Nikhilda was brought into journalism by Puran Chandra Joshi, better known as P.C. Joshi, during the Bengal famine of 1943. Joshi was the General Secretary of the CPI at that time. Before that, for a brief period, Nikhilda had taught history in the Calcutta University. Under Joshi’s guidance, several other young Communist activists contributed their best during that period and earned a name for themselves in their respective fields like Sunil Janah as a photographer whol chronicled the famine with his camera, Chittaprasad Bhattacharyya, the artist who painted some unforgettable pictures of the famine. Nikhilda was reporting on Bengal famine in the party papers.
After the famine, he began really ‘cutting his teeth’ in journalism and knowing the ropes of the trade. Once he narrated to me a funny incident of that period. Hem Chandra Naskar was a Minister in the Bengal Government during those days. A senior journalist, Kalipada Biswas, wanted to introduce Nikhilda to Naskar and escorted him to the Minister’s chamber at the Writers’ Buildings. Naskar was very fond of chewing paan (betel leaves). He always carried with him a bata or metal container full of paan leaves. Incidentally, Naskar belonged to the Scheduled Caste.
As Kalipada Babu introduced him to the amiable Naskar, the latter smiled and opened his bata, took out a paan and offered it to Nikhil-da. Nikhilda was about to tell Naskar that he was not used to taking paan when Kalipada Babu pinched him strongly on the thigh. Nikhilda understood and accepted the paan and began chewing it despite the discomfort. Once out of the Minister’s chamber, Kalipada Babu told him: “You were going to spoil everything. Your surname is Chakravartty. Naskar does not know that you are not a Hindu but a Brahmo. He would have thought that being a Hindu Brahmin you were refusing to take paan from a Scheduled Caste person.” Narrating this incident, Nikhilda told me that to be a good journalist one has to be sensitive to the person one was interacting with and suppress one’s own likes and dislikes.
Another incident of this time was that Nikhilda went to Shillong to interview Congress leader Gopinath Bardoloi (who later became the Chief Minister of Assam). After the interview, the question arose where the interview report was to be published because Nikhilda did not represent any newspaper at the time. It was Sudhdindra Bhusan Chaudhury, editor of Shillong Times, who publihsed Nikhilda’s interview with Bardoloi. Incidentally, Chaudhury had been with Nikhilda during the interview.
Soon after independence, the second party Congress of the CPI was held in Calcutta in 1948. Joshi was removed from the general secretaryship of the party and B.T. Ranadive succeeded him. Thus began a period of extreme Left sectarianism of the party, known in communist circles as the BTR period. It brought the party almost to the brink of disaster. An immediate change of party line became absoluttely necessary. In 1950 at a special meeting of the Central Committee of the party, Chandra Rajeshwara Rao replaced BTR as the General Secretary. During the BTR period, the headquarters of the banned CPI was in Calcutta and Nikhilda was the main contactman of the leaders.
After the party changed its line and decided to work within the democratic framework, the party headquarters were shifted from Calcutta to Delhi. Nikhilda joined the party paper as a full time journalist and started building up his vast network of contacts in every nook and corner of the government which later made him one of the most well-informed journalists. I recall one incident in the mid-1980s. I was working with him in the Mainstream. One morning after coming to office he told me there was going to be a reshuffle of the Union Cabinet later in the day and asked me to find out whatever I could about it.
I went to the IENS building on Rafi Marg where I had some friends who were doing the rounds in North Block and South Block. They said they had heard nothing about a Cabinet reshuffle and did not believe any such thing was in the offing. Sure enough, within a few hours the reshuffle took place. It had been kept it a closely-guarded secret till the last moment. But Nikhilda had got wind of it in the morning.
In the 1950s, Nikhilda started the India Press Agency. And the IPA began with a bang. It was the first news agency to publish reports on the trusts floated by Prime Minister Nehru’s private secretary M.O. Mathai with funds raised by misusing his office. How did the IPA get hold of the story? The secret can be divulged now. It was none other than Feroze Gandhi who passed on detailed information about Mathai’s trusts to Nikhilda. The news created a sensation at the time and immensely helped the fledgling IPA to grow.
After Mainstream was started in 1962, it claimed all the time and energy of Nikhilda. Almost single-handed he made Mainstream a powerful organ as a forum for all forward-looking elements, cutting across party lines, to debate and discuss national issues. Nikhilda saw the deviation of the Congress from the Nehru line and ultimately its total abandonment by the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh duo. The new Congress launched the country on the path of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. The consequences of this policy are staring us in the face after two decades of relentless liberalisation.
Nikhilda also witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe and the transition of China from economic conservatism to the free market economy. Before that he saw the developments in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslsovakia twelve years later in 1968. His stand on the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia was forthright and was at variance with that of the pro-Moscow Communist Parties, including that of the CPI. But he never compromised his intellectual honesty and professional integrity. What he saw he reported. What he believed he stated without beating about the bush.
I remember once a write-up came from the Soviet Information Department in New Delhi for publication as an article in Mainstream. I received it and took it to Nikhilda. “Nothing doing,” he said. “Tell them when they inquire that we can publish it only as an advertisement and they will have to pay for it. It will be clearly designated as an advertisement of the Soviet Information Department and not an article.” The write-up was not published.
His uncompromising stand against the Internal Emergency promulgated by Indira Gandhi in 1975 stands out as a shining chapter of ideologically committed journalism. When all the newspapers chose to crawl when they were asked only to bend, Nikhilda’s Mainstream and Edatata Narayanan’s Patriot were the two papers that chose to stand against the authoritarianism and risked being closed down. Mainstream, in fact, had to suspend publication for a brief period just before the Emergency was withdrawn. Both Mainstream and Patriot also stood against the extra-constitutional authority that the Emergency created in the person of Sanjay Gandhi.
During the twilight years of his life, Nikhilda realised the stupendous challenge the country was facing. The Congress as the ruling party had bidden goodbye to all that Jawaharlal Nehru stood and worked for. Nehru refused to accept an American ‘umbrella’ of protection in the wake of the Chinese aggression of 1962. The post-1991 Congress leadership’s policy became to build and deepen strategic ties with the USA. The public sector units built over the years with public money began to be handed over to the private sector.
Though he had formally given up the editorship of Mainstream, he continued to write his weekly column, giving his penetrating analysis of the events that were unfolding and the direction they were taking. Most of his analyses are relevant even today as any reader of the feature From NC’s Writings published regularly in Mainstream would find.
Nikhilda was more an institution than an individual. His birth centenary celebrations should not end with paying formal tributes to his memory. There should be a reaffirmation of our commitment to the values and ideals Nikhilda stood for and championed throughout his life. And the best way to do it will be to ensure that Mainstream carries on with the legacy that Nikhilda left us. The ideals he pursued and the standards of journalism that he set have to be constnatly espoused. Mainstream is one of the instruments that are working against heavy odds for creating an egalitarian and exploitation-free India. These instruments must not be allowed to be rusted or slip into a state of desuetude.