by the realisation that he was terminally ill and it was a matter of time. Gradually, however, the implications of the loss to India’s factured media of perhaps its most commanding moral presence begin to gnaw. Whose sober counsel, whose voice of wisdom stemming from a non-negotiable commitment to values would now prevail?

Nihil Chakravartty, to most of us Nikhilda, a form of reference and direct address in Bengali which signifies an elder brother, commanded respect not by his intimidating presence. He was laid back and avuncular. He had a sharp and dry sense of humour and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes invariably preceded its expression. He never raised his voice or thrust himself centre-stage. It was his impeccable personal conduct and the commitment to truth and values that characterised his journalism, which gave him his stature. It was this commitment which prompted him to close down Mainstream, the weekly he founded and painstakingly turned into a respected organ of discourse, during the dark period of the Emergency (1975-77) when he could not publish what he wanted to.

Nikhilda’s visceral morality was shaped party by the Brahmo Samaj, to which his family belonged and which was known for its emphasis on a life of high rectitude and an almost puritanical austerity, and Marxism, a philosophy of elemental outrage against the inequities of unbridled nineteenth century capitalism. He came under the spell of Marxism, whose morality is rooted in its concern for social justice, during his days in Oxford which, alongwith that other great British University, Cambridge, was a nursery of young Communists in the 1930s. Returning to India, he shunned the arm chair and plunged into militant activity, going underground when the Communist Party of India was banned following its switch to an insurrectionary line after its Second Congress in Calcutta in February-March 1948.

It was not just Nikhilda who was active in the CPI. His wife, Renu Chakravartty, a niece of Dr B.C. Roy, West Bengal’s highly respected patrician Chief Minister, was a Member of the Lok Sabha, for several terms, and an articulate and skilled parliamentarian. Nikhilda, however, was never shackled by his ideology and party and strongly criticised the latter whenever he thought it necessary. He was deeply troubled by the Soviet invasion of Hungry in 1956 and occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Sino-Indian border clashes in 1962, and the acrimonious splitting of the undivided Communist Party of India in 1964 with the CPI-M emerging as a new party. Equally painful to him was the disclosure of Joseph Stalin’s monstrous crimes by Nikita Khrushchev at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, the Sino-Soviet schism, the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s lurch toward a market economy.

Yet Nikhilda’s was never a case of The God That Failed; he was too much of a rationalist to have any god—neither Marx nor any other. As he slowly drifted away from the party, he evolved his weltanschauung in which Marxism was tempered by humanism and pluralism and a commitment to libertarian values. Mainstream, which he resurrected after the Emergency, and turned into a highly respected journal of discourse, reflected this in its content which was marked by a remarkable diversity of ideological positions and wide-ranging polemic of a high quality. It also mirrored his deep concern over the decline in the level of political discourse in India and the growing trivialisation and criminalisation of politics under the influence of consumer culture and the market economy. Yet he did not give up hope; nor did he become cynical and embittered but waged a relentless war, not only through Mainstream but the incisive and highly respected syndicated political column he wrote.

It is hardly surprising, journalism which he took up after teaching in college for a spell on his return from Oxford, became his principal avocation. And he became the natural leader of his profession. He was active for years in the Editors Gild of India whose President he was at one time. An unfailing champion of the freedom of the Press, he actively defended it both in the Press Council of India, of which he was a member, and in movements launched by journalists, displaying, even when he had crossed eighty, a reserve of energy which shamed many decades younger.

His last assignment was as Chairman of Prasar Bharati, the autonomous Corporation that the Gujral Government had created by an Ordinance to supervise the functioning of Doordarshan and All-India Radio which too had been liberated from government control. It was not an easy task and involved dealing with not only the ethos of a new broadcasting and telecasting culture, but multitudinous administrative issues. He brought to it the same application and sense of fairplay which he displayed in all the diverse functions he had discharged in his life.

With his passing, Prasar Bharati has lost its gentle and wise guiding hand and Indian journalism its tallest protagonist. It is a tragedy that this should happen when the media has been thrown into a deep crisis by the advent of the consumer culture and the market economy.

[This tribute appeared first in The Book Review and was then reproduced in Mainstream, September
12, 1998]

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