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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 45 New Delhi October 31, 2015

From the High Noon of Indian Journalism

Wednesday 4 November 2015, by John Dayal

In the current wave of litterateurs and poets returning their well-deserved national honours to protest the hate-murders of three fellow writers, one was struck by the fact that there was just one professional journalist in that distinguished list, a poet-editor once with a Hindi newspaper.

There are dozens of journalists who have been awarded the Padma awards, some for their long years at work, some perhaps for their proximity to the governments of the day, and several for the hard work they put into lobbying for official recognition. A few did deserve those Padmas, and perhaps much more. Many deserving ones were ignored because the political royalty did not like them, or were too proud and had the self-respect not to make a formal application with a detailed narration of their career.

And then there were those who the governments pursued, hoping they would accept a high honour. I have known a few rare ones who were in this group. All refused the awards. Among them was Nikhil Chakravartty, who founded the iconic Mainstream, mentored a generation of young journalists, some long distance, and years after, and has left behind a commentary on the politics of India that seems still valid long after the protagonists, and many of the political entities have vanished from the landscape. The long awaited digitising of the back issues of Mainstream, albeit slow, makes this treasure-trove available to scholars and political scientists. One wishes contemporary journalists also explored it. Their knowledge base, and their craftsmanship, would both benefit.

He would have been 102 if he was alive, and it is 17 years since he passed away in 1998 at the age of 85. I was part of the young group of family, colleagues and admirers in his funeral cortege, and stood mourning him at the Nigambodh Ghat cremation ground on the river Yamuna. Years later, One remembers his son Sumit’s salutation to the pyre “Unto yourself be true”, a line from the Bard. A day later, I joined Sumit, a friend and colleague, looking for pieces of what remained in the ashes in a ritual that surely would have amused him if he were watching us.

Educated at Oxford, and a member of the Communist Party, he had become active with the Party organ, People’s War, in the closing years of the Second World War, moving on to People’s Age where he served from 1946 to 1948. After years when the party was underground, he launched the India Press Agency, IPA. I suppose there still are a few journalists, Kuldip Nayar and Inder Malhotra among them, who would remember Nikhil’s pioneering investigative journalism in IPA.The agency’s early scoop was on M.O. Mathai, the personal assistant of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The story stalled Parliament, forcing the Prime Minister to get the obnoxious assistant to quit.

I had never worked with him in IPA, the news-agency, or Mainstream, the magazine he founded in 1962 and edited till 1992. Mainstream was arguably India’s first real Left magazine, which was not the official organ of a political party, and his editorials, as much as the general reportage, in the journal was the benchmark critique of policies of the national and State governments and an important input to the political and economic discourse. It is a moot question if it entirely succeeded in influencing policy or triggering legislation.

But at one stage, he agreed to help strengthen the editorial component and guide the corres-pondents in the News Bureau of the Patriot news-paper, edited by the equally legendary Edatata Narayanan (who too spurned the Padma award—when officials phoned him twice to get his bio-data for the purpose, he is learnt to have banged the receiver on both occasions), and the founder, Aruna Asaf Ali. Both had hoped his presence would infuse some enthusiasm in the newsgathering team at a time of great transition in national politics.

Patriot, close to the Communist Party of India, was not hostile to Indira Gandhi who it backed till the Emergency and the simultaneous emergence of her son Sanjay Gandhi as, what Narayanan called, the “Extra-constitutional Centre of Authority”. The Patriot News Bureau was also a major contributor to the editorial content of Link, the newsmagazine. Link was far ahead of its time as a comprehensive news and analysis package when the other big magazines were illustrated magazines still patterned on their London counterpart or films and sports journals. I do not know how far it is true, but Link was supposed to be mandatory reading for young men and women trying to crack various competitive examinations, specially the questions on general and contemporary affairs. It was still the age of innocence, I suppose.

To his young journalists, Narayanan was a terror, albeit a genial one. If this is a contra-diction, so was the man. A link to the freedom struggle together with the other founders of the progressive media group, he was a formidable intellect with superior writing and editing skills. Compositors, the men who put the words in sticks of metallic lead for the composing and printing process, knew they would not have to make any trims for the words to fit the space earmarked for them, exact to the last full-stop. Narayanan lived in an apartment in Link House on Bahadurshah Zafar Marg, New Delhi’s self-styled Fleet Street. And like some wraith in an English Castle, he would glide down late at night to often stand behind a young reporter and watch him type his story, or a sub-editor who was desperately trying to make sense out of a bunch of material from four national and international agencies. Sometimes, the Editor-in-Chief had had a few drinks, not that it changed things either for the better or the worse. But how were we to know! That is what sheer funk feels like. And that is why, graduates of the E. Narayanan brand of journalism made few, if any, errors. Narayanan could smile, and often did. But few were looking at his face to notice it, most of the time.

