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

Nikhil Chakravartty and Some of his Times

Wednesday 4 November 2015, by Anil Nauriya

The Communist Party of India (CPI) was born in the aftermath of the ferment generated by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 on the one hand and the non-co-operation movement led by Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress in the 1920s on the other. Nikhil Chakravartty inherited this twin legacy. He recalled in “A Personal Testament”, written on Karl Marx’s death centenary, that he had started out as “god-fearing nationalist putting on khadi-kurta”.1 It was this combined legacy that was reflected in his life, his journal, Mainstream, and his own writings.

The CPI-Congress relationship was multi-farious and multidimensional. It was political. And it was intellectual. There were random and non-random elements in this relationship. It was antagonistic and it was also supportive. The twists and turns of this relationship in post-1947 India and the randomness in it were both often a function of the individuals who led one or the other of the two parties at any given point in time. An examination of this turbulent history provides insightful sidelights into the role of the individual in history.

The Congress split in 1969 and in this split a major role was played by the CPI elements within the Congress. I have argued elsewhere that this split was a historical disaster.2 There are two major reasons for this view. First, the split cut the Indira Gandhi faction of the Congress off from the grassroots constructive work organisations which had historically sustained the Congress and which were closer to the organisational wing of the party from which Indira Gandhi split away.3 The subsequent rise of Hindutva, with its own associated organisations given to communal-sectarian ground-level work, was in a way facilitated by the Congress split of 1969. Second, the split delivered the ruling Congress itself into a family-dominant frame of a kind it had never known earlier.

The post-1969 relations between the Congress and CPI was not, in my opinion, well-worked-out. There ought to have been a clearer under-standing between the Congress and CPI circles that this coming together was for the purpose of reconstructing society. It was intended to give effect to a shared vision about the future, and not as an opportunity to seek to vindicate the pre-independence 20th century party lines or historiography of the CPI. As a result, much energy was dissipated in attacking the pre-freedom Congress while ignoring the Hindutva tiger at the door in the last one-third of the 20th century.

Some in the Communist Left, and in circles sympathetic to it, did not seem to understand this. Yet some did. Mohan Kumaramangalam, Parvati Krishnan, Hiren Mukherjee and Nikhil Chakravartty had a clear understanding of this. As did, for example, freedom fighters Subhadra Joshi and I.K. Gujral in the Congress and the freedom fighter, Chaturanan Mishra, in the CPI.

It is this positive understanding, which grew to encompass other progressive parts of the political spectrum, that made Mainstream the unique institution into which Nikhilda sought to mould it. It was Nikhilda who in his journal pinpointed the rot that had set in within the Congress during the Emergency, referring to the rise of “juvenile” elements. That was during the Emergency (1975-77), in an article published in Mainstream on May 29, 1976; Nikhilda had written it soon after the Turkman Gate incidents of April 1976. In the Turkman Gate and other related events, Sanjay Gandhi, the younger son of the then Prime Minister, had played a role that made him an object of admiration for the RSS, whose cadres had by this time begun to make their apologies and work their way out of the detention. Nikhilda, in his article, reminded the powers that be of Jawaharlal Nehru and his values. The article is understood to have infuriated Indira Gandhi. Yet Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision and values have become even more relevant now in the face of the growing social and political intolerance and concentration of economic power in a few hands in the country.

Nikhil Chakravartty was a different kind of journalist. He had shown great courage during the Emergency years. It is sometime after his May 29, 1976 article that I came in touch with Mainstream which in those days used to come out of Bhagat Singh Market. Saral Patra looked after the office. Attempts were being made by the then government to bring about wide-ranging changes to the Constitution of India. I was then with the Hindustan Times and had written a longish article critiquing aspects of the Consti-tution (44th Amendment) Bill [which would later become the Constitution (42nd Amendment) Act]. There was no question of any of the major newspapers in Delhi publishing that article.

