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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 28, New Delhi June 30, 2018

Nikhil Chakravartty: Exemplar

Saturday 30 June 2018, by Badri Raina

In 1986 the Universtiy of Wisconsin Press published my book on Charles Dickens.

My purpose in that book was to demonstrate through an intimate analysis of Dickens oeuvre how Dickens’ deeply felt human concerns were vitiated often by the fact that he was simultaneously both a disgusted and an aspiring Victorian. His disingenuous equation with the then industrial working class may be a classic instance. In the Introduction to that long argument, I made reference to the parallels of that dilemma among so many Indian intellectuals—even on the Left—who often seek both to critique the prevailing order and be an influential adjunct of that order. Needless to underscore that immersion in structures of state power, however guarded and seemingly remote, severely diminishes the probability that an organic intellectual seeking to affect changes that contravene the prevailing order can emulate on any sustained basis the lotus leaf that remains both inside the water and wholly dry as well.

This of course constitutes an important and contested debate in the intellectual life of nations, and I attach neither blame to those who take a different view nor finality to my own predilection.

But, given what I have said above, I have always had the highest admiration for individuals, who despite extraordinary accomplishments, have struggled against inequities and injustices without succumbing to any of the plethora of blandishments that the state and its agencies can always offer to them.

Among such individuals was Nikhil Chakravartty—and over a long career as a comprehensive intervenor in the life of post-independence India. Whether as a scholar and teacher of history, or an opinion-maker, he spoke truth to power without let or hindrance, indeed ever more so at times when avenues of expression were most clamped down upon.

Indeed, at a recent event in Jammu where I was honoured to deliver the third Ved Bhasin Memorial public lecture, Nikhil Da came up in a central way in day-long conversations with young local scholars and teachers who visited my hotel room over two days of fascinating interactions from which I benefited richly. People like Ved Bhasin and Nikhil Chakravartty in the record of their work give us both the courage of conviction and the strength to draw on the resources of truth without any sense of loss.

At a difficult time in the life of England, Wordsworth wrote a sonnet invoking John Milton; to the best of ready recollection, its first lines were as follows: “Milton, thou shouldst have been alive at this hour/England hath most need of thee./ She is a fen of stagnant waters” etc. May I suggest that this thought applies as much to Nikhilda. If he spoke to the draconian Internal Emergency through his blank editorial spaces, he would surely have found us a concomitant way to speak to the zeitgeist which seems far more insidious and determinedly totalitarian on a prolonged basis without any formal declarations yet of a change in the order of the state. As freely ranging vigilantes think nothing of liquidating freely ranging thinkers who dare critique any aspect of the current order of governance, Nihilda might have been in danger but would nonetheless have galvanised many to think and do the right and proper.

Nor do we miss any the less his staunch and unremitting advocacy on behalf the indigent millions in whose name the Republic was forged once. Nikhilda remained very wise to the economic forces that, in the name of “development”, have succeeded in cannabalising the resources of the land and consolidating the ownership of wealth produced largely by the sweat and blood of the hoi polloi. In his day, there were still political leaders sympathetic to egalitarian ideas to whom his writings on such subjects comprised often lodestars of progressive direction. In our day, the grab is complete, and barring the Left, every “progressive” exponent of “modernity” seems happily complicit in an economic order in which one per cent Indians own seventy three percent ofnatioanl wealth. What would I not give to have read what Nikhilda might have written in his Mainstream editorial on such subjects.

I had the privilege of meeting Nikhil Chakravartty twice in relation to issues concerning teacher’s demands on education policy and service infrastructures. I remember him spending time with us as Socrates might have with his young compatriots. I cannot forget the two things he left us with: ask all the tough questions and struggle in unison on the basis of undefeatable arguments. How instructive that.

Never ever a sectarian, let us remember he left the Communist Party of India as well when his intellectual integrity and his conscience so dictated.

En passant, it is a tribute both to the strength of his legacy and the resolve of his progeny that Mainstrem has consistently upheld his independence of mind and principled and fearless concern for the common people of India after his going.

Such men and women are rare and deserve our salute.

The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012. Thereafter he wrote two more books, Idea of India Hard to Beat: Republic Resilient and Kashmir: A Noble Tryst in Tatters.

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