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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 47, November 9, 2013

The Institution Called Nikhil

Tuesday 12 November 2013


by I.A. Rehman

To describe and celebrate the life of a person like Nikhil Chakravartty cliché-ridden encomiums obituary writers often rely upon are not needed. His life speaks for itself. That he was not content with understanding the world but also wanted, in Marx’s famous words, to change it is evident from the choices he made for himself.

Armed with a brilliant academic record at Kolkata’s Presidency College and Merton College at Oxford, he had ample opportunities in India during the Second World War years for choosing a career that promised a taste of authority (such as allowed to the people in a British colony) and a life of comfort. But he chose to guide postgraduate students in their progressive appreciation of modern history, the subject in which he had specialised. But as the war neared its predictable end he took up what he thought he was cut out for—journalism, as the means to mould the minds of his people during a critical phase of their struggle for freedom.

For almost 13 years he worked for the Communist Party of India publications, such as People’s War, People’s Age, and New Age, a testimony to his capacity for living by his convictions, for there was little of worldly rewards in working for a party’s papers at a time when both the party and its organs were barely tolerated by the colonial power and received only hostility from the native elite.

Convinced that the path he had chosen demanded his complete independence, Nikhil Chakravartty launched the weekly Mainstream that he edited for a quarter-of-a-century—till 1992. This modest looking publication, now in the 51st year of its publication, has been one of the brightest stars in the firmament of South Asian journalism. Its contribution to the promotion of democratic and egalitarian values and to the cause of peace, within as well as without, has been far in excess of what its circulation ever warranted. Although the weekly was able to receive contributions from eminent experts on a variety of themes, what most of its patrons looked forward to reading week after week was Nikhilda’s analyses of current issues, always done in a style of his own.

Nikhilda was proud of his vocation and ennobled it with his contribution to it. He did not forgive anyone for depriving the people, journalists in particular, of their right to freedom of expression. Not even Indira Gandhi, whom he usually allowed much concession for quite some time. Not only for the independence of his mind but also for the quality of his counsel he was respected by friend and foe alike. The government too sought his advice in matters relating to the press and the broadcasting services. But when the Government of India offered to please him with the Padma Bhushan Award he firmly declined and laid down a principle that journalists anywhere in the world could profitably follow, namely, that a genuine journalist must not be identified, in the public eye, with any particular establishment.

He was one of the most consistent advocates of regional concord in South Asia. But his desire to see the downtrodden raise themselves high was not limited to South Asia. Greatly inspired by the Bandung spirit he remained true to the ideals of the Non-Aligned Movement to the last, even when many of his companions and members of India’s political elite had fallen off by the wayside. He gave a great deal of time to the NAMEDIA Foundation and worked ceaselessly to develop a media force for the realisation of the non-alignment movement’s objectives.

Nikhilda showed by his example that journa-lists do not achieve greatness by merely correctly interpreting what has happened, greatness is earned by journalists who can foresee what is about to happen. Two examples of his ability to predict momentous developments, noted by K.R. Narayanan in his excellent introduction to India-Pakistan: Themes Beyond Borders, a selection from Nikhilda’s writings, are sufficient to prove the point.

Two years before the rise of Bangladesh as an independent state after a bloody struggle, he had declared:

“General Yahya Khan’s battalions in Dhaka will face a situation ten times worse than the US in Vietnam if it really comes to a show-down with the Bengal peasantry spread all over the reverine districts.”

Far more prophetic was Nikhilda’s warning to his people four days before Jawaharlal Nehru died:

“The recent spate of communal violence has given rise to a serious apprehension that an ulra-communal leadership might dominate this country after Nehru, jeopardising democracy.”

Nearly half-a-century after they were written these words still retain their relevance, especially to all those who are apprehensive of the Indian people’s travails after the coming general election.

Sometimes his prediction came in the form of advice. For instance, after a rumpus in Pakistan’s National Assembly over ratification of the Simla Agreement and taking note of the Jan Sangh campaign against the accord, he took the Congress and other progressive parties to task for their lethargy and failure to mobilise the masses for realising national objectives, and said:

“Neither on the issue of the Simla Agreement, nor on the question of the drive towards self-reliance and freedom from US aid and nor on the subject of land reforms, there is as yet a wide awake awareness of the need to gear the masses into action. Unless this is done, the field is left open for the discredited and the undesirable to carry on with their campaign of misinformation and confusion, on which parties like the Jan Sangh ultimately thrive.”

In his view it was “not enough to climb the heights of Simla”, it was necessary to “open the floodgates of mass support that alone can ensure a rich harvest in the days to come”.

This was as much a warning to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as it was to Indira Gandhi. I wish India had profited from listening to Nikhilda. As for Pakistan, Bhutto paid dearly for not heeding this advice and his people are still receiving bills for the lapse.

The foregoing quote from Nikhilda’s comment in 1972 is only one of the numerous examples of one of his fundamental assumptions—that the masses alone are the engine of a people’s/country’s legitimate advancement.

If mass sanction was necessary for progress, alienating the people could be fatal. Writing in 1977 about the crises Sheikh Mujib, Indira Gandhi and Z.A. Bhutto had created for themselves, he said:

“Case-hardened politicians never seem to learn, but looking at the fateful developments in these two neighbouring countries (Bangladesh and Pakistan), it is time to tender, in all humility, a warning to our political leaders not to play with promises to the people. Once the effect of the promises wears out and the leader thinks only of how to cling on to power without bothering about the pledges that go with it, then there is little room for escape. Sheikh Mujib lost his life, Indira Gandhi lost her power and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was pushed out of it unceremoniously. “Those who are enthroned today should look back to what happened yesterday and the day before.”

