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Mainstream, VOL LV No 28 New Delhi July 1, 2017

Nikhil Chakravartty’s nineteenth death anniversary: Tributes to N.C. from the Archives

Saturday 1 July 2017


Nikhil Chakravartty’s nineteenth death anniversary fell on June 27, 2017. On this occasion we are reproducing some write-ups on him by three leading journalists who knew him quite closely and a well-known administrator-cum-parliamentarian with whom N.C. was associated for sometime. These tributes to N.C. appeared in the Mainstream issue of June 29, 2013 that marked N.C.’s fifteenth death anniversary.

Journalists’ Journalist

S. Nihal Singh

Evoking the memory of Nikhilda, as he was universally known, is to return to a different world of Indian journalism. It was in large part before the era of 24-hour television, internet news and social sites such as Facebook and Twitter. In a sense, media, with print as the king, was less encumbered. And the levels of tolerance of dissent were higher.

There is no point in idealising the past. There was too much of armchair comment, less of on-the-spot reporting and investigation. Yet the commentaries in major Indian newspapers and periodicals in English and in Hindi and some regional languages were deeper and better thought-out and argued than similar efforts today. There has, indeed, been much progress in investigative reporting and analyses even after weeding out sensationalist and ill-researched and biased pieces. But by the same token, distractions such as TRP ratings for TV programmes now being called into question tend to distort news and feature stories.

Perhaps Nikhilda’s unique contribution was that before the age of television anchors and presenters, he was an icon in journalism—the journalists’ journalist: clear-headed, Left by inclination, but more importantly eminently rational in his opinions. He was no rabble-rouser. During the Emergency of the mid-seventies he made his dissent known in subtle ways by sending out New Year cards quoting apposite words on freedom of the Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore.

Perhaps the age he lived in (partly shared by me) was a gentler time in spite of bouts of blood-letting the nation was subject to. There was more time for reason and argument, a greater regard for opposing views and an ability to differ while remaining friends.

My last recollection of Nikhilda is in the closing days of 1993 as I was preparing to go to Dubai to edit the Khaleej Times. I had asked friends to a party on the lawns of the India International Centre to say goodbye. Nikhilda came armed with a present, a book on the world’s famous interviews. He had not forgotten that I began my career in The Statesman, which I ended up editing, as a staff reporter with an assignment six days of the week to interview a visiting person of interest or note under the rubric of “Yesterday in Delhi”.

The author edited The Statesman and The Indian Express besides being the founding editor of The Indian Post and the editor of the Khaleej Times in Dubai.

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Nikhilda and his Concerns

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 the message of goodwill and friendship and at times suggesting remedies for compli-cated 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 communalising 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 if 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 from different parts of northern India to build the temple, 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 Chakravartty 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, Bangladesh 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 was a Member of the Rajya Sabha for sometime.

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Journalism’s Finest Hour

T.J.S. George

Remembering departed polestars like Nikhil Chakravartty is not a part of the rather tiresome old-is-gold syndrome. Much of the new is also gold—the net that puts knowledge at one’s fingertip, the mobile that turns one’s pocket into an office, the incredible universe of apps. Yet we need to cherish the old because it provides what technology still cannot: a sense of values without which humans lose their humanity. The age of Nikhil Chakravartty—and of Frank Moraes and Chalapathi Rao, of Shamlal and V.K. Narasimhan, of N.J. Nanporia and S. Mulgaokar—was notable for the professional proprieties that guided journalism. That distinction stands out in sharper relief against today’s twin realities: the defeat of journalism by marketing, and the craving among journalists for personal fame and fortune.

Moraes unashamedly aligned himself with the “American lobby” which was how the forces opposed to Nehruvian socialism were known then. But he did so out of conviction and therefore lost none of the respect of those he criticised editorially. The famous Open House he ran in his apartment attracted noted Socialists and the occasional card-carrying Communist as well. Chalapathi Rao never used his closeness to Jawaharlal Nehru for personal gain. Drawing meagre salaries, he stuck with the poorly managed, cash-strapped National Herald until a post-Nehru factotum evicted him in a show of boorish ego. Shamlal was the country’s most authoritative voice in the realm of books. Such was the veneration he commanded that The Times of India requested him to stay on despite his retirement in 1978. But such was his adherence to principles that, when the paper switched to policies he considered improper, he severed all connections with it in 1994 and shifted his landmark column Life and Letters to The Telegraph in Calcutta. Narasimhan, erudite an affable, became an overnight hero when he devised ways to fight the Emergency while most other journalists chose to crawl. Nanporia’s reticent nature concealed his unmatched knowledge of oriental antiques, but when occasions arose to defend journalism from commerce, he was not found wanting. Mulgaokar, the ultimate technician of print journalism, was often a partner and sometimes the inspiration of Ramnath Goenka’s epic battles on behalf of the press.

They were a bunch of God’s good men and they were by no means alone. Lined up alongside were armies of assistant editors, news editors, sub-editors and reporters, all proud of their profession and finding their lives’ fulfilment when they wrote a comprehensive report, or embellished a story with a telling headline, or composed an editorial that influenced public opinion. There were of course a black sheep here and a deviant there who would now cash in on his ties with, say, Sanjay Gandhi and his family, and now simply use his clout to partake of the Good Life. But they were exceptions. By and large pre-Emergency India was privileged ground where values mattered and journalism found its finest hour.

