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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 46

Conscience-Keeper of Civil Society

Saturday 3 November 2007


[(November 3 happens to be N.C.’s ninetyfourth birthday. On the occasion we remember him by publishing the following pieces that appeared after his death. —Editor)]

Nikhil Chakravartty Indian journalist, died in Delhi on June 27 aged 84. He was born in Silchar on November 3, 1913.

Gentle yet combative, Nikhil Chakravartty was one of the most celebrated and respected names in Indian journalism. He was a courageous and independent columnist whose uncluttered style and great integrity won him an audience much larger than that normally associated with a Left-wing writer.

At the time of his death he was also Chairman of the Board of the Prasar Bharati Corporation, India’s recently established autonomous public broadcaster.

Nikhil Chakravartty was the son of Narendra Nath, a Professor of English in Calcutta. After graduating from the city’s respected Presidency College he went to Merton College, Oxford. There he was drawn to Marxism, an ideology to which he was to retain a lifelong but non-dogmatic attachment. The Spanish Civil War and Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement—reality of India’s colonial bondage—fuelled the passion of Indian students in Britain at the time and pushed many of them towards the exciting certitudes of Left-wring politics. Among Chakravartty’s comrades at Oxford, Jyoti Basu and Indrajit Gupta continue to be important Communist leaders in India today.

Upon his return to India in 1939, Chakravartty taught History at Calcutta University. In 1942, he married Renu Roy, whom he had known since Oxford. A year later, he became a full-time activist of the Communist Party of India (CPI), functioning mainly as the Bengal correspondent of the party’s newspaper, People’s War. As a journalist he soon made his mark. His searing reports of the Bengal famine, which claimed the lives of more than two million people, and of the Tebhaga peasant movement, were read avidly across the country.

In 1946, he was arrested for writing about “Operation Asylum”, which was a secret British plan to overwhelm the Indian struggle for independence.
In 1948, the CPI was proscribed following the adoption of the insurrectionary “Zhdanov Line”. Chakravartty went underground but when the party subsequently shifted gear he surfaced again. In the country’s first general elections in 1952 his wife was elected to Parliament on a CPI ticket. Moving to Delhi, Chakravartty continued to work for the party newspaper, by now called New Age, eventually becoming its Editor.

It was during this time that he began to disagree with some of the CPI’s stands, notably its support for Khruschchev over the 1956 events in Hungary. In 1962 he publicly criticised Pravda for failing to condemn China during the Sino-Indian border war. Like many others, however, he chose to remain within the party and it was not until 1978 that he formally parted company. The final straw was the CPI’s support for the state of Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi between 1975 and 1977.

In 1962 he launched a weekly magazine, Mainstream. Under his editorship, It became an influential platform for serious discussion of national and international affairs and helped to mould the attitudes and sensibilities of a generation. Though Left-leaning, Mainstream opened its columns to a variety of contributors in a non-partisan manner. His editorials were pithy and pulled no punches. During the Emergency, when censorship became the norm, Chakravartty constantly fell foul of the government. If the censors forbade an article, he would print a blank space. When that too was disallowed, he would carry allegorical poems by Tagore celebrating freedom. Finally, when the authorities issued an ultimatum, he preferred temporarily to close down the magazine rather than submit to their demands.

As a campaigning journalist, Chakravartty had the rare ability to criticise those in power without sounding rancorous or vindictive. Despite his sharp attacks on Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, he was never denied access to the highest levels of government. For all his proximity to P.V. Narasimha Rao, the Congress Prime Minister of India from 1991 to 1996, Chakravartty’s columns remained as incisive as ever.

More than as an analyst, however, it is as the conscience-keeper of civil society that Chakravartty will most fondly be remembered. He was a staunch defender of human rights and spoke out against the marginalisation of the poor caused by economic liberalisation. He was also a passionate advocate of good relations between India and Pakistan.

Humble and disarming, Chakravartty was always ready to advise anyone who approached him, from minister and senior bureaucrats down to young cub reporters looking for a break. His humanism was a matter of instinct, his sense of judgement keenly balanced and his devotion to the freedom of the press absolute and unyielding.

His wife predeceased him in 1994. He is survived by a son, who is also a journalist.

(Courtesy : The Times (London)

(Reproduced in Mainstream, September 5, 1998)

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