Veteran journalist and editor Ajit Bhattacharjea, 86, passed away at his residence in New Delhi on April 4, 2011 after a protracted illness—he was battling galloping cancer originating from a tumour in his brain.
His wife, Dr Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea, an acknowledged authority on China’s foreign relations, having predeceased him on December 13, 2009, he is survived by his son Aditya and daughters Suman and Nomita, besides three grandchildren.
Born in Shimla in 1924, he did his BA and MA from Delhi’s St Stephen’s College before starting his journalistic career in 1946 as an apprentice sub-editor and reporter with the Hindustan Times. Subsequently he served as the editor of the Hindustan Times, The Times of India and The Indian Express. After he retired in 1983 he held the post of Director of the Press Institute of India for sometime. He was also awarded a three-year Fellowship at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. In his last days, that is, just before he fell ill, he edited Transparency Review, a journal of the Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi, apart from being the Editorial Adviser of The Democrat, Nigeria, and the Deccan Herald, Bangalore. He was at the same time involved with the RTI movement in Rajasthan; he also tirelessly campaigned in defence of civil liberties in Kashmir and the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh. He stoutly defended former Prime Minister V.P. Singh when the latter, as the head of the National Front Government at the Centre in 1990, implemented the Mandal Commission recommendations; he unequivocally denounced the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the Gujarat carnage of February 2002.
As one of his colleagues in the field of journalism, Inder Malhotra, has recalled in a tribute in The Indian Express,
Ajit was a man of strong views, as became evident in early 1975 when he left a very comfortable job in a major newspaper, to edit the weekly of Jayaprakash Narayan, better known as JP. At that time the JP movement was in full blast, and the hammer-blow of the Emergency only a few months away. As is well known, Ajit boldly opposed the Emergency, along with many others, and later wrote a biography of JP. However, the pertinent point is that whatever his views, in his writings he stuck to the highest journalistic standards.
After Everyman’s, JP’s weekly, was shut down during the Emergency, he became the editor of The Indian Express which was among the few newspapers waging a bold struggle against the Emergency raj and the pre-censorship it introduced. It was during the days preceding the Emergency that he came in intimate contact with JP and became his close associate, a relationship that was to last till the latter’s death in October 1979.
As the Press Institute of India’s Director, he edited the journal Vidura and launched Grassroots, a monthly compilation of reportage on local developmental issues from the English and Indian language press. His deputy at the PII, Usha Rai, recalls: “He would always stand up for the underdog. His writings revolved around issues that touched the lives of the common man. The right to information movement was very close to his heart.” In Inder Malhotra’s words,
Only half jokingly, a friend once remarked that Ajit was always ready “in defence of lost causes”. That, however, was not always the case. Aruna Roy, one of the most respected and resolute activists, has said more than once that the credit for the enactment of the Right to Information Act (RTI) should go not to her but to Ajit Bhattacharjea and Prabhash Joshi, a former editor of Jansatta, who died some time ago.
Ajit-da and Prabhash-ji were close to each other and jointly worked on several issues connected with democracy and human rights. They found a kindred soul in Justice P.B. Sawant, the former Chairman of the Press Council of India. Ajit-da and Prabhash-ji, along with Justice Sawant, were members of the Nikhil Chakravartty Memorial Foundation.
He wrote and edited several books. His books included Dateline Bangladesh, Kashmir: The Wounded Valley, Jayaprakash Narayan: A Political Biography, Countdown to Partition, Tragic Hero of Kashmir: Sheikh Abdullah, and Social Justice and the Constitution.
He was the biographer of both JP and Sheikh Abdullah. He covered the first Kashmir war (1947-48) and all along shared the agony of the people of the Valley.
After the Emergency was lifted he was among those editors who set up the Editors Guild of India to defend and promote freedom of the press. He was the President of the EGI for several years; one was privileged to work under him as the organisation’s General Secretary. One found him highly meticulous as the head of the organisation even though he was at times saddened by the lack of interest among members on issues relating to draconian legislations promulgated on the pretext of national security that had a direct bearing on the functioning of the media. He headed the team that drafted the EGI’s code of conduct.
In later years he was literally appalled by the “paid news” phenomenon, and wrote and spoke against it in various fora.
He joined N.C. in several activities, especially those relating to strengthening relations among the media practitioners of South Asia. Thus he was associated with both the South Asia Media Association and the South Asia Free Media Association. N.C.’s reportage on the first day of independence (August 15, 1947) in Calcutta won special acclamation from him and he conveyed it unreservedly at various public gatherings.
As a token of our respect for him we offer our sincere homage to his abiding memory by reproducing the following lecture he delivered on Jayaprakash Narayan’s birth anniversary at Jaipur on October 11, 1998. It appeared in the Mainstream Annual, 1998.
JP’s Message by Ajit Bhattacharjea
is available at: http://www.mainstreamweekly.net/article2675.html