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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 28

Nikhilda—A Glorious Human Being

Monday 30 June 2008, by K R Narayanan


[(On June 27, 1998 passed away in New Delhi the founder of this journal. On the occasion of his tenth death anniversary we carry the following pieces as a token of our remembrance and homage to his memory.)]

It is a poignant moment for me to have unveiled this beautiful, lively portrait of Nikhilda at the premises of the Press Council. On such a pleasant sunny Sunday morning as this, I recollect many a breakfast together with Nikhilda, breakfasts at which he used to enthrall me with his ideas, with his commentaries on modern politics and social affairs, with his reminiscences of the glorious days of the nationalist movement and of our early Independence, his gentle humour, the delicious gossip he used to indulge in; indeed these memories throng to my mind this morning.

Nikhilda was a phenomenon. But it may be wrong to call him a phenomenon; he was a glorious human being above all. He was something like the continuation of the spirit of the freedom movement. In him I could glimpse the fire and spirit of the Indian national struggle.

It is somewhat of a coincidence that we lost three great similar figures recently who did not work together but who were great friends. There was an intellectual brotherhood, a spiritual kinship among them. I am referring to G. Parthasarathi, P.N. Haksar and Nikhilda. All of them represented the last phase of our freedom struggle and the great ideas which moved us during that period. All of them were socialists to one degree or another and in their various respective fields, they made immense contribution to modern India.

Nikhilda was a journalist, but he was more than a political thinker, a man who wielded his pen with such felicity and power as to move and to mould the minds of people. It is amazing that someone who after Oxford returned to India, could devote his entire life to journalism, specially in those days. Once I asked him, how he chose journalism when there were so many opportunities available for him in other fields of life. He gave an answer which was not really convincing. But I think it was destiny which brought him to this profession and possibly the spirit of freedom which he loved. He was a free bird in every sense who could not allow himself to be cribbed and cabined by any doctrine or institutional discipline. His mind soared freely and it was this free spirit which made him a journalist.

IT is not necessary for us to recall his contribution to journalism here because it is much too well known. But his contribution to ideas, to keeping alive the spirit of India, which was a renaissance spirit during the national struggle and the early days of our Independence, was great. First and foremost, he was a secularist. I am saying this not because I under-rate his other ideas, but behind his socialism, behind his devotion to democracy and other values of life, he cherished what we call rather crudely secularism, symbolising the unity of India and the contribution that Indian civilisation could make to our people and to the world. He fought for this idea to the very end of his life.

As a socialist, he was more than a humanist and a socialist. He used to say that he learnt his socialism from Marx and also the humanist ideas of Marx. This was not amazing because the evolution of his political philosophy is itself proof of this.

I came across him when I was a middling civil servant in the Ministry of External Affairs. It was actually his interest in China which brought him to me when I was Director of the China Desk in the External Affairs Ministry. Since then our relationship developed and blossomed. He was more like an elder brother to me. He visited China when I was Ambassador there. He spent about ten days with us there and that consolidated our relationship.

I found that Nikhilda was so staunch a non-governmental man that even with the closest association with me, I always thought that there was a governmental barrier. It was only after I retired from the service and went to the Jawaharlal Nehru University that I discovered the full freedom and benefits of his friendship. He was so doctrinaire to a certain extent in being a little aloof from the government establishment that he never used to come for any of the formal parties or receptions I arranged as the Vice-President of India, not to speak of as President later. He used to freely come to me for a breakfast or a lunch on any other occasion. That is why I said that what made him go to journalism was the free spirit which he valued more than anything else.

NIKHILDA’S struggle for keeping alive the idea of India and the best ideas of our nationalist movement was through his writings and I should like to read out to you something which he wrote in 1947. This is called “Day One in Calcutta”, written on August 15, 1947. He was describing the mood of the people of Calcutta on the first day of our Independence. It looks like some writings about the French revolutionary period because I was away from India in that period. I could never imagine that there was such a deep feeling among the Indian masses about our Independence, particularly in Calcutta which witnessed the most horrible carnage just about a year earlier between Hindus and Muslims. His description of this one day, a part of it, I would like to read out:

The first spontaneous initiative for fraternisation came from Muslim bastis and was immediately responded to by Hindu bastis. It was Calcutta’s poor toilers, especially Muslims, who opened the floodgate and none would have dreamt of what actually took place. Muslim boys clambered up at Chowringhee and shouted “Hindu Muslim Ek Ho” and exhorted the driver to take them to Bhowanipore. But the driver would not risk and so they came up to the border only. But then all of a sudden, in the very storm centres of the most gruesome rioting of the past year—Raja Bazar, Sealdah, Kalabagan, Colotolah, Burra Bazar—Hindus and Muslims ran across to the frontiers and hugged each other in wild joy. Tears rolled down where once blood had soaked the pavements.

It goes on like that and ends like this:

Spontaneous assertion of people’s will for freedom and brotherly solidarity needs to be harnessed in lasting forms and that is where our leaders will be tested out in the coming weeks. Whatever happens, August 15 will be cherished for Calcutta’s grand celebrations on the eve of the end of the dark night of the slavery and the dawn of freedom. Calcutta yesterday was the symbol of our servitude and fratricidal hate. Calcutta today is the beacon light for free India, asserting that our freedom once resurrected can never be curbed or destroyed for all our millions of Hindus and Muslims are ready to stand together as its proud sentinels.

As reporting it is simply brilliant, and for its meaning, for its significance to India, it was far-sighted reportage. This to my mind, it sums up even after 50 years of Independence the vision that Nikhilda had of India and the vision with which we started.

In 1976, it is well known that he closed down his Mainstream. While closing it down, he wrote with a great challenge:

There is no room for depression. As winter has come, spring cannot be far behind. And with the first sproutings of spring shall Mainstream reappear.
This indomitable spirit of Nikhilda is what makes him relevant today. Indeed he is immensely relevant for us and it is absolutely essential for us to carry on this indomitable spirit and the ideas for which Nikhilda stood.

He often used to complain about the trivialisation of journalism in our times and the commercialisa-tion of journalism. If you go back to that report on ‘Day One in Calcutta’, it is clear with what profound understanding and profound dedication to the future of the country did he pen that event of August 15, 1947. I think it was Justice Krishna lyer who wrote that if journalists are the soldiers of information, Nikhil Chakravartty was a General who blended information with knowledge, with wisdom and with life itself.

The best tribute we can give to Nikhilda is, I think, to keep going his paper, Mainstream. I know that it is brilliantly edited and managed by Sumit Chakravartty, but it needs help for surviving and serving us in the manner Nikhilda made it to serve India. I would say on his occasion that the only way to cherish his memory is by supporting in every manner we can this unique paper that he created which is one of his lasting contributions.

May I join you all in paying my respectful tribute, admiring this great man, this great writer, to this wonderful human being. Nikhil Chakravartty?
Thank you.

[Text of the speech delivered by the President of India afer unveiling the portrait of late Nikhil Chakravartty at the Press Council of India (New Delhi, February 28, 1999)]

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