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Mainstream, VOL LII No 1, December 28, 2013 - ANNUAL 2013

Remembering Nikhilda on his Birth Centenary

Sunday 29 December 2013, by Barun Das Gupta

Remembering Nikhilda on the occasion of his birth centenary fills me with memories of long years of working with him. It was in January, 1967, that I was introduced to Nikhilda by Shri Pannalal Das Gupta, the veteran communist revolutionary of Bengal who had, on coming out of jail in 1962, started Compass, the first weekly newsmagazine in Bengali. A budding reporter, I was then working with the weekly. I had just come back from Nagaland where I had been sent by Shri Das Gupta to work as a school teacher in an interior village to know, at first hand, the Naga people, the insurgency problem and the rebel leaders.

As I started telling him of my Nagaland experience, Nikhilda, as was his wont, cut me short and asked me to give him, immediately, a write-up on the Naga problem. This I did and the article was published in the Republic Day Special Number of Mainstream (1967). Soon, I was working for Mainstream and its sister organisation, the India Press Agency. Thus began a personal relationship that lasted till his death.

Nikhilda was acutely conscious of the importance of North-East India for the country. Immediately after joining Mainstream and its sister organisation, the India Press Agency (IPA), Nikhilda told me I would have to visit the North-Eastern States every two or three months and send detailed reports on all political developments in that part of the country where armed insurgency and secessionist movements were going on in many States. After a major violence in Gauhati (it became Guwahati much later) on January 26, 1968, Nikhilda asked me to pitch my tent permanently in Gauhati for a better and wider coverage of the North-Eastern region.

 I remember once I had gone to Imphal and was staying at the Circuit House. The then editor of The Statesman, Pran Chopra, also happened to be there at the same time. He had heard from someone that I was a journalist. So when we came across each other, he asked me which newspaper I represented. I told him I was from the Mainstream and IPA. A surprised Pran Chopra exclaimed: “Goodness! Nikhil has a man here also!”

Always easily accessible, soft-spoken and ever ready to help out young journalists, Nikhilda was, at the same time, a stern taskmaster. He worked hard and expected his colleagues to work as hard. Even in his eighties, he kept to a rigorous work schedule. He was not one to excuse lethargy, slipshod work and a casual approach to work. These qualities helped inculcate in the young journalists who came to work with him—and there were scores of them over the years and decades—the seriousness that the profession demands and the professional norms and values that need to be strictly adhered to.

Nikhilda to me was more a father figure than a very senior professional colleague. In the mid-eighties, I had joined a Bengali daily and soon found out it was a wrong place for me. I went to Delhi and asked Nikhilda if he could help me. Immediately, he wrote an introduction letter to the editor of an English daily. The letter began thus: “My dear ....... I may be accused of having seduced this young man into journalism.”

However, the editor was unable to help me. A year later, I finally decided to quit the paper I was working for. Again, I went to Delhi, met him and told him of my problem. “Join Mainstream,” he said. “When?” I asked. “Tomorrow, if you can,” came the reply. I joined him a month later. “Your designation will be Associate Editor,” he told me. After a couple of days, he handed me a box of visiting cards which named me as the Associate Editor of Mainstream. When personal problems made it necessary for me to return to Calcutta, he helped me again.

Nikhilda moved among the political elite of the country with perfect ease. He had the very rare quality of inspiring the trust and confidence of politicians, cutting across party lines. People belonging to opposite parties, even those belonging to opposite camps in the same party, would come to him and confide, which they would not do to any other journalist.

His courage and professional integrity would inspire generations of journalists. In June 1975, Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency and suspended all fundamental rights, including the right to life (one may recall the then Attorney-General Niren De’s arguments in the Supreme Court). Nikhilda continued to oppose the Emergency in the way it was possible in those circumstances.

He would often make a cryptic comment in Mainstream and hope the “perceptive readers” would understand what he meant and read between the lines. To be sure, his readers did. When authorities—both constitutional as well as “extra-constitutional”—made even this impo-ssible, he closed down the Mainstream. His parting editorial, “Good-bye to All That” will be ever remembered by those who hold democracy and democratic rights inviolable. Fortunately, emergency was soon lifted and Mainstream  appeared again.

Incidentally, there was one other editor who opposed emergency and gave strict insructions that the name of Sanjay Gandhi—the “extra-constitutional authority” of the Emergency days—must not be printed in his paper. He was Edatata Narayanan, founder-editor of Patriot. He had also to suffer.

A good raconteur, Nikhilda would tell us interesting anecdotes when in a relaxed mood. He wrote innumerbale analytical commentaries on current political developments. What he did not write was his own reminiscences. I asked him several times to write it but he was never enthusiastic about the idea. Had he written his reminiscences, many unknown political incidents and anecdotes, which he alone knew, would have come to light and been recorded.

Perhaps it was precisely for this reason that he decided against it. Things said to him in confidence were too sacrosanct to be made public. On several occasions, he refused to break confidences, even under great provocations. Nor would he allow himself to be identified with any political establishment. His refusal to accept the Padmabhusan was an example of this. That was Nikhilda, as we knew him and would remember him.

In my entire lifetime, I came across only two persons who were institutions rather than individuals. One was Pannalal Das Gupta, the Bengal revolutionary and one of the foremost figures of the communist movement of undivided Bengal. The other was Nikhilda. He was, indeed, a workhorse. Those of us who were privileged to work with him were surprised by the rigorous schedule he kept even in his twilight years.

  He was a great upholder of journalistic ehtics. He was not a man to divulge anything anyone had ever told him in confidence. His uncom-promising adherence to the professional values and ethics of journalism is something the present generation of journalists, living in the era of sensationalism, should try to emulate.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.

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