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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 46 New Delhi November 3, 2018

On 105th birth anniversary of Nikhil Chakravartty on November 3, 2018 - Some Tributes (published after his death)

Saturday 3 November 2018


Former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao was to have released the book India-Pakistan: Themes Beyond Borders—Selections from Nikhil Chakravartty’s Writings (published by Konark Publishers Pvt. Ltd.) at the meeting held in New Delhi on November 3, 2003 to mark N.C.’s ninetieth birth anniversary, but could not do so as he was indisposed. So he sent the following letter to the Mainstream editor and Secretary of the Nikhil Chakravartty Memorial Foundation, which was read out at the meeting. We are reproducing this letter and a few tributes to N.C. (published after his death) on the occasion of his 105th birth anniversary on November 3, 2018.

Nikhilda: Some Nostalgic Reflections

by P.V. Narasimha Rao

Kuldip Nayar, who passed away two-and-a-half months ago on August 23, 2018, was a close journalist friend of N.C. Both were in the front ranks of those media personalities who fought the Emergency regime (1975-77). The following piece he wrote for Mainstream that came out on November 2, 2013 marking N.C.’s birth centenary the next day.

Nikhil — A Legend

by Kuldip Nayar

My Father

by Sumit Chakravartty

The following tribute was read out at the gathering at Raja Rammohan Roy Memorial Hall (Brahmo Samaj-Delhi) on July 5, 1998 to pay homage to Nikhil Chakravartty who passed away eight days earlier on June 27, 1998.

It is indeed difficult to say anything about one’s father at this point of time when one has yet to overcome the enormity of the grief that has overtaken one’s mind following his demise. And yet I am fully conscious of the need to do so at this gathering.

His bio-sketch, by now, has been well publicised. Yet it would bear repetition to present the following: Born November 3, 1913 in Silchar (now in Assam) he had his school education at Hindu School, Calcutta (1925-29), and college education in Presidency College, Calcutta (1929-35). He graduated with History Honours in 1933 and stood First Class First in MA (History) in 1935. Thereafter he went to Oxford where he studied in Merton College (1936-39) and in Oxford University’s Honours School in Modern History (1939). On his return to India he taught Modern History in Calcutta University’s Post-Graduate Department (1940-44) before plunging into activist journalism as a special correspondent with the Communist Party organ People’s War (1944-46) and People’s Age (1946-48), Before that he married Renu Roy in 1942 and I was born in 1945. After serving a stint in the underground as an important communist functionary from 1948, he worked in Crossroads (1952-55) and New Age (1955-57). He then set up a feature news service, India Press Agency or IPA, and in 1959 shot into prominence with a report in the IPA on the activities of the then Prime Minister’s PA, M.O. Mathai, that rocked Parliament forcing Mathai to resign. In 1962 he founded the current affairs weekly Mainstream and served as its editor from 1967 to 1992. Subsequently he became its Editorial Adviser. In 1975-77 he played a vital role in defence of press freedom during the Emergency; later in the eighties he alongwith other senior journalists fought doggedly against the Anti-Defamation Bill sought to be introduced in Parliament by the then Union Government and compelled the government to withdraw the legislation. He was a member, Press Commission (1978-80), the Chairman, NAMEDIA Conference (December 1983), Chairman, NAMEDIA Foundation (media foundation of the non-aligned) since 1984 till his death. He was the President, Editors Guild of India (1990-92) and a member of the National Integration Council for sometime. He was a member of the Indo-US Subcommission on Education, Culture and Media (1985-89). In 1990 he politely declined the Padma Bhushan Award conferred on him by the National Front Government with a dignified letter to the then President pointing out that a journalist carrying out his professional obligations should not appear to be close to any government and/or any political establishment. A member of the Communist Party for forty years (1938-78), he was not associated with any political organisation thereafter. In November 1997 he was appointed the Chairman of the Prasar Bharati Board that was entrusted with the task to oversee and ensure genuine autonomy for the offical media.

A reputed columnist, he wrote for several national and regional newspapers across the country. He has been described as one of the of the most well-informed journalists and commentators who perhaps had the widest possible contacts in political and administrative circles. He had a facile pen and wrote incisive reports in the forties on the Bengal famine, resistance to communalism in Calcutta, anti-imperialist upsurge in Bengal, remarkable mass awakening at the dawn of independence on August 15, 1947. Subsequently his outspoken denunciation of the Emergency regime in the seventies made him immensely popular among all segments of the public yearning for restoration of democratic rights and civil liberties.

All these are well-known. However, what is not so well known, presumably because of his self-effacing nature, is that in 1946 he was briefly arrested, charged with having leaked out valauble information to the public on the British authorities’ secret plan to crush the national movement just before independence (known as ‘Operation Asylum’). He was also accused of laying his hands on a British conspiracy to send troops to South-East Asia (including Vietnam) without the knowledge of the Interim Government’s Defence Minister.

