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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 28

Nikhilda through the Mists of Memory

Monday 30 June 2008, by Mrinal Pande

If one wanted to find an iconic journalist whose work straddled both the colonial period and the post-independence India, the first inspired by the spirit of Gandhian thought and the latter influenced by the many avatars of Nehruvian socialism clashing with the rational and militant ideologies of the Left parties, I would unhesitatingly name Nikhil Chakravartty. He was the best representative of an era that was great and sick at the same time and listening to him talk one saw how much turf he shared with great writers from Tagore and Nirala to Nazrul. Few would remember today that during the Emergency the then Minister for Information and Broadcasting had warned Nikhilda against using a Tagore quotation in support of freedom of expression, adding that even quotations from Gandhi and Nehru would not be accepted if they criticised the Emergency by implication. Nikhilda would recount this incident with a mischievous twinkle in his eye adding how the Chief Censor was subsequently thrown aback by his use of the term “a high-breed political spring-chicken” for Sanjay Gandhi, without naming him. Unfazed, Nikhilda went on to write an article with the cryptic title ‘Do We Need Nehru Today?’ again leaving the censors foaming at the mouth but unable to delete.

The nation’s cultural vitality held out and gradually after the Emergency was overthrown, democracy regained the ground it had lost, thanks to the stubbornness of journalists like Nikhilda, Romesh Thapar and Durga Bhagwat. But it was the first brush our generation had with state sponsored censorship and authoritarianism. Yet one never saw Nikhilda attack Indira Gandhi or any member of her family personally. Journalism, such as Nikhilda practised, pre-supposes a particular notion of comedy, one which concedes nothing and undermines hypocrisy mercilessly. His long experience as a journalist had taught him to stop worshipping History as a goddess and eulogising age as the only touchstone for wisdom. Thus he protected, in his writings, an India composed of so many little languages, cultures and ideologies against demagogy. And this was why people of my generation found him so likeable as a person and so readable as a journalist. He was one of the few journalists I have met, who was dismissive of India of the big linguistically insular States, always so ready to become intoxicated with the glorious sense of its historical destiny and so worshipful of English language as the only source of great wisdom and communication.

A little before Nikhilda’s death we were both members of a grandiloquently titled Air Time Committee of India, along with other oddballs like the playwright actor Habib Tanvir. We worked long and hard at preparing a seminal report on how to set the airwaves free of government control and systematically dismantle the government’s stranglehold over Doordarshan and All India Radio. Unfortunately the report was put in cold storage by the then mandarins of the Mandi House who were extremely unhappy at a bunch of outsiders dismantling their power. Nikhilda was later appointed the first chief of Prasar Bharati, which would have been India’s answer to BBC, but by then it was too late. He was soon diagnosed with a brain tumour and went in for an operation that he never recovered from.

With Nikhilda’s death I lost a rare personal friend, philosopher and guide, and Indian journalism lost a fearless and humane supporter of human rights, democracy and justice. Through him a whole generation of journalists learnt how to reflect upon totalitarianism of both the Right and the Left kind, to judge it ironically, to analyse it wisely and finally turn it into an object of a national intellectual experience.

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