Nikhil, or Nikhil-da as everyone including the rawest of cub reporters called him behind his back, on the other hand seldom frowned. He and Narayanan made an odd, but affable, couple. Most of the time, he would have a smile on his face, and a twinkle in the eyes behind those heavy framed spectacles. He also had a dry wit, a mix, I suppose of his Oxford education and his Brahmo Bengali heritage. A senior special correspondent, alas is now dead but rose to be an editor elsewhere, got a taste of it one editorial meeting where he rushed in some minutes late. He was still panting as he informed the Chief that he had just met the Big Boss of the ruling party, alone. Words seem to fail him in his excitement over his good fortune. “Relax. He did not offer you a seat in the Cabinet, did he?” The correspondent went to his table, sat before the Remington and typed out his 900 words. Must have been good copy, for Nikhilda seemed satisfied. I was a reporter, not a special corres-pondent, so was not entirely privy to what additional information the Chief gave to the correspondent. I am sure it was much more than the man may have been able to gather in his interview with the party boss. Nikhilda, everyone said, knew just about what was going on in the national Capital, which was worth knowing and reporting.

His stay at Patriot in this role was not very long. Anyway, young reporters knew their position on the ladder, and were not too nosy about editorial management. Investigative reporting was in the Capital’s corridors of power, and was meant to be converted into printable stories, preferably targeting Page One.

Nonetheless, Nikhilda was an inspiration to all young journalists during the months of the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He was a fierce defender of Press freedom, and was at the forefront of the movements against attempts by various governments in the 1970s and the 1980s to muzzle the media.

It was at the end of the Emergency that my colleague, Ajoy Bose, and I went to Nikhilda to consult him about the book we were writing together on what transpired in the Capital city and its government during the Emergency, specially the absolute hijacking of the political, administrative and police apparatus by cronies of Sanjay Gandhi. Nikhilda was very enthusiastic and supportive of the book [For Reasons if State: Delhi Under the Emergency by John Dayal and Ajoy Bose, published in the spring of 1977], which he felt would provide an authentic and authori-tative narrative of life of the common people living under a tyrannical regime which had suspended all their civil liberties and consti-tutional rights. His apartment in Kaka Nagar in the Lodi Estate area, allotted to him as a senior journalist, and with its distinctive red gate, was known for its wall to wall, floor to ceiling shelves groaning under the weight of books, each of which he must have read and liked enough to keep. The red gate, so to speak, was always open to everyone, and a warm welcome specially awaited young reporters trying to show off their puny achievements. Many of our consultations with him took place there.

Do editors still do it? Being friends, teachers, critics, and advisors? Perhaps not. Everyone is on an employment contract, often of a couple of years. Not enough time to develop human relationships, perhaps.

Few editors have the spunk in this early phase of the 21st century to fill the role, though many do try to act the title. The comparison was so acute in the Editors’ Guild of India, which Nikhil-da headed as President from 1990 to 1992. His senior colleagues at that time included stalwarts such as Ajit Bhattacharjea, George Verghese and Kuldip Nayar. This was the period when the Guild grappled with issues such as Press Freedom and a Code of Ethics. These three, and a few more stood out among others who were there just because they had inherited the newspaper, and some others whose main interest seemed to be how to convert their media clout into political favours, or better still, some office of profit or power. It would be embarrassing to quite a few if someone were to give a graphic narration of some of the proceedings. Nikhilda’s soft, slow voice could sting like a whiplash, once in a while.

Nikhilda shunned honours, but not responsi-bility. He agreed to head the Non-Aligned Movement’s NAMEDIA Foundation (media foundation of the non-aligned), was a member of the Press Commission, the National Integration Council founded by Nehru and always chaired by the Prime Minister, and even the Indo-US Sub-commission on Education, Culture and Media (1985-89). In 1997 he was appointed Chairman of the newly created Prasar Bharati, entrusted with the task to oversee a genuinely public and autonomous broadcast system from the captive and supine All India Radio and Doordarshan. He tried to do what he could to insulate broadcasting from state and political pressure. When he was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the National Front Government, he politely declined it, telling the President that a journalist carrying out his professional obligations should not be “identi-fied, in the public eye, with any particular establishment”.

A tough act to emulate. But an excellent aspiration for any journalist, senior editor or a cub reporter.

The author is a senior journalist, human rights activist and member of the National Integration Council. He can be contacted at e-mail: john.dayal@gmail.com