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Mainstream, VOL LI No 46, November 2, 2013

N.C.’s Bio-Sketch

Friday 1 November 2013


On the occasion of the birth centenary of Nikhil Chakravartty (November 3, 2013) we present here his bio-sketch.

Born on November 3, 1913 in Silchar (now in Assam) Nikhil Chakravartty had his school education at Hindu School, Calcutta (1925-29), and college education in Presidency College, Calcutta (1929-35). He graduated with History Honours in 1933 and stood First Class in MA (History) in 1935. Thereafter he went to Oxford where he studied in Merton College (1936-39) and in Oxford University’s Honours School in Modern History (1939). On his return to India he taught Modern History in Calcutta University’s Post-graduate Department (1940-44) before plunging into activist journalism as a special correspondent with the Communist Party organ People’s War (1944-46) and People’s Age (1946-48). Before that he married Renu Roy in 1942 and his son was born in 1945. After serving a stint in the underground as an important communist functionary from 1948, he worked in Crossroads (1952-55) and New Age (1955-57). He then set up a feature news service, India Press Agency or IPA, and in 1959 shot into prominence with a report in the IPA on the activities of the then Prime Minister’s PA, M.O. Mathai, that rocked Parliament forcing Mathai to resign. In 1962 he founded the current affairs weekly, Mainstream, and served as its editor from 1967 to 1992. Subsequently he became its Editorial Adviser. In 1975-77 he played a vital role in defence of press freedom during the Emergency; later in the eighties he alongwith other senior journalists fought doggedly against the Anti-Defamation Bill sought to be introduced in Parliament by the then Union Government and compelled the government to withdraw the legislation. He was a Member, Press Commission (1978-80), the Chairman, NAMEDIA Conference (December 1983), Chairman, NAMEDIA Foun-dation (media foundation of the non-aligned) since 1984 till his death. He was the President of the Editors Guild of India (1990-92) and a member of the National Integration Council for sometime. He was also a member of the Indo-US Subcommission on Education, Culture and Media (1985-89). In 1990 he politely declined the Padma Bhushan Award conferred on him by the National Front Government with a dignified letter to the then President pointing out that a journalist carrying out his professional obli-gation should not appear to be close to any government and/or any political establishment. A member of the Communist Party for forty years (1938-78), he was not associated with any political organisation thereafter. In November 1997 the was appointed the Chairman of the Prasar Bharati Board that was entrusted with the task to oversee and ensure genuine auto-nomy for the official media.

A reputed columnist, he wrote for several national and regional newspapers across the country. He has been described as one of the most well-informed journalists and commen-trators who perhaps had the widest possible contacts in political and administrative circles. He had a facile pen and wrote incisive reports in the forties on the Bengal famine, resistance to communalism in Calcutta, anti-imperialist upsurge in Bengal, remarkable mass awakening at the dawn of independence on August 15, 1947. Subsequently his outspoken denunciation of the Emergency regime in the seventies made him immensely popular among all segments of the public yearning for restoration of democratic rights and civil liberties.

In 1946 he was briefly arrested, charged with having leaked out valuable information to the public on the British authorities’ secret plan to crush the national movement just before independence (known as ‘Operation Asylum’). He was also accused of laying his hands on a British conspiracy to send troops to South-East Asia (including Vietnam) without the knowledge of the Interim Government’s Defence Minister.

In the field of journalism, he was a prolific and fast writer and, as has been underscored, with an eye for details. In his writings he never repeated himself. But more than that what struck one most was his wide and diverse contacts. All along he maintained livewire connections with a wide variety of people subscribing to different shades of opinion. That equipped him with remarkable objectivity and an uncanny sense of predicting events apart from being a mine of information.

He always called himself a ‘reporter’. He did have the finest attributes of a reporter, and despite airing his own views in commentaries and editorials never discarded fairness in reporting or tampered with facts. His fidelity to facts was extraordinary. And he knew what to report and what not to report—always preserving the confidence reposed in him by his inter-locutors.

He had viewed the entire political spectrum in pre- and post-independence India with the eyes of a concerned citizen—involved yet detached. That gave him a unique perspective and won him credibility from his readers. His sense of history also contributed to his writings.

He was gifted with a remarkable sense of humour with the ability to laugh at oneself. That is why he was shorn of any malice, pettiness, bitterness or rancour.

A democrat to the core, he could never countenance any infringment on civil liberties and thus revolted against the slightest manifestation of authoritarianism as during the Emergency. At the same time he could not remain silent before perpetration of injustice or oppression. He was thus unhesitant in condem-ning the excesses by the security forces whether in Kashmir or the North-East, without in any way losing his bearings from the national standpoint. In fact attempts to throttle legitimate struggles of the dispossessed and the deprived, regardless of who led those struggles, always evoked indignation in him just as he sympathised with the underdog without equivocation. He was thus able to comprehend without difficulty the basic causes that led to the collapse of the statist socialist structures in Eastern Europe.

He was also able to comprehend the necessity to improve India’s ties with all its neighbours including Pakistan and strained every nerve to strengthen Indo-Pak friendship at the people’s level. No wonder that his death was mourned in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Fiercely independent in his thinking and actions, he was simultaneously conscious of the forces at work to destablise India, and was thus not just wary of but assailed outright the external elements seeking to disintegrate the country. In fact he was a genuine nationalist secular democrat striving to bring about fundamental transformation of society with the purpose of betterment of the teeming millions’ living and working conditions.

Whoever has closely interacted with N.C. has been struck by his generosity. He was not in the least attached to his possessions including property. But he considered his books to be his most precious possesion.

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