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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 28, New Delhi June 30, 2018

Nikhilda must be Happy he is Not Alive to Hear the Death Rattle of Journalism

Saturday 30 June 2018, by John Dayal


One day in a distant summer, I followed Sumit Chakravartty up the steps of the platform at Nigambodh Ghat where, a day before, the nation’s senior journalists, politicians and activists had cremated Nikhil Chakravartty, editor in chief of Mainstream, and mentor to a generation of younger scribes. There were no mantras and no religious rites, but the son had saluted his father recalling words we had often heard, This above all, Be Truthful to Yourself. Our fingers now groped in the quenched and cold ashes to pick up a few shards of skeletal remains that survived the flames. We found some. A small piece of the spinal disk, for instance.

Nikhilda, and just about every cub reporter called him that with the same possessive affection as anyone else who had been with him at University in Britain, or at the launch of one of India’s most iconic little political magazine, Mainstream, was a mentor by precept more than by any hands-on apprenticeship under him. But encounters with him over a long period of time, and then working with him, did help get the full impact of his great intellect, wry humour and deep understanding of the country, its people, and those who sought to govern them.

These we saw when the Emergency was imposed, and in the events leading up to it, his view of the emergence of Sanjay Gandhi and the clique as extra-constitutional centres of authority. As Ajoy Bose and I finished writing our maiden book, For Reasons of State, Delhi Under the Emergency, Nikhilda was encouraging and keen that no detail was missed, that the full horrors of that period were recorded. We recall this as Penguin relaunches the book this summer on the anniversary of the declaration of the state of Emergency in 1975.

That is perhaps what he would have said to some other journalist, or pair, today, urging them to document the details, the constancy and the seemingly unstoppable manner in which the regime of the day was dismantling democracy, and inevitably demolishing a free media not by jailing journalists or imposing censorship, but the subtle surgical strike of breaking its spine, its will to remain free.

Even in that past, there was a section of media sold out, who Lal Krishan Advani, and then others, taunted for falling prostate when asked to bend [with a little help from the police and the Intelligence Bureau, Advani forgot to add]. And once the Emergency was lifted, there was the media embedded with the successor ruling parties. There were correspondents known to be in the pay of the police, and there were magazines, some specialising in foreign affairs, and think-tanks, subtly supported by the Research and Analysis Wing and the Ministry of External Affairs. Reliance came in decades later.

Nikhil was at his best on the media and its relationship with government and politics when he attended meetings of the Executive of the Editors Guild of India. He towered over everyone else. And some were very tall, in reputation. One often saw senior and famous editors squirm as he made some sotto voce comment which apparently hit home. He helped draft the Guild’s Code of Conduct, which in an altered form, remains the only written code which the media men and women of today can integrate into their everyday functioning, if they want to be professional.

His critics could, and routinely did, accuse him of partisanship, or too loud a dislike of the sort of communal and caste politics the Sangh did then, as now. But he could be rapier sharp when speaking of people you’d think were friends, and perhaps chums. I would think his contemporaries were in a bit in awe of him, if not in fear.

I wonder what he would make of the main media of today, the satellite television behemoths in every major language spoken in India, their entertainment wings clones of a Mumbai born non-aesthetic, for want of another word, and their news channels spewing targeted hate that gathers speed in a social media avatar, and fulfilment in the lynch mobs it births.

But he would surely feel the loss of the other men and women around the hexagonal table of the India International Centre at the Executive meetings of the Editors Guild. Weak some of them may have been, tainted a few of them were, and partisan some others, but so very different from the much younger men and women for whom journalism is now beyond selling the cake of soap some media owner once told them to; today they wield it as the weapon and ammunition to bring down the secular edifice built over two generations.

Perhaps he would be glad he did not live to see this day.

The author is a senior journalist, human rights activist and member of the National Integration Council.

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