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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 46

Remembering Two South Asian Stalwarts

Saturday 3 November 2007, by Javed Jabbar


With the passing away of Nikhil Chakravartty and Mahbub ul Haq less than three weeks apart, on 27 June and 16 July, South Asia has lost two outstanding individuals who belonged to different countries yet shared a deep commitment to the region.

While the fact that Nikhil Chakravartty was Indian and Mahbub ul Haq was Pakistani underlines their distinct national identities within South Asia, their personal attributes were so universal and humanistic that they rose above the variances to define the large, singular vision of which they, and all of us, are intrinsic parts.

The two were born in territories (Nikhil Chakravartty in Bengal and Mahbub ul Haq in Jammu) which at one time or another experienced the pain of Partition and the emergence of a new identity. This experience perhaps accentuated their struggle for a unifying conceptual approach that respects national individuality while promoting a fraternal consensus on fundamental issues of social justice.

Though they shared high values and ideals, the two personalities evolved their perspectives through sharply contrasting institutional processes. Nikhil Chakravartty initially worked in the political sphere on the specific ideological basis of communism and of the Left, to eventually concentrate on journalism and the media. Mahbub ul Haq began by working in the Planning Commission in the Government of Pakistan and then went to work in the World Bank in Washington D.C. and at UNDP in New York. In the 1980s, Mahbub ul Haq participated directly in the political process of Pakistan by becoming a member of the Senate and of the Cabinet.

Where the one had space and freedom to express his views, the other for the most part was more circumscribed by being part of official national and global organisations. But both articulated their particular concerns without being inhibited by, in one case, party ideology or discipline, and in the other, by conventional constraints of employment and public office. Both were candid and outspoken in their writings and speeches because they believed that the truth should transcend all obstacles.

Without the privilege of large sums of inherited wealth, without the special perks and silver spoons which normally fuel young people in pursuit of overseas education, these two men worked hard and long; by sheer dint of their own intelligence and perseverance they reached each stage of their lives on merit alone.

Men often become remarkable because they are fortunate to be the spouses of exceptional women. In both instances here the wives shared insights as much as their surnames; they shaped lives as well as minds, and retained their identities and perspectives even as they helped their men advocate their causes. Whether it was Renu Chakravartty, who represented the Communist Party of India with admirable devotion in the Lok Sabha between 1952 and 1967 and then went on to invigorate the women’s movement until her sad demise in 1994, or whether it is Khadija Haq, who has made valuable contributions to the Society for International Development, to the North-South Roundtable (which she chairs in New York), or to the Human Development Centre in Islamabad (of which she is executive director), the two women were part of their spouses’ ideas and actions.

Young Nikhil

NIKHIL CHAKRAVARTTY saw about 20 years more of life in his 84 years than Mahbub ul Haq did in his 64. The Indian crusader was already an engaged political activist at 33 when Independence came to India and Pakistan in 1947, whereas Mahbub ul Haq, at 13, was still at school but already showing signs of brilliance.

Age separated but did not divide them. The elder of the two formulated his worldview and his empathy for the poor on the basis of a political ideology which had swept across Russia and China, while the younger one evolved his commitment to the poor while working in the insulating confines of government and multilateral institutions which are firmly rigid and exclusivist in their orientation. Both men were dissenters from the formal political thought processes of their respective countries and areas of professional endeavour. Yet both had a sense of maturity and balance to articulate bold and radical approaches without urging violent destruction.

Nikhil Chakravartty was widely respected overseas by those who knew him but he concentrated on working in his own country, whose size, diversity and vicissitudes offered numerous causes which required attention. He began by becoming an elder statesman of Indian journalism who opposed the imposition of the Emergency by Indira Gandhi in 1975 as also the attempt by her son Rajiv Gandhi about a decade later to pass the Anti-Defamation Bill. At the same time he took detailed interest in the problems faced by journalists in small towns and in local publications, providing the weight of his personality to the positions they had taken and helping them through difficulties. As founding editor of Mainstream, the journal whose gloss was in its deliberative content rather than on its cover, he expressed the insights that come from quiet contemplation of serious themes.

This writer became personally acquainted with Nikhil Chakravartty quite belatedly, about 10 years ago, and worked closely with him in the formation of the South Asian Media Association (SAMA) in Colombo in 1991. We worked closely together the past eight years to organise regular gatherings of media practitioners and specialists from the countries of South Asia. These were the first meetings of their kind.

Nikhil Chakravartty visited Karachi in Novem-ber 1992 for one such seminar and I remember taking him with other delegates to see Benazir Bhutto, who by then had become the Leader of the Opposition. He listened to her and put questions to her with the curiosity of a young journalist. When he came as a SAARC election observer to Pakistan in 1993 and 1997, he showed the energy and enthusiasm of a young man. In December 1997, in New Delhi when we met for what has turned out to be the last time, we elected him Chairman of SAMA for 1998-99.

Humanist Economist

IN contrast, my association with Mahbub ul Haq began over 30 years ago and covered personal, professional and political spheres. There were also close family relations. Even though we went into different and opposing political positions and parties, we held common views on a number of issues, particularly in the development sector.

As an economist, Mahbub ul Haq got off to a notable start, winning the Adam Smith Prize in 1954 and securing a First from Cambridge in 1955 to go on to become one of the most distinguished international analysts of change. He had an extraordinary capacity to express basic themes and realities in precise, powerfully evocative concepts and statements.

From the first famous formulation that most of the wealth generated in Pakistan in the 1960s had enriched only “22 families”, through the publication of his several books, including the one called The Poverty Curtain in 1976, to the landmark invention of the Human Development Index and the editing of the Human Development Reports this decade, Mahbub ul Haq was able to transform dry-as-dust data into strong, emotive material that touched the heart and the mind.

Working with Robert McNamara at the World Bank in the 1970s, he was able to help sensitise a cold commercial lending institution to the concerns of the poor in the Third World. As Minister of Finance with Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junejo, he introduced the concept of levying a special import duty on all goods to promote education through the Iqra surcharge and also suggested the introduction of an agricultural income tax which regrettably precipitated his transfer to the Ministry of Planning and Development. He returned for a brief period to the Finance portfolio until Zia’s death in August 1988.

With the Human Development Report, published by UNDP, Mahbub ul Haq reached the zenith of his work. He drew together all the diverse economic and social processes to place them under an unrelenting scrutiny in purely human terms.

In 1996, Mahbub ul Haq moved to Islamabad and established the Human Development Centre. Immediately, he commenced publication of a series of ground-breaking reports on facets of the South Asian reality. This writer was privileged to serve as a member of the National Advisory Council of this Centre. In my last conversation with him a few weeks before his demise, he had broached an entirely new and exciting concept to promote regional cooperation. He was also on the verge of upgrading his highly successful Foundation of Science and Technology, which runs a number of computer education institutions, into a full-fledged university.

Nikhil Chakravartty and Mahbub ul Haq were deeply devoted to their respective countries and yet never displayed their patriotism on their sleeves. They carried their national identity with dignity and confidence. Both had the rare ability to listen to extremes of criticism and observation with patience and good humour. In their charm and their warmth, they remained very special people.

The world at large and South Asia in particular have lost two great men. Let us hope that the ideas and sentiments they represented will be renewed and applied in the years ahead.

(Courtesy : Himal)

(Reproduced in Mainstream, September 26, 1998)

The author, an eminent media practitioner of Pakistan (who was for sometime the country’s Information Minister), is the Founding Chairman, South Asian Media Association (SAMA), Karachi.

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