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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 27 New Delhi June 25, 2016

Eighteenth death anniversary of Nikhil Chakravartty

Sunday 26 June 2016, by Chanchal Sarkar, Inder Malhotra, Prabhash Joshi

June 27 this year marks the eighteenth death anniversary of Mainstream‘s founder Nikhil Chakravartty, known to readers of this journal as N.C. On this occasion while remembering him we are reproducing tributes to N.C. by three stalwarts of Indian journalism—Inder Malhotra (who breathed his last only this month on June 11, 2016), Chanchal Sarkar and Prabhash Joshi (both of whom predeceased Inder Malhotra). Thereafter we are reproducing a few of N.C.’s writings.

Memories of a Many-splendoured Man

Inder Malhotra

It was with some trepidation that I first met Nikhil. I was then just past 21 and working for the tottering United Press of India (UPI) on whose ashes is built today’s UNI. But within a few minutes in his company I realised that I needn’t have worried. Unlike other very senior members of the profession, some of whom had dismissed me summarily, in one case without even looking at me, he was all attention and surprisingly generous with his time. He listened to me patiently and gave me the advice I had sought with great precision and manifest sympathy that had not the slightest trace of condescension. As time and good fortune brought me close to him for more than four-and-a-half-decades, I was to learn that, contrary to whatever notions I might have had, I was not being singled out for special treatment. To offer help, support and sage counsel to one and all, young or old, high or low, struggling or successful, was one of his many qualities. The number of those who have benefited from it is legion.

Another facet of Nikhil’s personality that made its impress on me early enough was that though he was a great journalist—who took his work, not himself, very seriously—our troubled trade was not the be-all and end-all for him. His concerns were wider, his interests wide and his ability to enjoy life, as it came, heart-warming. He was also a man of great learning and deep knowledge, a nationalist in the highest sense of the term and a humanist.

As is well known, he was a member of the Communist Party of India from his student days up to Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Appalled by the party’s crass support to this assault on Indian democracy (a support that, incidentally, turned pathetic when Sanjay Gandhi, arguably the most powerful person during the Emergency regime, gave a resoundingly anti-communist interview), Nikhil simply did not renew his membership of the CPI. However, as Sharada Prasad said the other day, he never ceased to be a Leftist, committed to both national independence and social justice. In choosing communism during his student days in England, Nikhil did what the best and the brightest of his contemporaries, many of them his personal friends, belonging to the generation of the “pink thirties”, were doing. But it is worth recalling that he was sent to Britain by his family to compete for the then cherished ICS which he resolutely refused to do even though, at Oxford, he had won marks so high that they had been obtained only once earlier, by Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, in the early years of this century.

The main point about Nikhil’s membership for long years of the CPI and his life-long commit-ment to the Left is that no matter what his politics at any given time, he enjoyed high respect and total trust of leaders, bureaucrats, technocrats, soldiers and other news sources across the entire political spectrum. It was this, combined with his prodigious diligence (even towards the end he worked thrice as hard as colleagues half his age) and his professional integrity, that made him better informed than any of his contemporaries. The files of Mainstream, to say nothing of his profuse writings for major newspapers, bear testimony to his unequalled qualities as a reporter, commentator and editor. Even after Sumit took over as the magazine’s editor, Nikhil’s contribution to Mainstream remained massive.

It was the prestige enjoyed by Mainstream and love for Nikhil that persuaded a wide variety of busy people to find time to write for it with-out any thought of remuneration. Editors of most national—and even international—newspapers were happy to let Nikhil reproduce their articles in Mainstream, again without any consideration of payment. Only once did he have some disappointment on this score: one foreign publication demanded £ 100 for reproducing a piece, which Mainstream was in no position to afford.

Travelling with Nikhil was always a joy. His scintillating conversation was usually spiced with humour, and after the end of the day’s work he was ready for good food. In China in 1992, it was he who told us not to waste our money on fancy and well-known restaurants. Instead, with the willing help of a Chinese-speaking Indian embassy official, he found for us each day a Chinese version of a dhaba serving superb cuisines.

On my first visit to Dhaka I had a list of about a dozen people to meet. To my delight I found that Nikhil was already in the Bangladesh capital, staying at the same hotel. We stayed in the coffee shop most of the day because most of the Bangladeshi mediamen and politicians on my list were trooping in, one after the other, to meet Nikhil.

Above all, it was Nikhil’s capacity to keep confidences that enabled him to be the best informed journalist of his times. Bragging about what one knows but cannot publish is a common failing of the practitioners of the craft of journalism. But this unprepossessing weakness hadn’t touched Nikhil even remotely. Some of the confidential information he had, he sometimes shared with only those he knew would not betray his trust. I was lucky enough to be so honoured.

