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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 28, June 29, 2013

Nikhilda and his Concerns

Monday 1 July 2013

by H.K. Dua

Nikhil Chakravartty’s journalism came out of his concern for the country. He would have been worried about both if he was around. Both the nation as well as the media are losing a sense of direction, values and character, required to retain the people’s confidence.

He was certainly one of the most respected journalists of his time, admired by peers of different persuasions, intellectuals, political leaders of different political parties, and NGOs, not only of India, but the entire South Asia.

As a young journalist, I did not know much about him until 1975 when the Emergency was clamped on the country, personal liberties and the press brought under censorship. Nikhil Chakravartty took a bold step by resigning from the CPI, of which he was a member, protesting his party’s choosing to support the Emergency raj. This single act, rare in those days for a Communist, made him a national figure among the journalists—for those who had yielded to the rigours of the Emergency and others who were opposed to it. He was the author of the phrase: “Extra-Constitutional Authority” that unfortunately became a part of India’s pejorative political lexicon applicable to many political parties.

He was always thinking about the country and the people, evolving beyond his early Communist leanings, and turning out to be a liberal humanist, democrat at heart and in practice, and with it concern for the disadvan-taged and with malice towards none. Essentially, he was a Nehruite, believing in parliamentary democracy, independent judiciary, responsible and accountable bureaucracy and a free press. He would have felt sad if he had lived to see how these institutions are behaving now, within 65 years of independence.

During the last few years his concerns were peace with Pakistan and China, and better relations between India and its other neighbours so that the one-fifth of humanity that lives in South Asia should have better future for its children.

He travelled to the neighbouring countries in search of peace and harmony among the people of South Asia. In a sense, he was one of the earlier Track Two persons who wandered around carrying message of goodwill and friendship and at times suggesting remedies for complicated problems involving history, territories, waters, and immediate national interests that decided many a frozen policy. No one would doubt Nikhil Chakravartty’s intentions. And the friendly spirit he always exuded.

For quite some time he was worried about the Babri Masjid issue and the Ayodhya movement and the way the issue was commuanlising the entire atmosphere in the country. He often shared his views with his friends in the profession, and leaders of different political parties and stressed that unchecked the communal divide in the country would get further sharpened, weakening the secular fabric of the nation. He started making his own efforts, meeting political leaders, and some open-minded leaders of different communities to look for an amicable solution of the Ayodhya dispute. He did not succeed, thanks to the hardened position that had fouled up the climate. Unfortunately, what he feared happened.

During the Ayodhya movement when kar sevaks were supposed to carry bricks to Ayodhya to build the temple from different parts of northern India, polarisation of the entire atmosphere was taking place, “Nikhilda,” I asked, “what is the way out of this impasse? Unchecked this can lead to trouble in the country. How would have Mahatma Gandhi tackled this situation?”

“Gandhi would have asked every kar sevak to carry two bricks, one to build the temple and one for building the mosque,” he said. Obviously Nikhil Chakravarty and the Communists had travelled a long way from the times when the believers in Marx used to condemn Mahatma Gandhi.

Nikhil Chakravartty loved freedom of the Press and was always in the forefront to condemn any steps taken by the government and any outside authority that would tend to curb the freedom of the press which he thought was preserving democracy in the country. Not only had he opposed censorship during the Emergency, he also saw the dangers the Bihar Press Bill and the Defamation Bill would pose to the freedom of the press. When the Defamation Bill was suddenly offloaded in an ill-advised move in the Lok Sabha by the government of the day to prevent exposures, the Editors Guild took a united stand against the Bill. Later on other organisations of journalists from across the country joined the Anti-Defamation Bill movement. It had wide support of the people. The government was forced to withdraw the measure without the journalists even agreeing to talk to it.

It was Nikhil Chakravartty who along with some of the senior editors who sat on dharna in front of Bal Thackeray’s house when the Shiv Sena threatened inconvenient sections of the press in Mumbai. There are many other small and big violations of the freedom of the Press where the Editors Guild made use of his services to rush to the spot.

He would have been shocked to see how the press is functioning now. The phenomenon of paid news, which has hit the press in many parts of the country and many newspapers and TV channels, would have been totally unaccep-table to him, as it is to many senior journalists and editors today.

He had foreseen the commercialisation of the press and had come to believe that press freedom was threatened not only by the Centre and State governments but also the commercial interests of the proprietors of the newspapers and TV channels. The country is not able to find any remedy for the serious threat that is coming from the owners of the newspapers and TV channels, the flawed ownership pattern of the Indian newspapers and TV industries. Neither Nikhil Chakravartty nor his successors in the profession knew or know of a remedy to tackle it.

He was appreciative of the journalists in India, Pakistan, Banglasdesh and other South Asian countries who were trying to widen the area of press freedom in their countries despite formidable odds stacked against them. He was particularly worried of the Indian proprietors’ tendency to denigrate the position of the editors in the newspapers so that owners could have greater control over the news content and the editorial opinion of newspapers and supported the efforts of those editors who stood up for the highest values and professional standards of an editor.

H.K. Dua is a former editor of Hindustan Times, The Indian Express and The Tribune. He was also the Editorial Adviser to The Times of India. An erstwhile ambassador of India to Denmark, he is currently a Member of Parliament.

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