Many of the younger journalists of today may not have heard of Nikhil Chakravartty (1913 to 1998), a self- effacing, towering journalist who participated in the journalistic history of pre and post-Independence India with understanding and candour. With his birth centenary falling on November 3, both the Editors Guild as well as the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) in Jawaharlal Nehru University seek to pay homage to Nikhilda or NC, as he was popularly known, as well as rekindle the spirit, honesty and vibrancy of the journalism he stood for.
While the Editors Guild will be having a panel discussion on November 2 on 'Nikhil Chakravartty's Journalism and Media Scene Today' with participants including senior journalists like Kuldip Nayar, H.K Dua, B.G Verghese, Neerja Chowdhury and Seema Mustafa, the CMS will host a two-day conference titled Media Engagement in Contemporary Times. The CMS conference on November 4 and 5 at the India International Ccentre in the Capital will explore democracy, information, food security, non alignment, regional cooperation and social movements in contemporary times. Scholars, media professionals and intellectuals will discuss Nikhil Chakravartty’s contributions and their own understanding of these themes.
As his son Sumit, on whom the mantle of running Mainstream (started by Nikhil Chakravartty in 1962) has fallen points out, NC always called himself a reporter. Opinions were voiced only in commentaries and editorials and he never compromised fairness in reporting or tampered with facts. Because of his credibility and the confidence that information given off-the-record would not be divulged, political leaders like P V Narasimha Rao opened up to him and made him their confidante.
In fact in 2003, Mr Rao was to release Nikhil Chakravartty’s book India-Pakistan: Themes beyond borders, but fell sick and could not make it for the occasion. In his message he recalls his long association with the veteran journalist and points out that Nikhilda’s earnestness on issues they discussed was more potent than a hundred arguments or a thousand quotations. As Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Rao was struggling with land reforms but the discussions with Nikhilda were never at the theoretical level because they could hit ideological road blocks. Instead they talked about implementation and Nikhilda would explain the many angles of implementation lucidly. “He was my unannounced mentor and was of immense help to me for which I am ever grateful,” Rao stated. Even the emergency could not sully their relationship. Nikhilda would leave the editorial page of the Mainstream blank to protest the censorship but the meetings with Rao, a general secretary of the All India Congress Committee, increased. Indira Gandhi was always keen to hear from Rao, Nikhilda’s views on various issues. Rao also pointed out the veteran journalist’s eagerness to bring India and Pakistan closer and how this impacted government thinking. Between 1991 and 1996, free movement without visas was permitted between the two countries for legislators, academics, artists etc. In several matters, particularly economic cooperation, what was found unattainable bilaterally between the two countries was achieved through the SAARC network.
Many journalists today crave for political patronage but Nikhilda belonged to a genre of journalists who steered clear of favours. In 1990 he declined the Padma Bhushan pointing out “a journalist carrying out his professional duties should not appear to be close to any government or any political establishment”.
Nikhilda viewed the entire spectrum of political developments in India as a concerned citizen—involved and yet detached. Having studied history at Presidency College, Kolkata as well as Oxford University and then taught history, a sense of history embellished his writings.
He would not tolerate infringement of civil liberties and revolted against authoritarianism as during the Emergency. He was equally outspoken on perpetuation of injustice and supported the struggles of the dispossessed. He even condemned the excesses by the security forces whether in Kashmir or the North East.
In the 1940s he wrote incisive reports on the Bengal famine, resistance to communalism in Kolkata and the anti-imperialist upsurge in Bengal. What is not well known is that in 1946 he was arrested briefly for leaking information to the public on the British plans to crush the national movement just before Independence.
Before plunging into active journalism, Nikhilda was special correspondent of the Communist Party’s People’s War and People’s Age. In 1959, he set up the India Press Agency and immediately broke the story on the activities of the then Prime Minister’s personal assistant, M O Mathai. The story rocked Parliament and Mathai had to resign. He then founded Mainstream with which he was associated, first as editor then as adviser till his death. Between 1975 and 1977 he played a key role in press freedom and with other senior journalists fought against the Anti-Defamation Bill and forced its withdrawal.
Nikhil Chakravartty was a member of the Press Commission, Chairman NAMEDIA conference and Chairman, NAMEDIA Foundation. He was a member of the National Integration Council as well as the Indo US Sub Commission on Education, Culture and Media.
Nikhilda’s life, as his son recalls, was a celebration of humanity and the indomitable human spirit.