A small part of the information he vouchsafed to me I did make use of—with his kind permission. The rest I must carry with me whenever I go to join him. However, I see no harm, at this late stage, in sharing with the reader one delightful incident which encapsu-lates what I have been trying to say.

Krishna Menon, at a time when he was at the height of his power, if not glory, as the Defence Minister, told Nikhil something which was highly sensitive. Having imparted the infor-mation, he apparently got worried. And, as was his wont, wagging his index finger said: “Nikhil, this is not to be whispered. Not to the leaders of your party, nor even to Renu.”

On Nikhil’s face appeared the captivating, dimpled smile all of us are bound to remember, and he retorted: “Krishna, your difficulty is that you have never been a Communist. Nor have you ever married. So you do not know how we Communists function. Nor do you have any idea of the husband-wife relationship.”

(Mainstream, July 11, 1998)

o o o


by Chanchal Sarkar

When I first came to work in Delhi the most respected journalistic figure here was Sir Usha Nath Sen, one of the founders of the Associated Press of India which eventually became the PTI (Press Trust of India). Sir U.N. once told me of his guru K.C. Roy, the real founder of the API, that in any matter concerning the Government of India, in Delhi or Simla, K.C. Roy could figure out exactly with whom the matter rested and who would take the decision.

Delhi has grown exponentially since K.C. Roy’s time and is not just a government city any more but a much bigger jungle. There are political parties, lobbies, business interests, diplomatic establishments, any number of what the British call Quangos (Quasi non-government organi-sations) but I feel Nikhilda could have been called K.C. Roy’s successor—knew where the buck stopped and who to call for an answer. And he would call. As for Sir U.N. Sen himself, a young Deputy Minister of External Affairs in Panditji’s Council of Ministers whose name I forget (I recall that he was from the Nizam of Hyderabad’s family) told me that when he first came to Delhi the only person who could ring the Viceroy up direct was Sir U.N. Sen because of the confidence and respect he commanded, again a similarity to Nikhilda who could ring the President or Prime Minister without having to boast about it.

Like Sir U.N. Nikhilda could do this because he never revealed confidences, because everyone, from the highest in the land to the woman in front of the Janakpuri Post Office, knew that they could speak fully and frankly. That was the secret of his limitless list of contacts. But of course the contacts would not have spilled out what they knew unless the person they spoke to was empathic, a very good listener whose interests were wide and deep and who could, more and anyone else in the Delhi Press corps, put two and two together to make 22. For this you need what a British philosopher Roger Collingood called a speculum menti—a map of the mind. Maybe that was the heritage of a lapsed Communist—a frame of mind able to assess developments and people and to surmise, speculate and predict. This is what made Nikhilda the commentator he was. He had a speculum menti which was no longer the immediate product of his Communist training but had widened well beyond it.

Presidency College, Calcutta was, in his time, a gem of an institution and in the galaxy of teachers there Prof Kuruville Zachariah was one of the brightest stars. In History Nikhilda was one of his most favourite pupils. Oxford, Cambridge and London of that time were the confluence where young Indians in the thirties got the first whiff of what the Soviet Revolution was doing to Russia and the hope it held out for egalitarianism in the world and, particularly, India. Some of the people in Oxbridge and London at that time became well known in the subcon-tinent’s radicalist public life. Mohan Kumara-mangalam, Pieter Kueneman (of Ceylon), Bhupesh Gupta, Jyoti Basu and Renu Chakra-vartty were among them.

What was significant about Nikhilda is that even if his thinking differed and ways parted, he never made a messy break—the old friendships, affections and lines of communi-cation remained. So it was all his life. As a journalist he had easy access to people of all callings and views. He was warmly welcomed and entrusted with confidence. With his trained mind, wide reading and analytical capacity he could interpret and explain.

Though he began as a full-time political worker—with a short spell as university teacher before—journalism to which he eventually came fitted him like a glove. But, thanks be that he wasn’t a “quota” journalist, turning out an amazing number of analytical pieces and seeing an astonishing number of people every week. He was also a delightful conversationalist and travel companion, interested in a myriad things, his well-stocked mind usually able to cap any story and draw forth a reminiscence or an anecdote. In journalism 50 years and in political work years before, he had seen passing before him the caravan of modern Indian politics. As for people he had seen many “Shelleys plain” and could describe them. Believe it or not, for the journalist gossip is often the building block of truth. Nikhilda loved a bit of gossip and usually had a saucy bit up his sleeve.

