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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 27 New Delhi June 27, 2015

Nikhil Chakravartty, Our Contemporary

Monday 29 June 2015

by Nirupam Sen

This month is Nikhi Chakravartty’s death anniversary. I have known very few journalists (perhaps my personal, idiosyncratic application of Lenin’s dictum: “Better fewer, but better”). Nikhil Chakravartty was among these few. I discussed some domestic and foreign policy issues with him often and, very occasionally, visited him at his Kaka Nagar flat. For me, too, the red door was intellectually welcoming, reassuring and opened to the Left. For him too, as for Robert Burns, “the rank was but the guinea stamp, a man’s a man for all that”. His modesty and simple lifestyle were integral to a democratic outlook, open to all who had something to say: as he once told somebody: “One has to travel by bus to be close to the masses.”

As a Marxist, he reflected real Marxism: a commitment to the empowerment of the poor and to socialism as the realisation of true freedom; a holistic approach to political, social, economic and international issues and an unflagging and unwavering struggle for his ideas and beliefs. He praised and wrote on the best of Nehru, Indira Gandhi and the Left, but never hesitated to oppose them when he saw that they were profoundly mistaken. Since this month is also the anniversary of the declaration of the Emergency, one recalls his opposition to the Emergency and his break with his party, the Communist Party of India, for supporting it. He staunchly opposed press censorship. As I remember him, his commitment to the poor is vivid in my memory. Once, when discussing something, I quoted form memory some lines from Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. He was so struck and moved that he asked me to repeat the lines: “It is not just this second hand, hand-me-down capitalism, ridiculous and doomed...but the inability of our rulers to establish vital links with the poor of our country, with the bruised heart that throbs so painfully at the core of the nation’s being.” Perhaps, he was attracted by the fact that these words encapsulated his own deepest convictions. Today there are reports of some trying to buy the Padma Bhushan. Nikhil Chakravartty declined it in 1990. He may have said that this was because a journalist should be independent (in any case relevant in a time of Murdochisation of the media and its control by corporate interests). But I am convinced that he was instinctively rejecting what was to come, in increasing measure, from the year after: reification and the ravages of the neoliberal market.

On foreign policy, I would show his contem-porary relevance by a single example. In 1962, he did not hesitate to condemn the Chinese aggression or criticise those sections of the Left who seemed to be supportive of the Chinese. He also joined issue with the USSR for its tilt towards China. He wrote a series of forthright articles and an eloquent open letter to the leaders of the Soviet Union. The international constellation, then, was roughly similar to what exists today: the Chinese intruded and then attacked across the border; the USA was seemingly friendly but of little operational strategic assistance; the Soviet Union (Russia) was generally not unfriendly, but more definitely supportive of China. Nikhil Chakra-vartty’s anti-imperialism and defence of our independence and our non-aligned policy remained undiminished. He could foresee (like Nehru) that the Soviet Union would change its position and only a truly independent and non-aligned India could achieve cooperation with USSR and an honourable future compromise with China. He would have had little time or patience with what can only be described as ‘the lowest common denominator of a set of particularly vulgar fractions’ that passes for much foreign policy commentary today, a random recent example being Shyam Saran’s review of Raja Mohan’s latest book in The Indian Express (June 20, 2015), where we find these ‘gems of the purest ray serene’: “enlightened self-interest, unencumbered by ideological preferences” and “multi-alignment, as against non-alignment”. With his sharp clarity of vision, Nikhil Chakravartty would have seen that self-interest is only class interest and, therefore, by definition, unenlightened and ‘multi-alignment’ and being ‘unencumbered by ideological preferences’ are simply Orwellian doublespeak for aligning with the USA. In its fullness, this policy was inaugurated by Dr Manmohan Singh, an observation which N.C. would have wholeheartedly endorsed had he been alive and amongst us today.

Nikhil Chakravartty was a doughty opponent of corruption, sadly contemplating India becoming increasingly, in Somerset Maugham’s phrase, a ‘sunny country inhabited by shady people’. In his language, as in his life, there was no striving for phrase-making, for purple patches. His style was clear, logical, direct and effective. As we have seen, he was neither afraid to attack the Right, nor was his style cramped by criticism from the Left. He was a man of ideas, a man of conviction and a man of honour, but above all a real communist, humanist and intellectual. He is needed today more than ever before.

A noted diplomat (now retired), Nirupam Sen was India’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York.

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