It did not take Nikhil Chakravartty long to discover his calling. As an Oxford graduate, the options before him were both numerous and glamorous. But he was a man of ideals. Ideals and intellectual curiosity. His interests ranged over history and philosophy, science and environment, politics and trade unionism, wealth and poverty. He personified the definition of the ideal journalist as one who knew something about everything and everything about some things. He developed his own style to pursue his interests. His purposefulness, dedication and impartiality quickly became the talk of the town and he emerged as the journalists’ journalist. No one was a more admired role model for other journalists, seniors as well as newcomers, as Nikhil Chakravartty was in his prime.

And no one had wider contacts in a Capital city where journalists counted their contacts in the thousands. Nikhil was a talker, a soft and soothing talker, who conversed with Presidents and Prime Ministers like others talked to their childhood friends. His “morning walks” were famous though not as famous as that of Pothan Joseph in an earlier era. PJ, friend of Gandhi and Jinnah, would set out before 5 in the morning, enjoy coffee and company with a dozen politicians and social bigwigs, take a dip in a favourite swimming pool, then walk and walk again, now calling on loiterers in railway stations, now discussing race horses with wayside drunks until he reached a club or a restaurant, and occasionally his office, where he would seat himself and start brewing his legendary column, Over A Cup of Tea. Nikhil was too genteel to be that colourful, but his walks were just as productive.

A distinguishing feature of Nikhil’s persona was that his contacts cherished his friendship as much as he did theirs. From President K.R. Narayanan to Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao to diplomats and bureaucrats and professors and generals and even “difficult customers” like V.K. Krishna Menon, all looked forward to Nikhil’s visits—and all opened up to him, even Krishna Menon. He instilled in them the confidence that he would keep their confidence and would never ask for anything for himself. Nikhil could have become the Indian Ambassador to a country of his choice, or a Governor or Rajya Sabha member. Yet, he did not even accept a Padma award that was offered to him.

To appreciate a man with that kind of mind, we must look at modern stars who revel as surrogates of business houses and as facilitators of lobbyists, who rejoice in turning journalism into a paid proposition and who roll in wealth. These attributes of five-star journalism as well as the increase in newspaper circulations in India when they are falling in the West are seen as benefits of competition. Successive Royal Commissions on the Press in England made the point that competition in fact gave undue advantages to the bigger players. The 1962 Commission specifically said that the economies of scale and larger advertising revenue enabled strong papers to spend more on staff and promotion and thereby increase their sales while weaker papers were forced to spend more—and consequently lose more—in an attempt to stay competitive. The 1962 and 1977 Commissions actually concluded that the process of competition reduced competition. That’s another way of acknowledging that in journalism, nothing is more important than journalism. The Chakravartty Age understood it, and that’s why we need to recall it from time to time for our own good.

A veteran journalist, the author is now with The New Indian Express, Bangalore.

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A Gentle Colossus!

D. Bandyopadhyay

There is no contradiction in terms in describing a gentleman as a gentle colossus. Colossus only indicates the stature. It does not refer to any quality of refinement or rudeness. Nikhil Chakravartty, who was born a year before World War I started, lived through the tumultous events of the twentieth century imbibing both its froth and the essence of its refinement. He was quintessentially a twentieth century intellectual.

Son of a well-off family of the then Calcutta, the second largest city of the British empire, he went to England to pursue higher education as was the custom among the upper classes. The intellectual life of universities of the United Kingdom was then in ferment. Left intellectualism was sweeping the educational campuses in the thirties of the last century. No one could remain neutral and unaffected if one wasn’t a moron. Almost all the Left leaders of India since independence were products of that all-embracing radical intellectual movement. Nikhil Chakravartty was no exception.

I was introduced to Shri Chakravartty in the early seventies of the last century by another giant of the Left movement, Dr Z.A. Ahmed. Coming as he did from a landowning family of UP, he could, like a true Communist, “declass” himself and could be one among the deprived whom he represented politically. There was no affectation in his bonhomie with the have-nots. Though he was not a “have-not” himself, he could effectively and genuinely erase his class character while he represented the poor. Sincerity and genuineness were the hallmarks of the Left leadership of those days. Nikhilda (as he was popularly called) was the embodiment of that genuinely declassed leadership group.

A characteristic of Nikhilda which charmed anyone who came in contact with him was the unaffected ease with which he could mix with the person concerned. When I was first introduced to him, Dr Ahmed asked him very casually: how did his interview go? I had no idea what that was all about. With a twinkle in his eyes he said it went off very well “as both of us kept our ‘aces’ close to our chest”. Later on, I came to know that he had rushed back to his “Lal Kothi” (35 Kakanagar) to keep his appointment with me. He had gone to Mrs Gandhi and rushed back to keep his appointment with a non-entity (that is, me). High or low, mighty or powerless, rich or pauper—all were equal to him. He inhaled and absorbed the gentle wind of egalitarianism of the thirties in the campuses of higher learning in the United Kingdom. He was an unbranded genuine Communist—who believed that so long as there would be inequality there would be ceaseless struggle for equality and as a thinking person one would have no option but to join the conflict in favour of the have-nots. To him this option required no logic. It was axiomatic. It was natural.

There is no point in sighing about the century that has just gone by. Each century would have its own problems and each its own solutions. There had never been any golden age for the have-nots of the world. There may not be any such golden age for them in the future. But the effort for securing it should go on. Otherwise the world would lapse back into the mire of inequality, exploitation and oppression. Bengal of the last century produced, among others, a Nikhil Chakravartty. India of this century will surely produce its own variety of Nikhil Chakravartty to “redeem the pledge”.

Architect of ‘Operation Barga’ during the Left Front Government in West Bengal, the author was Secretary (Rural Development) and Secretary (Revenue) in the Union Government. Now retired, he is currently a Member of the Rajya Sabha representing the Trinamul Congress.

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