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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 46 New Delhi November 5, 2016

Nikhil Chakravartty’s 103rd birth anniversary - November 3, 2016: Tributes and Writings

Monday 7 November 2016


November 3, 2016 marked Nikhil Chakravartty’s 103rd birth anniversary. On this occasion we reproduce three pieces on N.C. written by three personalities, former President K.R. Narayanan and eminent journalists N.S. Jagannathan and Hiranmay Karlekar, who knew him closely. These appeared first in The Book Review (August 1998) and then in Mainstream (September 12, 1998).

For N.C. Democracy and Socialism were Inseparable

k.r. narayanan

It was in 1963 that I met Nikhil Chakravartty for the first time. I had just taken over as Director of the China Division in the Ministry of External Affairs. He came to see me in his capacity as a journalist, as someone who knew China and was deeply interested in Sino-Indian relations. From this very first encounter I was attracted by his unassuming ways, his vast knowledge of things, his insights into people and politics, his keen intellect and power of analysis, the quiet sense of humour that enlivened his conversation and the deep humanity that broke out through his Socialist argumentations. Very soon we became friends and our families became friends.

In 1975 when Chandra Chari, Uma Lyengar and my ...... Chitra ventured on starting The Book Review, Nikhilda was one of the enthusiastic supporters of the project. Later when The Book Review was facing a crisis of publication it was he was took it over and published it from his Perspective Publications and kept it going for ten long years. When the three founding women editors were able to take over the publication, Nikhilda returned it to them and with a financial contribution, Nikhilda was in a real sense the foster parent of The Book Review.

I recall vividly Nikhil’s visit to Beijing when I was at the Embassy there and his stay with us in 1978. He was visiting Beijing after many years. It was interesting to see how he traced out some of his old friends in Beijing and how warmly they received him and entertained him. He had so many memories and stories to tell of the old golden days of India-China friendship under Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai. We went together to see the famous Dazhai commune and, of course, the splendid monuments of Beijing. His observations of China of the time were acute and educative. As a guest he was the easiest and the most delightful to look after.

On return to India we picked up the old threads of friendship with the Chakravartty family. By this time I was a non-official—Vice-Chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. I discovered that as a non-official it was easier to deal with Nikhilda. He was indeed a born non-official. We came closer to each other during this period. I discovered how fond he was, though very undemonstratively, of his son Sumit and his grandson whom he called Mithi. His wife, Renu, was for him a life-companion, for she had been a colleague and a comrade as well, an active and equal participation in several initiatives, political and social. Her passing away was a blow to him; he did not show his grief and did not permit it to impede his work and mission in life. But think he was not quite the same after the death of Renu.

When I became the Vice-President he still used to visit us very frequently. But he was never at ease with officialdom and meticulously avoided attending all official parties, unless it had some connection with his profession—journalism. I invited him several times to join on my foreign visits, but he was not interested. When I was making an official visit to Iran in 1996 I told him that I would like to take Sumit with the group of journalists accompanying me. To my surprise he replied, “Why not his father?” This was the first time Nikhil had suggested anything for himself. He came with me along with Katyal of The Hindu, Saeed Naqvi and Zahid Ali Khan. It was a most rewarding experience for me to be with him an official trip. We went to Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz. Nikhil’s observations of Iran were most enlightening, he sensed with an uncanny instinct the change that was in the making in Iranian society.

A conversation with Nikhilda was liberal education—sometimes it was a revolutionary education. New facets of issues used to show up. And his recollections of Indian personalities, leaders and events were amazingly rich, throwing new light on the personalities and on the history of the nationalist movement and the post-independence period. I used to ask Nikhil why he did not record his conversations because they were things he would not jot down on paper. Now they are lost irretrievably.

Everyone knew that Nikhil Chakravartty was a Socialist. But he was a democrat among socialists and a socialist among democrats. For him democracy and socialism were inseparable. He strove through his chosen medium of journalism to keep the nation attuned to the national imperative of soical justice and the international imperative of equality among nations. He spoke as he thought, simply; he wrote as he spoke, clearly; but both were thought-provoking and scintillating. Not for Nikhilda is the glib phrase, the shallow one-liner, the hidden jibe. Not for him the praise of authority or the medallion of public favour. Nikhil Chakravartty believed that journalism was a calling, not just a profession, much less a lucrative business.

The fact that his weekly the Mainstream has not only survived through the years, but flouri-shed as a journal, spreading his ideas and outlook on politics and social affairs, not in any exclusive manner on politics but in the welter of different ideas and opinions that found place in its pages, is a testimony and a tribute to his purposiveness in the midst of his myriad-minded interests and concerns. Among the many contributions he has bequeathed to us the Mainstream is unique. That he has left it in the young and able hands of Sumit Chakravartty is a matter of pride and solace to all his friends who cherish unforgettable memories of this lovable and humane personality, this unpreten-tious intellectual, this unassuming crusader for progressive causes, and this gentle giant of journalism of the twentieth century. 

An Undeceived Leftist

n.s. jagannathan

My acquaintance with Nikhil Chakravartty began in the mid-sixties when I was working with The Hindustan Times. Mainstream had just been launched and my Leftist friends had introduced me to the journal and, a little later, to Nikhil himself. He had not yet become the father figure he had since, and even though I was much younger to him, pride would not let me address him as ‘Nikhilda’ as others had even then started to do. He was still a distant figure to me, though friends in Patriot, just born and at its combative best, constantly spoke of him. It was only when the Emergency was imposed in 1975 and the Indian Press was under siege that I came to know him better. Then began an association which I have counted as one of the best things to have happened to me. On my part it was part awe and part slowly maturing affection. On his part he gave generously of his enormous reserves of friendship—to which anyone who knew him more than slightly will readily testify.

In these twentyfive years, we have met countless number of times, and on occasions, worked together. The years he was President of the Editors Guild were the most active of that rather lackadaisical body. Under his guidance the Guild accomplished a great deal more than rhetoric about the ‘Freedom of the Press’. On behalf of the Guild, we travelled together more than once to the then turbulent Punjab.

On his return from Oxford in the early forties and after a couple of false starts, including a stint in academia, Nikhil chose the one profession that was tailor-made for him. He had few peers in journalism, especially commentative journalism. His commitment to the freedom of the press was total and his norms of professional ethics was of the strictest. People who have only read him would not know that what appeared in print was only a minuscule fraction of what he knew. His knowledge of affairs, especially Indian politics and it dynamics, was astonishing. There was no one of any consequence in the Indian public life he did not know and who did not readily, even eagerly, share confidences with him. Leaders of all political parties spoke to him freely with the total trust that he would not betray their dark secrets. He did not eke his columns out with these whispered confidences as others, anxious to show off their rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty, often did.

His intellectual range was astonishing, though he wore his learning lightly. This and his knowledge of affairs he shared with me much to my enrichment. He had a certain dry ironic wit that he held under check in his public writing but his conversation with friends sparkled with this sardonic humour.

Nikhil was a life-long Leftist in politics but an undeceived one. Often his writings irked official Communists but none dared question his intellectual honesty, public purpose and commitment to India that shone through everything he did or write. Almost alone among commentators on public affairs he once pleaded for a national government, seeing in it the only solution to the immobilism and confusion caused by a fragmented political electoral verdict.

Books were a special interest of Nikhil and his contribution to the growth and stabilisation of The Book Review will be gratefully acknowledged by all those associated with it. His loss is a deeply personal one to me and to everyone who knew him. 

Commanding Moral Presence

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 Commu-nist 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 adminis-trative 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.

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