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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 28

A Media Legend of India’s Underbelly

Monday 30 June 2008, by Suhas Borker


Last week it was suddenly discovered that the portrait of Nikhil Chakravartty was missing from the Press Council of India’s Conference Hall where President K.R. Narayanan had unveiled it on February 28, 1999. It had been missing since mid-2003.

After the attention of the present Chairman of the Press Council, Justice G.N. Ray (who took over in March 2005), was drawn to the missing portrait, the original portrait was found and restored within fortyeight hours, though without the plaque, which is still untraceable.

But how and why this came about is still not known. It could be that when the Press Concil shifted out from its old abode at Faridkot House, where the portrait had been unveiled, to its new premises in Soochna Bhawan, a building in New Delhi’s CGO Complex which houses many offices of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, Nikhilda’s portrait went missing.
It could also be that when the then Information and Broadcasting Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, had inaugurated the Press Council’s new premises on June 30, 2003 and the formal function took place in the very same hall where Nikhilda’s portrait should have been, the inauguration imagery superimposed itself so well that that of the President of India unveiling Nikhilda’s portrait in the presence of one past Prime Minister (I.K. Gujral) and one future Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) was blanked out.

Therein lies a tale; symptomatic of the mindset of powers that be that abet the trampling of our media legacy, Nikhil Chakravartty is part of that media legacy. This is the media legacy of the freedom struggle—when to voice disaffection was a virtue, when the objective of journalism was service. Today, the forces that dominate and control our media are like evangelists singing the song of ‘Media is pure Business’ and vigorously waving ‘Freedom of the Press’ flag to ward off any sign of regulation or any curb on their profiteering. And any talk of public purpose or social responsibility is to be drowned out with louder and louder singing. The toleration levels are very low. Freedom of the press is only to be sacrificed by working journalists everyday at the altar of their profiteering masters who can spike their stories at will. After all, what do the media-corporates’ private treaties entail apart from giving legitimacy to editorial-advertorial trade-offs with equity?

Where is Nikhilda? When a Lead India Campaign can morph a Gandhi, in the famous national monument of Debi Prasad Roy Choudhury on the Dandi March at New Delhi, into a Shining India Salesman without a protest from the guardians and caretakers of our heritage? Not a word even in Parliament. Now, of course, some can jive to their heart’s content and uncork the champagne to take long swigs that their campaign has received the recognition of the Western corporates’ Lions at Cannes. That is how things should be—if corporates are going to sponsor the selection of leaders of the future in campaigns run by the media, the freedom struggle and the role of the media in it is absolutely irrelevant. Let it be confined to some history textbook in some decrepit school in some God-forsaken corner of the countryside. Until, of course, the underbelly stinks.

For me, Nikhilda represented that uncomfortable underbelly.

I came to know Nikhilda when I joined NAMEDIA as a member, sometime in early 1985. This was the Non-Aligned Media group to counter the media monopoly of Western countries that he had founded in 1983. When we met, Nikhilda was all of 71 and a living legend in media circles. What struck me immediately was how he interacted with a stripling—just into the profession—like me, in the same way as he would with his associates whom he had known for decades. At NAMEDIA meetings he would make it a point to give me time to put my views across. It did not matter whether there was a precocious dissent to be voiced. Soon one became a part of the post-meetings bonhomie over extended teas and dinners.

At the 2003 NAM Summit in Kuala Lumpur it was Nikhilda’s NAMEDIA spirit which drove me to initiate the issue of a call for a NAM Media Convention. Forty mediapersons, representing fourteen NAM countries, who were attending the summit, signed this call which was presented to the then NAM Chair—Malaysia. Though initially I did receive a letter expressing Prime Minister Mahathir’s support to the call, he did not last long in office to follow it up.

As I got more and more involved in the struggle for the autonomy for Doordarshan and All India Radio from government control, Nikhilda became a guiding spirit along with M.V. Desai and others. Right through the 1989-90 period when the Prasar Bharati Bill was being navigated through Parliament he was firmly with us, personally attending the briefings we would arrange with MPs and monitoring the Bill’s passage. Later, on September 12, 1994, we formally launched the Citizens’ Initiative for Public Service Broadcasting—Jan Prasar; he was there very much with us at the round table at the IIC. Again in 1996, when we got 106 MPs to appeal to the President to enforce the Prasar Bharati Act, he was with us.

So I was disappointed when Nikhilda accepted the position of Chairman of the Prasar Bharati. It was a kind of cooption of a resolute critic whose voice from outside to show the way was so crucial to the fledgling Prasar Bharati. And more so when Nikhilda chose to leave everything to the CEO, who had in his earlier avatar as the Secretary of Information and Broadcasting done all he could to curb autonomy in AIR and DD. A leopard was not going to change its spots overnight. Even Nikhilda redirected our communications addressed to him to the CEO and the missives, as expected, remained unreplied. For Nikhilda, it was, of course, a Catch-22. He felt that if he did not take up the responsibility of the Chairman he would be called a shirker and shadow boxer. Unfortunately, Nikhilda passed away after a few months of his appointment. To this day, the strangelehold of the Ministry and bureaucrats over DD and AIR continues. Public Service Broadcasting has been reduced to a sham. Prasar Bharati is just a pretender. The result is that we have no Public Broadcaster to set the benchmark in a democratic polity.

Here was a man who had become a living legend in media circles in the entire subcontinent; whether it was Pakistan or Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, Nikhilda’s voice of peace and sanity would be recognised and given place on the table.

A man who could share the confidence of the high and mighty of the land but have it within him to stand up for the values he held dear and tell them on their face where he stood, firmly and politely.

His dogged opposition to the Emergency, his turning down the Padma Bhushan, his support to the cause of Tibet and Burma, his pulling up the Left when he felt they had strayed the road, his long journeys to attend jan sunwais for the RTI campaign, his holding a candle at the vigil at Wagah when he was all of 82 (where I interviewed him on camera), are real life stories that legends are made of.

Think of his comparison of the Hashimpura killings of 1987 by the UP PAC with the “Nazi pogrom against the Jews, to strike terror and nothing but terror in a whole minority community”; think of his defence of Bhishma Sahni’s Tamas on Doordarshan in 1988:

It was the moment of our shame, the shame of having turned assassins. That memory, however heart-rending, must be kept alive so that every child, every young man and woman, may know and be warned.

Think of his advice to the Left in West Bengal (1990):

It’s time to pause and ponder for the CPI-M in West Bengal. I would not use the hackneyed cliché of “self-criticism”—much abused in Communist circles. It has been shown up as a means to force a sort of confession in Catholic terms.

Think of India in 2008—ten years after he has gone. Think of everything: from Godhra to Nandigram, from Binayak Sen to the Naxalite upsurge in districts of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa and Andhra, mafia murders of the harbingers of tomorrow’s India—from NHAI engineer Satyendra Dubey and IOC official Manjunath Shanmugham to NREGA activist Lalit Mehta.

But more than anything else, think of Nikhilda as the media voice of India’s underbelly. He identified with Gandhi’s last man. And he had the moral courage, born out of a lifelong and relentless pursuit of the cause of the poor and marginalised of this country, to censure the powers that be and hold them accountable before the people. How many of us can do that? That was his moment of truth.

Suhas Borker is an independent documentary filmmaker and Convener of Jan Prasar, based in New Delhi. He can be contacted at suhasborker@gmail. Com

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