Peace throughout the world was a cause always close to Nikhil Chakravartty’s heart but he attached foremost importance to peace between India and Pakistan.

Writing about the “ominous developments in Kashmir and lack of clarity in India’s policy” only a few days before the September 1965 Indo-Pakistan conflict, he asked: “Can it be said in all fairness that New Delhi—both its official and non-official sets—have been able to grasp the full implications of the Kashmir crises today?”, and concluded:

“Resilience in politics is never to be translated into waverings in foreign policy. For a nation gains in stature abroad as its leadership combines firmness with tact, and does not mistake passion or frenzy with wisdom and statesmanship.”

His plea for peace and amity between India and Pakistan acquired a definite direction after his 25-day tour of Pakistan in the closing days of 1981, when he urged his compatriots to take serious note of the Pakistani people’s desire for cooperation with India, and wrote:

“... although there is vested interest in certain sections in Pakistan—as there is in India—to fan the embers of animosity, these is a very perceptible desire on the part of the overwhelming majority of the people to establish close rapport with the people of our country—provided they get an opportunity to express themselves through the ballot box.”

And he concluded:

“In the struggle for democracy in Pakistan lies the future of friendship between the two countries of the same subcontinent.”

He was again proved right as Benazir Bhutto, elected Prime Minister again, and Rajiv Gandhi came more close in 1989 to opening a new chapter of Indo-Pakistan cooperation than any of their predecessors or successors ever could.

Nikhilda gave the advocates of peaceful cooperation between India and Pakistan a motto to guide them when he declared:

“It is no platitude but solid hard truth that neither history nor geography, neither culture nor self-interest can justify the continuation of armed peace in the relations between India and Pakistan.”

I think the activist in Nikhilda was never smothered by the scholar he was known to be. Underground work attracted him in his youth and in his mature years he would go to Amristar to light candles for peace, to Jaipur to lend support to the campaign for the people’s right to know, to Karachi to persuade Benazir Bhutto to work for a South Asian human rights charter, to Dhaka to see that the Bangladeshi people were nor denied their right to choose their rulers, and this at the age of 83.

The institution that Nikhil Chakravartty was ran on the power of a dynamic mind. When that dynamo ceased working he had no use for its encasement. As nimbly as ever he moved into history. His word lives on.

The author, a veteran journalist, is the Secretary-General of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.


Nikhilda and his Infectious Charm

It was my privilege to have known Nikhilda for all the 16/17 final years of his eventful life. At the fag end of his 25-day visit to Pakistan in 1981-82 he visited the office of Weekly Viewpoint, Lahore. His friend and soul-mate, Mazhar Ali Khan, the Viewpoint editor, was out of the country and I had to stand in for him to host Nikhilda a modest lunch and have the pleasure of an extended conversation with him.

Nikhilda had a deceptive appearance. At first sight he struck one as a quiet, easy-going spectator of life around him, that is, till he started speaking, looking for deeper meanings in whatever appeared on surface, and asking questions that had not been asked before. And the meticulous care with which he made notes of what he saw or heard was a lesson in responsible journalism.

He had a way of framing his questions in a manner that made beating about the bush difficult, if not impossible. He could speak to ordinary people and scholars alike at the level of their comprehension and liked a good debate, preferably without semantics. When an adversary tied himself into knots he chuckled and put on a half-smile. But there was no mistaking the twinkle in his eyes behind his fairly thick glasses. This was his way of disarming his adversaries with his infectious charm but when he was provoked into losing his cool the fire in his eyes could be devastating.

He was a kind host in Delhi, always offering his guest a meal at the IIC. At one such encounter he disclosed his intention to pass the baton on to his son, Sumit Chakravartty, who had returned from abroad. And Sumit has not quitted the race however hard the going.

When he came to Pakistan as a member of the SAARC mission (non-government) to observe the general election in 1993 (if my memory does not fail me), he went about his task with the zest of a young reporter. Although the seniormost member of the team, he liked pushing others, such as Muchkund Dubey or Kuldip Nayar, into the limelight. The same thing happened at the PIPFPD reception for the Indian team at the Lahore Press Club. The hosts wanted to honour him specially but he fell behind Kuldip Nayar. When the team visited Benazir Bhutto, Nikhilda wanted to know, more than anything else, her views on cooperation with India.

In 1996, barely two years before he passed away, we were together in Dhaka as members of another SAARC election observers’ team. He looked older and physically weaker than before, the lines on his face had become deeper, the twinkle in his eyes had become fainter, but he was all there to take in whatever was happening. His habit of taking copious notes, writing full sentences and placing marks of emphasis where needed, had not weakened.

To younger people who also dreamed of change, in the direction of people’s liberation and progress, he was always forthcoming with words of advice and encouragement. When Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy was launched he extended it a warm welcome. And when the Forum held its first joint convention in New Delhi in 1995 he was the only notable figure in the city’s journalist fraternity to write in its support.

Nikhilda lived within himself. His sorrows and his worries were for him alone (or I did not know him well enough to be admitted to the recesses of his heart). But whenever somebody mentioned the outstanding woman who had been his wife, after her passing away, he communicated without words how greatly he missed her and the glow her name brought to his face was a measure of his capacity for love and affection. — I.A.R. )]

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