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Mainstream, VOL LII No 27, June 28, 2014

Envisioning a New South Asia

Saturday 28 June 2014

by Malini Parthasarathy

In the passing of Nikhil Chakravartty, this country has lost a distinguished member of a diminishing tribe of nationalists who were unabashed about their zeal and pride in being seen as the first generation of citizens of the new Indian republic. That sense of patriotism in the classical sense imbued all Nikhil Chakravartty’s writings even as it made him stand out as a rare spokesman for the highest political values that he strongly desired the Indian state to embody. That same sense of genuine nationalism rendered him unhesitant in speaking and weaving aloud his dreams of how India’s state and civil society should evolve.

The loss is not just India’s but South Asia’s. Nikhil Chakravartty was one of the leading voices in his generation, which saw the subcontinent emerge painfully from the trauma of partition and the raw wounds of the birth of two nations, to insist time and again that South Asia had to be envisioned as one whole entity, never mind that there were now several countries fragmenting that vision of an entirety. To him, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, which was carved out of his original home, Bengal, were all equally dear territory. He had numerous friends in Pakistan and Bangladesh, many of these ties and bonds forged before independence, and it was a matter of instinct for him rather than a drily conceived hypothesis that South Asia was one large civil society with people sharing a common social and economic heritage, including the ugly realities of poverty and inequality.

Indian journalism owes much to the spirit of Nikhil Chakravartty’s investigations into the fallibilities of the state, political institutions and other associations in civil society, which resulted in pushing the frontiers of essential public debate further outwards. His strong defence of journalistic freedom and the right to information helped institutionalise the Press as an essential organ of India’s civil society. It was another matter that he was sometimes perceived as having been unnece-ssarily ambivalent in relation to certain critical political issues, on some occasions in the past. But the point is that even if his conclusions may have on occasion seemed to overlook or even softpedal the key challenge in the political issue—be it on the Ayodhya question or an estimate of the implications of the BJP’s assault on the concept of a secular civil society—the spirit of Nikhil’s enquiry was always an uncompromising adherence to the idea of building India’s political institutions on the strongest rock of democratic values. He recognised, as very few journalists are inclined to do, that no real reporting and analysis of public life could escape the responsibility of taking a stand on issues. He would also invariably acknowledge the impor-tance of being unafraid of identifying the rights and wrongs in any situation.

Nikhil’s commitment to the vision of a larger South Asian civil society resulted in his taking on an activist role in the arena of energising people-to-people contact, especially between India and Pakistan. Thus even during the last few years, when age was clearly beginning to sap his energies although not his spirit of lively engagement with public affairs, he was one of the main organisers of seminars and other interlocutions beween India and Pakistan. In spite of his advancing age, Nikhil was in the forefront of a people’s march to the Indo-Pakistan border, at Wagah, where a candlelight vigil for normalisation of ties between India and Pakistan, took place a few years ago. His was a voice respected and loved in Lahore and Dhaka, even as he was an open critic of the failure of these
societies to sustain the credibility of their political institutions.

Seeing Nikhil in full form in Karachi or Lahore was a rare privilege. Despite his sense of physical fatigue and evident tiredness, Nikhil would uncom-plainingly clamber into a car to begin a series of meetings with various members of the Pakistani political or journalistic establishment. His method of questioning while steering clear of being intrusive or rough-edged would nevertheless determinedly focus on the issues that were at the core of the particular political situation and his interlocutors could not really baulk at the contem-plation of the issues that was thereby thrust upon them.

Just as his journalistic enquiry in India constantly sought to raise the level of the political discourse so that a more open and informed civil society could emerge, he was concerned about the health of civil society in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He made several trips to Sri Lanka and it was no secret that he was intellectually drawn to the ethnic crisis. Even while he might not have been familiar with all the twists and turns of the Sri Lankan Tamil issue, he quickly grasped the essence of that crisis and continually expressed his strong concern about the denial of democratic rights to the Tamil minority. The lesson that we as journalists in India and this region need to absorb from the inspiring and committed life that was Nikhil Chakravartty’s, is of an obligation to sustain a commitment to an unceasing engagement with the task of streng-thening the credibility and moral authority of civil society in South Asia.

(Mainstream, July 4, 1998)