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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 27 New Delhi June 27, 2015

Memories of Nikhilda during the Emergency

Monday 29 June 2015, by Barun Das Gupta


It was in the wee hours of Jun 26, 1975 — around 4.30. I was sleeping soundly when the telephone by my bedside started ringing. [I was then in Gauhati (spelt Guwahati now) working as Patriot’s Special Correspondent in Assam.] I woke up. I thought that the caller must have dialled a wrong number and decided not to take the call. After a couple of minutes the ringing stopped. I had just switched off my bed lamp and closed my eyes when the telephone started ringing again. This time it went on ringing persistently. I lifted the receiver and said “Hello” in an irritated voice.

A familiar voice at the other end said: “Do you know what has happened?” It was the voice of my friend Girija Das, the then Director of Information and Public Relations of the Government of Assam. In an irritated and angry voice I said: “No, I don’t know. What the hell has happened that you’ve woken me up from sleep at this unearthly hour?” I demanded to know.

Girija’s calm, cool voice said: “Listen, last midnight Mrs Gandhi declared National Emergency. All prominent Opposition leaders starting with Jayaprakash Narayan have been arrested. More arrests are going on.” He then went on reading the PTI reports tearing them off the ticker. By then I was wide awake and excited. He told me that press censorship had been imposed. Around six o’ clock he rang again and told me that power connections to all newspaper offices in Delhi had been cut off and not a single newspaper had appeared that morning, including my paper Patriot which was considered close to Mrs Gandhi’s government. He also said that the PTI had ‘killed’ all the stories it had creeded, after press censorship was imposed.

Then followed a nightmare. We had to submit our copies to the censors who were semi-literate lower rank officers of the State Public Relations Department and the PIB. They had got a chance of their lifetime to pass or refuse to pass our copies and dictate to us what we should write or should not write. But within a few days we reporters found out the tricks to hoodwink these men. I was reporting everything in a roundabout and suggestive way, hoping that the reader would see through them and get the message I was trying to convey.

When the first issue of Mainstream after the promulgation of the Emergency came, I was delighted to find Nikhilda beginning his ‘Editor’s Notebook’ of the week thus (I am quoting entirely from my memory): “In the din and bustle of Emergency, the editor has lost his notebook. But Rabindranath Tagore, in his generosity, has lent him his.” Then, in lieu of the editorial appeared the full text of Tagore’s poem beginning with the line: “Freedom from fear is the freedom I claim for you, my Motherland!” By using this Tagore poem as editorial on the very first issue of Mainstream that appeared after the imposition of the Emergency, Nikhilda sent a clear message to the Indira Gandhi-led Establishment that he will neither surrender to nor be cowed down by the Emergency Raj. He will hold his head high.

Nikhilda’s style of writing often became my guideline for drafting my reports. He would often hope that the ‘perceptive reader’ would get the meaning of his message. He would often quote from Jim Corbett’s Man-eaters of Kumaon and tell his readers how to see not only what was visible at the centre of the visual field but also see with the corners of his eyes to spot if anything significant could be spotted.

Within a few days I got a message from Nikhilda that I must keep him informed of the political developments in Assam and other States in the North-East as far it was possible to collect such information. He was especially interested to know the public mood and whether it was changing. As a Patriot correspondent I had occasion to visit the North-Eastern States. I made it a point to meet as many common people in different walks of life as possible. In face-to-face private conversations, people—even senior bureaucrats—would be more frank and forthcoming in venting their feelings provided you had earned their trust and confidence. After several weeks, I got a late night telephone call from Narendra Sharma, who was working for Mainstream’s sister organisation, the India Press Agency, that if I had kept copies of my letters to Nikhilda, I should destroy them. It helped me understand the atmosphere of fear that then pervaded the whole country.

As it was not possible to communicate everything through letters—it was too risky a business as letters, especially of journalists, were being intercepted and censored—Nikhilda asked me several times to fly to Calcutta from Gauhati to meet him when he was on a visit to the city. Then he would ask me to tell him in as much detail as possible the mood of the people and the reaction of the political parties, Ministers and legislators.

But the situation was fast becoming difficult for him to continue the publication of Mainstream without giving up its independence and without compromising on principles. Pressure was mounting on him and there were threats of his possible arrest. But he carried on—as long as it was possible to do so. Then came a point when he had to take the hard decision—to suspend the publication of Mainstream. His parting editorial, Goodbye to all That, ended with this oprimistic note (again I am quoting from memory): “With the advent of Spring, Mainstream will sprout again.” Fortunately, Indira Gandhi withdrew the Emergency soon thereafter and Mainstream ‘sprouted’ again after a gap of a few weeks.

Nikhilda was one of those very few journalists —like Edatata Narayanan of Patriot—who never compromised their independence, refused to buckle under pressure, and remained fiercely loyal to ideals and values. Narayanan gave a clear directive to the Patriot desk that Sanjay Gandhi’s name would never be printed in his paper. This Patriot did and in the process incurred Sanjay’s wrath. A fire suddenly broke out in our press room and gutted several of our printing machines. After Indira Gandhi decided to go in for general elections, Patriot correspondents were summoned from all over the country for a discussion on how the election coverage would be done. In between the sessions, Narayanan found time to meet me separately for a few minutes. I asked him what would happen after the polls. He said he thought Indira would lose the elections. But if she did return to power “I will have to wind up Patriot and you people will be left entirely on your own”.

Nikhilda’s style of writing during the Emergency and the subtle nuances that he often used helped me a lot. I could manage to pass through the hands of the censors a sensitive copy about a near relation of a former Chief Minister of Assam who was then the Governor of a north Indian State having been caught red-handed in a posh hotel in Calcutta while passing on sensitive documents to a foreign intelligence agency. Patriot carried the story the next day on its front page.

Nikhilda was greatly pained by the CPI’s total support to the Emergency and the mother-and-son duo. It culminated in the severing of his decades-long association with his party. Shortly after the end of the Emergency, he wrote an article in a Bombay-based monthly in which he referred to S.A. Dange by name as a ’supreme irrelevance’. Nikhil Chakravartty, the indomi-table journalist that he was, never compromised, never curried favour, never hankered for state honours.

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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