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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 1, December 22, 2012 [Annual 2012]

Fifty Years of Fearless Journalism

Thursday 3 January 2013, by Barun Das Gupta

Mainstream appeared at a critical moment of independent India’s history. Its first issue was dated September 1, 1962. The eighth issue (dated October 20) hit the newsstands a day before, on the 19th. And on the 20th, began the Chinese aggression in Arunachal Pradesh (then NEFA). At the time, the biggest Left formation in India was the undivided CPI. The Chinese aggression put the party in a moral quandary: was it an ‘aggression’ or a ‘border war’? If it was an aggression then who was the aggressor—India or China? The faultlines that had started developing within the CPI from before between the two groups, one in favour of National Front and the other for Democratic Front, became all the more visible.
One section within the CPI worked out a simple syllogism: China is a socialist country. A socialist country cannot commit aggression. Ergo, China was not the aggressor. Who was the aggressor then? Was it India? This particular section believed India was the aggressor but with strong anti-China sentiments sweeping the country, the prominent exponents of this line were afraid of saying so in public. They writhed and wriggled whenever faced with the question: Do you, or do you not, think that China is the aggressor? To evade a direct answer, they resorted to all sorts of sophistry and casuistry.

The then party General Secretary, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, was confronted with this question at a press conference in Delhi. Mohit Sen in his autobiography, The Traveller and the Road, has left a graphic account of Namboodiripad’s discomfiture at that press conference. He writes:

“…E.M.S. called a press conference. Dange [at the time Chairman of the party—B.D.G.], who was in Delhi, but was not living in the CPI office, was not informed about the press conference. Some of the comrades in the office, however, told him. In the meantime, the press conference had begun and E.M.S. was asked whether he thought the Chinese had committed aggression. He said that the Chinese had entered territory that they thought was theirs and hence there was no question of aggression as far as they were concerned. At the same time, the Indians were defending territory that they considered theirs and so they were not committing aggression either. Just then Dange walked in and sarcastically asked: ‘And what is your opinion about the territory in question?’ Even as E.M.S. fumbled for a reply, Dange stated that the Chinese had attacked India, occupied Indian territory and the Communists supported Nehru’s call to the nation to defend itself and repel the Chinese forces...”

Mainstream had been brought out by a group of people who were all Leftist. Some of them were card-holding members of the CPI. Mainstream, however, did not suffer from any doubt in judging who was the aggressor and who the aggressed. The editorial captioned Out of the Baptism of Fire that apeared in the issue dated November 24, 1962, was frank and forthright. The Chinese aggression, it said, was free India’s first Baptism of Fire. Mainstream’s main task, at that time, was to explain to its readers and its much wider circle of friends and sympathisers that what China had done was totally indefensible from the point of view of communist principles, that it had, by its unprovoked and thoughtless action, made tens of thousands of Communists and Left supporters of this country a target of attack. Their patriotism was being questioned and an anti-communist frenzy was being whipped up. In fact, the Chinese leadership had objectively helped the anti-communist and pro-imperialist forces in India.

With its limited strength and resources, Mainstream defended the Left ideology, combated the Right-wing forces which were trying to take advantage of the situation and weaken Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership and push India, smarting under a humiliating defeat, under an American ‘umbrella’ and strove for the unity of all the forward-looking patriotic people of the country.

As days passed and the Right-wing challenge became more pronounced, Mainstream sought to act as a bridge between progressive Congressmen and Left thinkers and intellectuals. Its pages were offered for discussion to people of all persuasions who shared some common values. It stood for a strong public sector, it stood for unity and solidarity of the Afro-Asian and Latin American countries which constituted the Third World, it stood for deepening friendship with the Soviet Union and socialist countries, it stood for combating the Right-wing forces in the country.

Another big challenge came to Mainstream when Indira Gandhi declared National Emergency after a court verdict held her guilty of violating electoral laws and struck down her elelction to Lok Sabha from tha Rae Bareilly constituency. Draconian censorship rules effectively muzzled the Press but Mainstream under its editor, Nikhil Chakravartty, conveyed to its ‘perceptive readers’—a phrase that Nikhilda would use very frequently during that dark period—what it thought and felt about the goings-on in the country and the rise of Sanjay Gandhi as the Exrra-Constitutional Authority.

Even during those days, Nikhil Chakravartty commanded awe and respect from the members of the power elite that grew round the mother-and-son duo. Tit-bits of information of what was happening in the Cabinet meetings and in the cabals centring round Sanjay would come out. One heard that at a Cabinet meeting, the then Information and Broadcasting Minister Vidya Charan Shukla showed impatience with the not-so-veiled criticism of the Emergency and the Emergency Raj by Mainstream and suggested ‘something’ be done about its editor but stopped short of saying that he should be arrested. Indira Gandhi heard him but did not respond. She just smiled.

After a few weeks, however, Shukla lost his patience and said in a Cabinet meeting that he had shown enough patience and the editor of Mainstream should now be arrested and thrown behind the bars. This time Indira Gandhi took note of what Shukla was asking for. “Do you know the man you want to arrest has his fingers in every nook and cranny of your government?” That settled it. Shukla dared not broach the subject ever again or send Nikhil-da to jail.

But censorship became more rigorous by the day. Even allusive comments like what Jim Corbett said about something being in the centre of vision and some other things being at one side of the field of vision to convey a subtle meaning to the ‘perceptive reader’ were not to escape the eyes of the censor. A time came when it became practically impossible to carry on with the publishing of Mainstream to convey any message to the reader.

On December 10, 1976, the government served pre-censorship orders on the editor of Mainstream. Nikhilda decided to suspend publication. The farewell editorial, captioned Goodbye to All That, however, ended on an optimistic note. It assured the readers: “As winter has come, spring cannot be far behind. And with the first sprouting of spring shall Mainstream reappar.” Fortunately, Indira Gandhi announced the Lok Sabha elections soon thereafter, press censorship was relaxed and eventually, internal Emergency was withdrawn. After an interruption of a few weeks, Mainstream did reappear.

Nikhilda left us in 1998. But Mainstream has been carrying on with the legacy of fearless journalism that he bequeathed to us. There is no Emergency now but the political climate has become far more hostile to all that Mainstream holds dear, cherishes and espouses. The Preamble to the Constitution says that India is a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic. But under the new dispensation ‘socialism’ has become a dead letter confined to the Constitution only. Even during the period of Emergency, the Congress had very many people who were committed to the ideal of socialism and were prepared to engage in ideological debate within the party. All that is a matter of history now.

This writer has been associated with Mainstrean since 1967. His first article on Naga insurgency was carried in the Republic Day, 1967 issue of this paper. The association continues. I conclude with the hope that fifty years hence, when none of us in the old team will be around, Mainstream will celebrate the 100th year of its eventful but purposeful journey in the service of the people of India.

The reviewer was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Dasgupta.

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