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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 46

Nikhil

Saturday 3 November 2007, by Mohit Sen

It was the mid-forties that I first came across Nikhil. Bundle, my eldest brother, belonged to the outer fringe of the Indian Communist students group formed in England in the late 1930s. Indrajit Gupta, Mohan Kumaramangalam, Parvati Krishnan, N.K. Krishnan, Bhupesh Gupta, Renu Chakravartty, Jyoti Basu, Arun Bose, Rajani Patel, Nikhil Chakravartty were among the members of this group. They all worked with and in the Communist Party of India on their return to our country. At first it was an underground connection as the CPI was a banned party. From 1942 it was all in the open. Those were the sunlit springtime years of the CPI which was led by the remarkable P.C. Joshi who drew the talented to him like flowers are drawn to the sun.

It was through my eldest brother that as a youngster I was introduced to this remarkable company. Nikhil worked from Calcutta and was already a recognised reporter. I came a little closer to him when we sometimes met in the Elgin Road flat of Professor Susobhan Sarkar, the common teacher of my eldest brother, Nikhil and myself and the greatest teacher of History that Presidency College and Calcutta University has had.

Later in 1948 when the West Bengal Govern-ment was on the point of arresting all the CPI leaders who had gathered at Calutta for the party’s Second Congress, one of its intelligence Branch officers—a sympathiser of the CPI and a former student Professor Sarkar—passed on the information to his teacher who contacted Nikhil who then helped most of the leaders escape the police dragnet.

Some months later it was Nikhil who gave me a coded message to be handed over to R. Palme Dutt in London when I was proceeding to Cambridge. It was concealed in the false bottom of a match box! It was he who headed the underground apparatus of the CPI from 1948 and kept it going till the ban on the party was lifted in 1951. He was the chief organiser from the CPI’s side of the secret journey of Ajoy Ghosh, S.A. Dange, C. Rajeswara Rao and M. Basavapunnaiah to Moscow in 1950 to meet Stalin and other leaders of the CPSU.

It is pity that he never wrote about this period of his life. He was always reticent about this and quite naturally so. It will now be a forgotten page of the CPI’s history.

In order not to encumber this reminiscence with too many details suffice it to say that by the strange workings of chance Vanaja and I lived in the barsati of 26 North Avenue as the “party guests” of Nikhil and Renu from 1954 to 1959. We became closely connected with the entire talented Chakravartty family.

At least from those years till around 1978 Nikhil was one of the key cadres of the CPI’s all-India centre. He was very close to Ajoy Ghosh who was the General Secretary of the CPI from 1951 to 1962. And also with C. Rajeswara Rao from the time the latter became General Secretary till Nikhil’s departure from the party centre in 1978.

Nikhil remained in the CPI when the CPI-M split from it in 1964. In the years preceding the split he worked vigorously for the victory of the new line of national unity that the majority in the CPI were then advocating. Despite this heavy burden of work as the key cadre of the party centre and, to an extent, as a part of it he had an enormous number of friends and contacts. Prominent among them were P.N. Haksar, Professor P.C. Mahalanobis, Feroze Gandhi, Smt Aruna Asaf Ali. Dr Radhakrishnan was an elder.

Mainstream and the India Press Agency first came into being on the advice of Ajoy Ghosh who felt that the CPI’s official weekly and other publications would not be able to bring a broad spectrum of progressive intellectuals to work together with the party. For some time the Hindi Muktadhara and Bengali Saptaha were part of the Mainstream family.

IT is necessary to remember these long creative years of the life and work of Nikhil. He never disowned these years of his life though he clearly changed a lot from the days when he was an outspoken defender of the Soviet action against the “Prague spring” in 1968. He did not change his reticence though. He could most easily have become a prominent public leader of the CPI. His record and his remarkable talent certainly entitled him to that. But he stubbornly insisted on remaining in the background.

His opposition to the Emergency has been prominently mentioned. His closing down of Mainstream has earned him much praise from many quarters. He, of course, never supported the “total revolution” of JP. Still considering his political views in 1975 his vehement opposition to the Emergency and to Smt Indira Gandhi came as a surprise. In any event his political orientation underwent an almost total change since those years though he never became an anti-Communist. Indeed, philosophically and in terms of the final aim of all his activity I found him a Communist right till the last time I met him in April 1998 though he no longer spoke the same language as I did and which he and some others had inspired me to use ever since the days of my youth.

Since he became what can be called an independent Leftist if not Communist (the latter term is what I would like to use) he, of course, significantly widened the scope of his work and the range of his relations. It was in this period that he became a national personality. The work he did brought him fame.

Though no longer residing in Delhi I frequently visited the Capital and every time I visited him for breakfast at his Kaka Nagar flat, he was always friendly, interesting, anecdotal and increasingly affectionate.

He did not think that much would come from my efforts and of comrades associated with me to keep the Red Flag flying by building up the UCPI. Nevertheless, he encouraged me by reading my articles though often with amusement as he said most of it was day-dreaming. What is more, he donated a handsome amount to our party fund and became a life subscriber to our magazine.

His most frequent advice was that like we did decades ago it was for the contemporary younger generation to decide whether they wanted socialism, communism, capitalism or communa-lism. We should concentrate on relating our experiences if they were asked for. His advice was to act like a dictionary. A dictionary never propagated spelling but it was always there to be consulted.

Nikhil was a lonely and even sad person. Though never lacking a crowd he seemed to be missing someone. Renu’s death, I believe, left him even lonelier than he thought it would. He, of course, had his brother, sister and their families to fall back upon. They greatly loved and admired him. His love for Sumit, Tanya and his grandson was an uninhibited and expanding emotion. But he kept an emotional distance from almost everybody else.
Nikhil occupied a lot of space in the lives of many of us. Memories will not compensate for the increased emptiness as another joint voyager goes beyond the bar.

(Mainstream, August 8, 1998)

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