January 12, 2020
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Conscience Of An Era

What distinguished Nikhil Chakravartty's journalism was his independent, yet low-key approach

Conscience Of An Era

THE death of Nikhil Chakravartty, Nikhilda to generations of Indian journalists, marks the end of an epoch in the country's public life. His funeral in Delhi on June 28 reflected the diversity of the large mass of his friends and admirers as well as his cosmopolitan outlook. It was like the passing away of Gandhiji fifty years ago, at the national level. From the President of India to the lowliest automobile driver and kitchen help, besides persons with political persuasions ranging from Naxalism to Hindutva, men and women, thronged his overcrowded residence as Nikhilda's body was kept for the public to pay their last respects.

How did one with a Marxist label reach in his personal and intellectual relations such a variety of political and other opinions? During one of my early encounters with Nikhilda about 10 years ago I referred to what I called his graduation from Marxism to larger humanism. He corrected me, saying that Marxism as he studied and understood it was humanism. Sectarian and denominational approaches have no place in it nor could intolerance of dissent be accommodated under its rubric. That was about the time the ill-fated Gorbachev revolution was sweeping the former Soviet Union.

My admiration for him started over 20 years ago when the country was under the blanket of an artificial emergency imposed primarily to facilitate Mrs Indira Gandhi's escape from political difficulties on account of technical violation of the election law. Pre-censorship of newspapers and publications, along with detention without trial of persons likely to stand up to the establishment, were its ugliest aspects. Nikhil-da with his fledgling brainchild, Mainstream, resisted it, unmindful of its political and other costs.

About a score of publications, including some daily newspapers, all over the country were either banned and had to suspend publication under the 'emergency'—the 23rd anniversary was formally observed on June 25. As many as 253 journalists were detained, including eminent ones like Kuldip Nayar, Gour Kishore Ghosh and K.R. Sundarrajan. But what stood out in my mind—partly because the full havoc of the assault on the Press was not known due to the all-pervading censorship—was the resistance of Nikhilda and Romesh Thapar. It was because their social outlook was fully compatible with the larger purpose claimed for the 'emergency'. Romesh was also very close to Mrs Gandhi, while Nikhilda evoked genuine respect from her.

Most importantly, Nikhilda's opposition to the curbs on a free Press was not flamboyant, almost on low key, hardly known outside the close circle of Mainstream readers and their friends. With the result, there was a canard that like the Communist Party of which Nikhilda had been a member until the 1950s he, too, had supported the 'emergency.'

 A product of Oxford University—after a brilliant scholastic career at Presidency College, Calcutta, he went to the UK for higher studies like many other Bengali youths from well-to-do families in the 1930s—Nikhilda was an admirer of the London School of Economics (LSE), and Harold Laski who had a long association with the institution. Nikhilda's long-time friend, president K.R. Narayanan, is also an LSE alumnus.

Nikhilda had taught history at Calcutta University before branching off into journalism which proved to be his natural vocational habitat. But he did not shed his flair for teaching even when he rose to the tallest height—not, of course in terms of lucrative and prestigious positions—in journalism. He was a guru to many like me, not because of his mastery of the technique of writing lucidly but because of his depth of knowledge, catholicity of opinions and absence of emotional and other bias.

It was said of Lord Macaulay that he would travel a hundred miles and read a hundred books to write a sentence. Nikhilda's output was never laboured but no less weighty in content. His rich and varied experience and wide contacts with persons in all spheres of activity enriched his writing, which was prolific without being routine or mechanical. I had rarely seen a writer who did not repeat himself even if he wrote a dozen pieces on the same subject.

During the presidency of Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, Nikhilda was a regular visitor to Rashtrapati Bhavan where the two titans would talk for hours as Dr Radhakrishnan lay in bed with his head propped by a pillow. But never did Nikhilda use the unique opportunity for gossip-mongering or embellishing his writing with 'inside' information. Whatever information he gathered remained tucked away in his sharp mind to be used months and even years later without any suggestions of scoring 'scoops.'

 Nikhilda never coveted posts and positions. Otherwise, like his petite wife, Renu Chakravartty, who was elected to the first Lok Sabha on a CPI ticket, he, too, could have joined competitive politics and adorned the treasury benches. Mrs Chakravartty, who predeceased him by about a decade, also did not contest elections again. Further, Nikhilda declined an award saying it would be incompatible with an independent journalistic career which he had chosen consciously. That was why he was indifferent to snide comments by smartalec media commentators when last year he was made chairman of the Prasar Bharati Board. They dubbed him a friend of the then prime minister, I.K. Gujral, and insinuated that his elevation to the Prasar Bharati post was on account of it. He smiled it away when I drew his attention to the comment. That was my last meeting with the great man.

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