Would Mainstream care to publish it and would it publish it at such length? Saral Patra said he would discuss the article with Nikhilda. Before long, the article appeared in print. In full and unchanged. Nikhilda had passed it without even seeing me, let alone talking to me. It might have been written by a Naxalite with a price on his head or by some most unworthy character for all he knew or cared. I did one more piece for Mainstream at that time. This one poked fun at the attempt to amend the Preamble to the Constitution. It argued that amending the Preamble, which made a specific reference to its adoption by the Constituent Assembly on November 26, 1949, would be like the US Congress wishing to make changes in the Declaration of Independence, 1776.

Clearly, the best that could be done was to add a supplementary Preamble, but the original Preamble could not be tampered with. It was a technical and historical point but a prickly one nevertheless. Mainstream carried my piece prominently on the inside cover.

In those days, if you wanted to pick up a copy of Mainstream in the central business district of New Delhi you had to keep making rounds of the first Connaught Place block in the outer circle; the Central News Agency is located there and so also was an old man who sat in the corridor with magazines and journals at the other end of the block near a famous watch-maker’s shop. What delight it would be to see one’s signed piece cocking a snook at the Emergency regime, and that too published with such prominence and without the slightest personal acquaintance with the journal’s editor. Recalling that moment, one is reminded of the philosopher Wittgenstein enjoying the fairy tale dwarf Rumpelstiltskin’s ecstatic dance “Nobody Knows My Name!”. Wittgenstein had commen-ted that it was “Profound!”. Somebody else had then wondered what was profound. Having been through Rumpelstiltskin’s joy myself, I can perhaps understand what Wittgenstein meant.

The 44th Amendment Bill was pushed through, of course, and entered the statute book in the form of the 42nd Amendment Act. But a few weeks later my visits to the old man in the Connaught Place corridor became increa-singly futile. There was no Mainstream to be had. The journal had stopped appearing. Nikhilda’s defiance was certainly the vital and decisive reason for this. [Whether a young, unknown Indian Rumplestiltskin had also made an infinitesimal and indirect contribution to bringing about this state of affairs will never be established.]

 When in 1978 I met the then editor-in-chief of The Times of India to explore possibilities of joining that organisation, I handed him my Emergency articles published in Mainstream, and a more recent one published in Monthly Review, New York.

Among the questions he asked me was: “Why did you choose Mainstream to write in?” To the reply that during the Emergency few other journals would have published my writings, the venerable editor remained silent. Not long after this, however, The Times of India itself acknowledged the unique place that Nikhilda occupied in Indian journalism by publishing a long conversation between him and its own editor-in-chief on the front pages of its Sunday Review.

 Yet Nikhilda was deeply concerned over the emerging trends in the media and over its changing character; the print media’s focus, such as it was, on the basic needs and concerns of the Indian people as a whole was getting blurred and becoming increasingly doubtful. The strident and destructive campaign over the Babri Masjid conducted by L.K. Advani and others had received considerable support from influential sections of the world of India’s daily newspapers. The liberty that Advani and others lost during the Emergency years was, when regained, being used perversely and influential sections of the media would not see the writing on the wall!

 In 1994 Nikhilda, Mahendrabhai (M.V. Desai) and the Editors’ Guild planned a seminar in Ahmedabad on the role of the media. A former colleague, Gautam Vohra, and I were among those privileged to be invited to Ahmedabad by Nikhilda and Mahendrabhai on the occasion. Making the journey from Delhi to Ahmedabad by bus we got a glimpse, even then, of the new sectarian mood in Gujarat. One of the most surprising things in the coming years was how the Congress chose to absorb rather than confront these tendencies.

The rise of the electronic media was a development that took place subsequent to that seminar of 1994. The concerns that Nikhilda had expressed then have become even more pressing now and the dangerous consequences of the continual purveying of prejudice have become more than obvious.


1. Nikhil Chakravartty, “ Marx and Marxism : A Personal Testament”, Mainstream, April 2, 1983.

2. “1969 in Retrospect”, The Hindu, March 17, 2000.

3. A similar point about the need for such work was made, though in the general context of the post-independence years as a whole, by K.R. Narayanan soon after the Congress split in 1969; in a 1970 lecture Narayanan lamented the lack of “sufficient emphasis on the aspect of a social reform movement in the country”. (K.R. Narayanan, Nehru and His Vision, Kottayam, DC Books, 1999, p. 34)

The author is a writer and an advocate of the Supreme Court.