My first recollection of my father was when he came out of underground in November 1951. I was then six years old. Since that time it has been a highly rewarding and intimate asso-ciation with him. He was instrumental in moulding my character and shaping my professional life. My debt of gratitude to him is naturally immeasurable.

So many incidents come flooding in my memory—the rays of the setting sun falling on his forehead while travelling in a train in my childhood (incidentally my first acquaintance with the sound of the steam engine that left a deep impress in my mind was with him), our not-so-infrequent trips to the mountains where he always found peace and solace, and our visits abroad to the UK and the former USSR.

In the field of journalism I have had the privilege of seeing from close quarters his method of functioning. He was a prolific and fast writer and, as has been underscored, with an eye for details. In his writings he never repeated himself. But more than that what struck me most was his wide and diverse contacts. He has been described as an “introvert alone in a crowd”. What needs to be underlined is that he was never a recluse, alienated from the public. All along he maintained livewire connections with a wide variety of people subscribing to different shades of opinion. That equipped him with an uncanny sense of predicting events apart from being a mine of information.

He always called himself a ‘reporter’. He did have the finest attributes of a reporter, and despite airing his own views in commentaries and editorials never discarded fairness in reporting or tampered with facts. His fidelity to facts was extraordinary. And he knew what to report and what not to report—always preserving the confidence reposed in him by his interlocutors.

He had viewed the entire political specturm in pre- and post-independence India with the eyes of a concerned citizen—involved yet detached. That gave him a unique perspective and won him credibility from his readers. His sense of history also contributed to his writings.

He was a wonderful conversationalist and enjoyed travelling. He was also a connoisseur of good food and was gifted with a remarkable sense of humour with the ability to laugh at oneself. That is why he was shorn of any malice, pettiness, bitterness or rancour.

A democrat of the core, he could never countenance any infringement on civil liberties and thus revolted against the slightest manifestation of authoritarianism as during the Emergency. At the same time he could not remain silent before perpetration of injustice or oppression. He was thus unhesitant in condemning the excesses by the security forces whether in Kashmir or the North-East, without in any way losing his bearing from the national standpoint. In fact attempts to throttle legitimate struggles of the dispossessed and the deprived, regardless of who led those struggles, always evoked indignation in him just as he sympathised with the underdog without equivocation. He was thus able to comprehend without difficulty the basic causes that led to the collapse of the statist socialist structures in Eastern Europe.

He was also able to comprehend the necessity to improve India’s ties with all its neighbours including Pakistan and strained every nerve to strengthen Indo-Pak friendship at the people’s level. No wonder that his death is now being widely mourned in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Fiercely independent in his thinking and actions, he was simultaneously conscious of the forces at work to destablise India, and was thus not just wary of but assailed outright the external elements seeking to disintegrate the country. In fact he was a genuine nationalist secular democrat striving to bring about fundamental transformation of society with the purpose of betterment of the teeming millions’ living and working conditions.

It needs to be highlighted here that Nikhil Chakravartty’s character, outlook and approach to life were shaped by his upbringing. He was the eldest son of Prof Narendra Nath and Sailaja Chakravartty, both devout Brahmos. When Prof Narendra Nath, who taught English in Calcutta, became a Brahmo he was initially ostracised by his family in Barisal but never wavered in his conviction. He was a man of principle like his father-in-law, Raj Chandra Chaudhuri, who had swam the Surma river in Sylhet to discard the sacred thread and join the Brahmo Samaj.

Whoever has closely interacted with my father has been struck by his generosity. He was not in the least attached to his possessions including property. But he considered his books to be his most precious possession.

Now that Nikhil Chakravartty has gone forever it is impossible for me to reconcile to the new reality of his absence. Only with your deepest sympathies can I hope to bear this tragic loss even as I am convinced that the void left by his demise can never be filled. I am pro-foundly indebted to all of you, including those who have sent moving messages at our bereave-ment, for standing by us at our hour of grief; words fail to express my gratitude to all of you.

However, let me conclude on a different note. When he came to stay in Delhi in the early fifties my father had in his drawing-room a portrait of the famous Czechoslovak journalist Julius Fucik who was killed by the Nazis in occupied Czechoslovakia in 1942. Below the portraint one read Fucik’s unforgettable words: “We have lived for joy, for joy we went into battle and for it we are now dying. Therefore never let grief be linked with our name.” I am reminded of those words now that he is no more. Despite the intense sorrow that has engulfed all of us today, I too dare say that grief should never be linked with the name of Nikhil Chakravartty whose entire life—till his last moments—was a celebration of humanity and the indomitable human spirit.

[carried in Mainstream, July 11, 1998]

The one who stood for all mankind

(Lines for Nikhilda)

“Mankind was one single nation”

Quran Surah 2 Albaqarah

In the ever-growing emptiness called life

Among nuclear displays and mounting despair

That threaten to end the human race

There was one gentle poll of light

South Asia filled the scope of your mind

You were one who stood up for all mankind

At the Wagah border, I walked by your side

A candle for friendship was held in your hand

Your eyes scanned the land far beyond the divide

Where friends lit candles and nurtured the flame

Knitting all parts of Asia in one single bind

You were one who stood up for all mankind.

