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The marginal & the Mainstream | Rrishi Raote - Business Standard

Friday 18 September 2020


[Reproduced below is an article that appeared on the 50th year of Mainstream Weekly in 2012]

Rrishi Raote | New Delhi

March 03, 2012

Rrishi Raote traces the career of Mainstream, the weekly news journal started by intrepid journalist Nikhil Chakravartty, on the occasion of its 50th year

Ask a subaltern historian about the Mainstream Weekly and he begins thus: “Ah, Nikhil Chakravartty’s wife was also associated with the Communist movement, she was a CPI [the then-undivided Communist Party of India] MP. Renuka Chakravartty was very respected.”

Ask a journalist who writes on media ethics, and he begins: “Mainstream was always identified with the late Nikhil Chakravartty, who was the quintessential journalist.”

Ask a civilised person of Brahmo Samaj background (the Chakravarttys were also Brahmo) and she begins with an anecdote on how Nikhil Chakravartty put then-culture minister of West Bengal Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in his place with a polite rejoinder, printed in Mainstream, to a written attack from the minister. This was in the late 1970s.

Ask Sumit Chakravartty, the son of Nikhil and Renuka and current editor of Mainstream, and he begins with current affairs: Markandey Katju leaping quixotically to the defence of journalists. Then it is a quick segue to the recently leaked Cabinet agenda that suggested a government plan to control the Election Commission. And then back to his early days in the media with the Blitz daily, how journalist Joga Rao threw out a businessman who tried to bribe him with a suitcase of cash. Then again to the present, with retired judge A K Ganguly’s right to comment as a private citizen on his own judgments in the 2G matter. This is the beginning of a long adda...

* * *

The Mainstream Weekly turns 50 this year. Since it began in 1962 it has been one of the few genuine “platforms” — nobody is thoughtless enough to call it an “outlet” — for voices of dissent, especially left-wing voices, and for the discussion of issues of the moment. The various opening thoughts described above suggest how deeply engaged and at the same time self-effacing Mainstream’s founders were, and the magazine and its present pilot still are.

Mainstream and Nikhil Chakravartty reached the height of their visibility during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. When Sumit Chakravartty ushers us into his office — one floor up in the urban village of Shahpur Jat in Delhi, a sparsely furnished flat that is not as stacked with paper as one imagines an old-school left-wing journal’s office would be, and is fairly well-dusted besides — he had ready a pile of photocopies of Mainstream essays written by his father and others during and after the Emergency. Reading them one is struck by the absence of table-thumping.

Just look at the senior Chakravartty’s editorial published after the Allahabad High Court judgment against Indira and a few days before Emergency was imposed. The editor writes that the Congress Party should strengthen itself by building its base rather than adulating its leader. Even when he writes that the PM should “take the initiative in turning out all those placed around her — whether by ties of blood or sycophancy” and so on, his words lack the charge of indignation, or even honest schadenfreude.

Once Emergency is imposed, in place of an editorial Mainstream quotes Tagore’s poem, “Freedom from fear is the freedom I claim for you, my Motherland!” The censor passes it but information minister V C Shukla orders Mainstream not to quote from Tagore, or even Nehru or Gandhi. Now who looks small and weak?

A few days later an “active Congress leader” writes anonymously that legally there wasn’t any need to impose Emergency. By December, the editor writes of the Indira personality cult that “parasites creep around the banyan tree” — which nicely prefigures Rajiv Gandhi’s callous words on his mother’s death. By this time the state is cutting off power to the Mainstream office and press. The paper says, calmly, “We cannot but bear with Delhi’s Electricity authorities, and we hope that in turn, the reader too will bear with us.”

There is much more like this. In between, Mainstream is shut down for a few months. Indira is particularly infuriated by an editorial in May 1976 which asks “Do We Need Nehru Today”, on Nehru’s 12th death anniversary, and sings his praises. The contrast with Nehru’s daughter is evident. The piece ends with a twist on Wordsworth’s lines to Milton: “Thou shouldst be living at this hour: India hath need of thee.” (Soli J Sorabjee quoted the same lines in a tribute to Nikhil Chakravartty, who died in 1998.)

And indeed, the Brahmo Samaj reader quoted above points out that the Chakravarttys’ reaction to Emergency was “not fear but really contempt”. The editor is most contemptuous about Sanjay Gandhi, Indira’s younger son: he is “a high-breed political spring-chicken”, “a spoilt child” in whom “rowdyism is part of his character”, “imperious”, “pampered”, a “whole-hogger”. Most of these quotes are from “Maruti to Mafia: The Sanjay Gandhi Story”, an article which was reprinted as a pamphlet five times in 1977 alone, after the Emergency.

