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

Nikhilda! You Never Die!

Monday 29 June 2015, by Anees Chishti

June 25, 1975: 6 am: The telephone rings and there is the voice of a dear senior journalist friend—something that is not unusual as he often used to surprise me with some important information before the day started. But this was something that was extraordinary and would have been unbelievable if it had not come from him. I was told that late last night Jayaprakash Narayan and Morarji Desai had been woken up in their sleep and taken to some unknown place by the police. A little later came the information that the Young Turk Congress leader, Chandra Shekhar, too had received the same treatment.

As the day progressed it came to be known that a National Emergency had been imposed and a large number of leaders of the Opposition parties as well as many from the then ruling party under Indira Gandhi, who had expressed dissent during the past few months, and particularly after the famous judgement of the Allahabad High Court on June 12 last (that had overthrown the victory of Mrs Gandhi in the last parliamentary elections and disqualified her from holding any public office for six years because of the illegal use of some government personnel in her election) had been arrested.

The immediate outcome of the declaration of the Emergency was imposition of press censorship and it became impossible to know anything about what was happening in the country except what was dished out by the government media, mainly the All India Radio. What more could be gathered was from the foreign news networks like the BBC but that could not be much.

Following the declaration of press censorship, all big newspapers (except The Indian Express) became sterile and not worth reading. But some smaller periodicals did not buckle under the government pressure and continued to express their dissent fearlessly. Mainstream was one of these few where Nikhilda continued to publish his own political commentary as well as contributions of others who enlightened their readers with reports and analyses of the disturbed political situation in the country. A senior public relations manager of a public sector undertaking was soon brought in as the Chief Censor perhaps with the view that he knew most of the editors and senior journalists and may use persuasion where coercion could not work to prevent publication of dissent in the media. We came to know that a couple of senior Ministers in Mrs Gandhi’s Cabinet even met Nikhilda at his residence with the help of some senior journalist friends to persuade him not to be taken in by the “misinformation” spread by the vested interests as everything was fine in the country: the “trains were running on time” and “government offices were functioning more efficiently” and the people were very happy. Perhaps this was the indica-tion that more coercive days were to follow when it would be impossible to publish Mainstream with the type of contents that it was coming out with. And that resulted in the suspension of the journal with the famous editorial of Nikhilda that brought tears to our eyes. The rest is history.

Forty years after the black days of the Emergency, the situation in the country looks rather familiar and as the Sangh Parivar’s political patriarch, L.K. Advani, himself has opined in very clear terms that if an Emergency is imposed again, he would not be surprised. Concentration of power at one point in the government, free expression of rabid communal views to polarise people on the basis of religion, raking up controversial issues that shook the nation in the nineteen nineties while they are still before the court, efforts to create an economic climate that could benefit the privileged sections of the society more and more to the neglect and deprivation of the poor and the weaker sections, an attempt to deprive the poor peasants of their land while sowing elitist dreams of an affluent society and unmindful of the hegemonistic aspirations of dominant foreign powers. All these seem not much different from the scenario of 1975. The patriarch’s cry is not perhaps unjustified!

This is the time when one misses the indefatigable personality of Nikhilda. When he launched Mainstream with some greatly supportive friends in September 1962, the country was amidst many problems and challenges. The communal situation was quite disturbing following the horrible riots at Jabalpur, Sagar, Rourkela, etc. The aftermath of the Congress-supported Muslim Convention and the retaliatory Hindu Convention was not conciliatory: it was indeed divisive. The coming together of Muslims of different persuasions on one platform under the veteran Congress leader, Dr. Syed Mahmood, as a reaction to the spurt in majority communalism, was creating misgi-vings and the subsequent developments were not unexpected.

The massive demonstration in New Delhi in 1966 by the Sadhu Samaj—that had the backing of a senior Cabinet Minister—for a total ban on cow slaughter actually turned out to be a loot of some big shops in Connaught Circus conducted by the unruly crowd. It was perhaps the biggest such attack on an urban location before the assault in Ayodhya.

Nikhilda was extremely shocked and angry at this ugly display of rowdism in the gurb of a religious demand. He wrote very strongly against this incident. He took it as an indication of growing religious chauvinism and not an isolated case of protest by the agitated sadhus. As an aside, he asked me to meet the astrologer of the said Cabinet Minister who guided the latter in his actions in cases like the cow slaughter agitation. I met him in Daryaganj and wrote ‘Profile of an M.I.P.’ (most important person) in Mainstream that amused the readers greatly.