Some sun-filled mornings, I sat by your side

When you spoke of matters beyond morning’s news

Of the sweep of history, of death and of birth

Of civilisations; and your journeys within and without

In Persia, South Africa great wisdom—you find

You were one who stood up for all mankind.

I recall your last visit on Moharrum’s 10th day

We sat down in sadness in the room of my prayer

Did I then see God’s hand as if held over your head

The man for whom sacred were all faiths and rites

But the highest to humanity a place you assigned

You were one who stood up for all mankind.

And now that this world is so sadly reduced

The visionary’s gone, none to knit the divide

None to heal the fresh wounds of fracture and fissure

None to teach us that still hope in man must abide

But we must move on, now your precept will shine

You were one who stood up for all mankind.

June 29, 1998   Syeda Saiyidain Hameed

[Published in Mainstream (June 4, 1998)]

Conscience-keeper of Civil Society

Nikhil Chakravartty, Indian journalist, died in Delhi on June 27, aged 84. He was born in Silchar on November 3, 1913.

Gentle yet combative, Nikhil Chakravartty was one of the most celebrated and respected names in Indian journalism. He was a courageous and independent columnist whose uncluttered style and great integrity won him an audience much larger than that normally associated with a Left-wing writer.

At the time of his death he was also Chairman of the Board of the Prasar Bharati Corporation, India’s recently established autonomous public broadcaster.

Nikhil Chakravartty was the son of Narendra Nath, a Professor of English in Calcutta. After graduating from the city’s respected Presidency College he went to Merton College, Oxford. There he was drawn to Marxism, an ideology to which he was to retain a lifelong but non-dogmatic attachment. The Spanish Civil War and Cham-berlain’s policy of appeasement—reality of India’s colonial bondage—fuelled the passion of Indian students in Britain at the time and pushed many of them towards the exciting certitudes of Left-wing politics. Among Chakravartty’s comrades at Oxford, Jyoti Basu and Indrajit Gupta continue to be important Communist leaders in India today.

Upon his return to India in 1939, Chakravartty taught History at Calcutta University. In 1942, he married Renu Roy, whom he had known since Oxford. A year later, he became a full-time activist of the Communist Party of India (CPI), functioning mainly as the Bengal correspondent of the party’s newspaper, People’s War. As a journalist he soon made his mark. His searing reports of the Bengal famine, which claimed the lives of more than two million people, and of the Tebhaga peasant movement, were read avidly across the country.

In 1946, he was arrested for writing about “Operation Asylum”, which was a secret British plan to overwhelm the Indian struggle for independence.

In 1948, the CPI was proscribed following the adoption of the insurrectionary “Zhdanov Line”. Chakravartty went underground but when the party subsequently shifted gear he surfaced again. In the country’s first general elections in 1952 his wife was elected to Parliament on a CPI ticket. Moving to Delhi, Chakravartty continued to work for the party newspaper, by now called New Age, eventually becoming its Editor.

It was during this time that he began to disagree with some of the CPI’s stands, notably its support for Khruschchev over the 1956 events in Hungary. In 1962 he publicly criticised Pravda for failing to condemn China during the Sino-Indian border war. Like many others, however, he chose to remain within the party and it was not until 1978 that he formally parted company. The final straw was the CPI’s support for the state of Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi between 1975 and 1977.

In 1962 he launched a weekly magazine, Mainstream. Under his editorship, It became an influential platform for serious discussion of national and international affairs and helped to mould the attitudes and sensibilities of a generation. Though Left-leaning, Mainstream opened its columns to a variety of contributors in a non-partisan manner. His editorials were pithy and pulled no punches. During the Emer-gency, when censorship became the norm, Chakravartty constantly fell foul of the government. If the censors forbade an article, he would print a blank space. When that too was disallowed, he would carry allegorical poems by Tagore celebrating freedom. Finally, when the authorities issued an ultimatum, he preferred temporarily to close down the magazine rather than submit to their demands.

As a campaigning journalist, Chakravartty had the rare ability to criticise those in power without sounding rancorous or vindictive. Despite his sharp attacks on Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, he was never denied access to the highest levels of government. For all his proximity to P.V. Narasimha Rao, the Congress Prime Minister of India from 1991 to 1996, Chakravartty’s columns remained as incisive as ever.

More than as an analyst, however, it is as the conscience-keeper of civil society that Chakravartty will most fondly be remembered. He was a staunch defender of human rights and spoke out against the marginalisation of the poor caused by economic liberalisation. He was also a passionate advocate of good relations between India and Pakistan.

Humble and disarming, Chakravartty was always ready to advise anyone who approached him, from ministers and senior bureaucrats down to young cub reporters looking for a break. His humanism was a matter of instinct, his sense of judgement keenly balanced and his devotion to the freedom of the press absolute and unyielding.

His wife predeceased him in 1994. He is survived by a son, who is also a journalist.

(Courtesy: The Times (London)

[carried in Mainstream, September 5, 1998]

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