Back in the 1980s, says Biswamoy Pati, the subaltern historian quoted above, “For anybody writing pieces which were fiery, there were two journals: EPW [the Economic and Political Weekly] and Mainstream. [...] In 24-30 pages one would have the flavour of what is going on in film, books, landlords in Bihar, Emergency, post-Emergency... The liberal space of today was created by these journals."

He fires off a list of topics which Mainstream would cover: all shades of Left opinion, education, draconian laws, land reforms, Delhi University strikes, gender, press and press freedom... “That was the excitement,” he says. “One got to know how these things were debated.”

* * *

The 1980s were when Mainstream went from visible to influential, and its editor got access to the most powerful people. As Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, the journalist quoted at the top, says, “Politicians across the board trusted him immensely and would give him all the gossip and all the dope that he wanted. He used that information without attributing it to his sources. He played the game by the rules.”

His son Sumit Chakravartty offers us anecdotes over tea in his poky office room, which is lined with the leather-bound archives of Mainstream and features a portrait each of Tagore and his father. “You can never be like your father,” one journalist told him jokingly. “I went to a reception and there a line formed of ministers wanting to meet your father to find out what is going on.” Another anecdote: Murli Deora, in the days before he was a minister, thought he would go early and be the first to greet P V Narasimha Rao on Rao’s birthday. He reached at 7 am, but Nikhil Chakravartty was already there.

“He would go on his morning rounds,” his son explains, chuckling. “Rao was an early riser, and so was he, so...”

But Nikhil Chakravartty was not to be tied down. He refused Zia ul-Haq’s invitation to visit Pakistan, telling the dictator that he neither wanted to seem tame nor a namak-haram. But he went on his own, and told Zia, “Let’s have a heart to heart chat, off the record.” Which they did.

Sumit Chakravartty, as he freely admits, is not like his father in these respects. He is happy to be low-profile. Not for him the frontline role his father took in the movement against Rajiv Gandhi’s Anti-Defamation Bill which would have curbed press freedom — yet Sumit is to be seen at street protests and feels strongly about the rights of the poor. In this he takes after his mother Renuka, a feminist who was very active during the Bengal Famine of the 1940s. He links his own experience of travelling through rural Jagatsinghpur in the late 1990s with the recent debate about foreign-funded NGOs. “We had a girl with us from one NGO. She pointed out a hut and said, I spent a week there. Now why did she have to do that? She also” — note the “also” — “wanted to know what is going on there. In the old days she would have been part of the political parties who are doing real grassroots work, but now very few do that. So these NGO people, yes, they have to sustain themselves, so they are being paid well, but they are doing good work.” For the Chakravarttys, nationalism was and is like this: automatic and unshowy.

But Mainstream is no longer the force it was. Although it sells 8,000-10,000 copies and is widely read in Bengal, Orissa and Kerala in particular, the reading and writing world has changed around it and it has not kept pace. Now, the editor says, “The attention span is limited. [...] In this issue, which is coming out, we had to carry a very detailed piece on the OBC Muslim subquota. Normally I wouldn’t have used it, but at the moment it is topical [think of the UP elections], so we had to carry it.”

There is no shortage of contributions (which are mainly opinion and analysis rather than reporting), even though nobody is paid for writing. “We are flooded with articles, which we sometimes cannot use,” Sumit says. “A lot of people feel that if it comes out in Mainstream at least some sections of people would read it and it will be discussed — that is the main thing, that is why it comes.” Historian Pati agrees: “Even today people who want to write will think of Mainstream. I was travelling in a train going to Orissa, and a [fellow passenger] knew my name from Mainstream. If I am asked I will write, but I would prefer EPW because of its catchment area — and they are on Jstor,” an online scholarly archive.

The Internet is one opportunity Mainstream has missed (another is publishing, which EPW is trying). There is a website, but the archive, even Emergency-era articles, are not available online. The editor says he is trying to find a way to digitise, but working with a tiny budget and staff his hands are tied.

“It may not necessarily have huge circulation,” says Guha Thakurta, “but it contributes to the plurality, the heterogeneity of the media.” And, “the world across and in India the general-interest periodical is very endangered.” “It is not for me to say anything,” says Sumit, “but people who have been reading for many years, they say, well, you have been able to maintain the quality, this much I can say.” Mainstream still shows evidence of careful curation, though its appearance is as staid as ever.

How will the journal celebrate its 50th birthday? “That we have not yet decided,” says Sumit. “We don’t want to project ourselves, as such.”

(Courtesy: Business Standard, March 03, 2012)

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