Mainstream was an inspired idea because there was nothing like a forum-type journal of opinion. It could never, in India, hope to touch a high circulation but it gave much satisfaction to its faithful readers. That it had held on for so long is a monument to great dedication and tenacity. May it have many more years with Sumit. Though Mainstream remained his flagship Nikhilda’s influence enlarged after the Emergency and as his writings began to be widely syndicated.

He had infinite patience in dealing with meetings and people, even the most obstreperous and foolish, and was never fazed. Maybe it had something to do with what he told me once after Renudi’s death. When misfortunes and setbacks occurred, he said, they produced no immediate reactions on him. These came a few days later and showed up in blood pressure and other symptoms.

Patience, good humour and affection for young colleagues produced in him an ability to persuade people, often very different sorts of people, to work together. His handling of them was sometimes gently firm but never suppressive. The Editors Guild, for instance, and Namedia worked smoothly and well. Most journalists that I know, not excepting the well-known ones, are interested primarily in their careers and their own papers; interest in the profession and its problems came well down the list. Not so Nikhilda—he could always be counted to stand up, stick his neck out, advise and act in a professional challenge.

Whether in an evening’s lubricated dinner or a get-together in Karachi, Lahore, Colombo, Dhaka, Kathmandu or Geneva, he filled space quietly and with non-boisterous conviviality. And it is that space which we will find empty.

(Mainstream, July 4, 1998)

o o o

A Saint Editor

by Prabhash Joshi

Nikhilda had turned eightyfour. Some people live for hundred years and stay perfectly agile, alert and healthy. Though he had an ageing physique, Nikhilda was not a person who would live by obeying the regulations of keeping fit.

Four years ago, he took a taxi and went out in the hills. Alone. He was to meet me at the institutes in Mussoorie/Nainital. He reached there on time, attended the workshops, but again went out in the hills. I returned to Delhi and then left for Calcutta where I went to meet Renudi. Jansatta wanted to organise a function to mark Nikhilda’s fifty years in journalism in the city from where he began as a reporter.

Renudi was to be persuaded for an interview. She agreed. She came out to see me off and as I was getting inside the car, she asked: “Where is your Dada?” I told her that he was roaming around in the hills—alone. She chidingly remarked: “Why don’t you people tell him that he has crossed several years? He has grown old. He should stop loitering around uselessly.” After returning to Delhi, I told Nikhilda what Renudi was saying. Giving a shy smile, he said: “She talks like that.”

People of his age live with their wives/families so that their care can be taken. Dada had gout and he did not have a very robust heart as well. Still Renudi stayed in Calcutta and did her work while Dada lived in Delhi. His son Sumit lives in Delhi with his wife and son. But Dada did not stay with them. It was not that Dada had any misunderstanding with his son or daughter-in-law. They would frequent his Kakanagar flat and Dada also used to visit his son’s place quite often. After all, Dada had made Sumit quit his job and handed over Mainstream to him. Yet, despite the misinformation campaign in the media circles as to why did Dada stay in a government flat even when he had his own house in Gulmohar Park, Dada did not live with Sumit. He used to say that he had sold off that house to take care of the financial difficulties faced by Mainstream, and Sumit had bought one floor of the house.

When he came to know that he had a tumour in his brain which could be malignant, Dada went to live with Sumit. Until then, he lived in Kakanagar. Alone. But he never accepted that he was alone. Three boys and four dogs lived with him. Any guest would get a warm welcome. Staying in Kakanagar, Dada never believed that he was dependent on anyone or missed being looked after by his family or felt lonely in his old age. When it came to performing worldly duties, Dada would behave like an elder.

He never gave up travelling due to minor health problems. Only when left with no option would he cancel a programme or meeting. He was not careless about his health but, unlike most others, he never wanted to lead a resigned life depending wholly on his family. Such a life was unacceptable to him. He accepted the chairmanship of Prasar Bharati Board at the age of eightyfour. And everyone knows he was not a ‘ceremonial’ Chairman. He also used to write three to four articles every week. Dada would say that he needed fifteen thousand rupees per month to run his house. “If I don’t write how would I do that?” Dada would borrow money for Mainstream and pay back in instalments. By nature he was a worker whose last hope was on the fruits of his labour. He never liked comforts, care and goods of life. Naturally, he loved standing alone, on his own feet, in his own esteem, with all his humility.

Such a person developed a tumour in his brain. Death always chooses a unique way of taking away every person. It chose this excuse for Nikhilda. During an operation to remove the tumour, a knot developed in the nerve of his brain. Even that was operated upon. During these surgeries, he slipped into coma. Good for him that even while being medically alive, Dada never felt the pain and he passed away as soon as he regained consciousness. Dada lived a complete life. He lived a fulfilling life. His going was like a release from the chains of maya. By his going, many people have been orphaned—like one becomes on the death of his father or grandfather. And, Indian journalism has lost Nikhilda’s fatherly presence.