Nikhilda, perhaps more than many other senior journalist, had gauged the real dangers of both majority communalism and minority communa-lism. He made the attack on communal forces as one of the main planks of Mainstream that made it a very effective voice of secularism and comm-unal harmony. Well-known fighters against the communal forces in the Left parties as well as the Congress party came close to Mainstream that gave it strength and wider reachability. No wonder Nikhil Chakravartty became a much revered name among the secular sections of society, notably those from the minorities. Those sentiments are still there for Mainstream even after his departure, for anyone to see. And, one remembers Nikhilda, in these days of renewed communal tensions, for the battle he fought, and draws inspiration from his writings that very rightly continue to be reprinted in the journal. May this battle continue with the desired results.

A very important sphere of Nikhilda’s — and Mainstream’s—campaigns has been for economic development on the basis of self-reliance and independent policy-making. This sphere too is under severe pressures and distortions and plays with statistics are being portrayed as innovations for higher growth. The spirit of the thinking of Jawaharlal Nehru and P.C. Mahalanobis that resulted in the country’s immense develop-ment has been laid to rest in Yojana Bhavan and a suddenly planned new grouping has been brought in to replace the Planning Commission that is talking of things that are not easily appreciable as the panacea of the present economic malaise. One remembers now how Nikhilda collected around Mainstream a group of learned analysts and commentators on economic affairs, some of whom could not reveal their names due to the constraints of their govern-mental assignments. What resulted was a regular flow of material on the flawed economic management due to pressures of vested interests and their nexus with influential sections in authority. A dynamic system of sound economic policies with emphasis on the core sectors of the economy, in the public and private sectors, was thought out and presented in Mainstream with Nikhilda stretching his persuasive qualities to reach out to experts in various spheres of the economy to express their views in the pages of the journal. It was a very vigorous effort that shaped the people’s opinion.

Nikhilda’s severe criticism of the government’s flawed economic policies really started with the devaluation of the Rupee in 1966 when pro-West economists under the wings of a couple of economic planners had their say and Mrs Gandhi seemed to be a helpless tool in their hands. I can still vividly recall how Nikhilda came rushing to the New India Press in Connaught Circus, hurt and pained at the then Prime Minister’s shocking surrender to the wishes of Washington, to replace the already composed political notebook with his comment on devaluation. The attack on the economic failures of the government became shaper and sharper in Mainstream. It was a voice of agony, not panic, that Nikhilda tried to convey, week after week, and his efforts succeeded in creating an environment against the causes of these failures and what resulted afterwards for the Congress Government only indicated the sincerity of thinking of Nikhilda.

In the realm of foreign policy, the influence of the United States had started getting stronger and stronger following the India-China war of 1962. The battle became very tough due to the motivated campaign against Left-leaning elements in the Congress during what was Mainstream’s period of infancy. Some of the senior leaders were hounded out of their positions in the government and the party. Nikhilda’s team struggled against all odds and continued to promote the ideals of a non-aligned policy despite all adversities. These efforts did have effects and some distortions were overcome, till the dark days of June 1975, when everything got upset.

The churning that was caused due to the after-effects of the India-China conflict among the Left-wing political activists and intellectuals was seen in its severest form in the pages of Mainstream. In fact, the birth of Mainstream, just prior to that tragic event, was a great blessing. And, even at the risk of criticism from certain quarters the churning was not only allowed but encouraged in Mainstream by Nikhilda who, very rightly, thought that it would be good for the Left and progressive sections of the society to give expression to their views freely and honestly. And, Mainstream, perhaps more than any other forum at that point of time, was the most vocal representation of the churning. What resulted was a sort of reconciliation and mutual under-standing among the Left and progressive forces, although with some scars on their unity. But some such sears are welcome as they continue to remind people of the mistakes of the past and prompt them to think and move ahead with clear-headed programmes for the future. We remember Nikhilda today as one of the important motivators of such reconciliation during very critical times as dark clouds are hovering again over us. The Sangh Parivar patriarch’s warning cannot be ignored completely. Sumit and his team have a very arduous task before them.

Things are not at all comfortable these days and the wait for ‘achche din’ seems to be like in the Samuel Beckett play, Waiting for Godot. The attacks on journalists in UP, MP, J&K and elsewhere are only one example of the serious threat to the people’s human rights and freedom of expression. According to a survey by an international press freedom forum, 36 journalists have been killed in India during last year. Not something to vouch for good governance.

At this juncture of our polity, while we miss Nikhilda as someone who would have fought against the regressive forces more effectively than what is being done today, we do not, in fact, miss him! His ideals, as reflected in the vast body of his writings, now being reprinted in Mainstream, would always inspire the younger progressive leadership, particularly those in the media, to benefit from his ideals and actions and work for a better and better tomorrow. Nikhilda, you never die!

The author is a veteran writer and journalist who was associated with Mainstream as its Assistant Editor in its early years.