One day this had to happen. Remarkably, even when Renudi was no longer an MP (though Calcutta remained her constituency), Dada let her go there. This despite the fact that he had come to Delhi with Renudi after she was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1952. Dada stayed in Delhi while Renudi went back to Calcutta. She was so engrossed in her work that she could not attend the function marking Dada’s fifty years in journalism. That day, she was scheduled to address a meeting in Malda. Renudi passed away in Calcutta after a year or so. She was the niece of the Bengal stalwart and Chief Minister, B.C. Roy. She was a Leftist, and Bengal has a Left Front Government for over two decades now. Yet she lived as alone in Calcutta as Dada did in Delhi. This was not due to any discord in their married life—which was happy and satisfying. Even while studying in Oxford when they met and got married, both the Leftists were busy performing their respective duties.

They never had any problems with Sumit or Tanya. Dada always had love and a soft spot for Sumit. Though Sumit also came to journalism, Dada never tried to promote him. Someome once told me that the Leftist Nikhil Chakravartty could get hold of only his son to run his paper. But if you know the financial state of Mainstream, you will realise that Dada has put his son into paying his debts. And Dada was no Yashpal Kapoor who would use his political connections to erect a sound base for Mainstream. He used to take out a journal of opinions and felt that taking favours in the guise of advertisements amounted to corruption. Sumit too never used his father’s political conne-ctions and gladly accepted the responsibility of running Mainstream. But Nikhilda did not stay with such a son.

Dada had as much respect for his own independence as for that of others—even when it came to his wife or son. Such a pursuit is expected of sages and saints, but Dada led a wordly life. Yet, he never used his political connections for meeting his requirements or those of his family. And he did all this without ever boasting of his principles and sacrifices. Nikhilda did that naturally, unlike most others. Everyone knows the attitude of most people with journalistic/political connection—at least during the past fifty years.

Dada was born in a renowned Brahmo family. His father was a Professor of English in Calcutta. Dada, too, was a brilliant student and did his BA with Honours in History in the First Class from Presidency College. Then he went to Oxford where he became a Leftist, married B.C. Roy’s niece, and developed close friendship with P.N. Haksar, Jyoti Basu, Indrajit Gupta, Bhupesh Gupta and Mohan Kumaramangalam. On returning to India, he started teaching in a Calcutta college. Then he left everything and became a reporter for the CPI’s mouthpiece, People’s War. During this period, Dada reported on the infamous Bengal famine. He even became a CPI card-holder. But when the realities of Stalin’s excesses and the Russian occupation of Hungary began to unfold, Dada not only quit the CPI but started Mainstream to air his views. Soon, the journal became so critical of the CPI that the party had to publish a clarification in its mouthpiece that it had nothing to do with Mainstream!

Many others who had become disillusioned with the CPI joined the Congress. After the division of the Congress, the CPI not only became supportive of Indira Gandhi but even helped the Congress run its minority government. But unlike his friends, Nikhilda did not change sides. After leaving the CPI, he never became the member of any party. A person as fiercely independent as Nikhilda could not have belonged to any political party. This was so because a freedom-loving intellectual like him could never have liked the kind of falsehood and unprincipled alliances in which parties and their leaders indulge for grabbing power. It was not possible for Dada to accept the entire range of compromises made by the Communists. Yet, in his heart and thinking Dada remained a Marxist—of whichever hue. He had begun to believe in Gandhi as well.

From the times of Nehru till the Gujral regime was in office, the Leftists and Dada’s friends had a strong influence in the running of the government and in public sphere. Yet, Dada did not accept any office of power or profit. In 1990, he returned the Padma Bhushan, saying that it was imperative for journalistic objectivity and commitment that one should never be identifed with the establishment or even appear to be so.

The then President was also Dada’s friend and the government of the day was being propped up by the Leftists. Yet, Dada refused his own people. Such a nature is essential for living upto one’s beliefs, commitments and values, and for staving off greed and fear. Unless you keep journalism and its practice above political power, money and popular pride and do your work keeping this principle in mind, you cannot develop the fearlessness, commit-ment and independence of Nikhilda.

Nikhil Chakravartty lived the kind of life that a journalist faithful to his vocation should lead. He was a saint who believed in Marx. He lived like a lion surrounded by rats craving for crumbs. To mourn his going is to insult him; to live like him is to keep him alive.

(Courtesy: Jansatta)

 (Mainstream Independence Day Special Number, August 15, 1998)

(Translated from Hindi by Ashish Sinha)