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EVEN as his Mainstream continues to be published weekly in unblemished character with his son as the editor, very few outside the journalist fraternity probably remembers Nikhil Chakravarty (1913-1998) any more. Even fewer know that this stalwart of Indian journalism hailed from Silchar, the headquarters of Barak Valley in Assam.

His father, Narendranath Chakravarty, was a professor of English at Calcutta University. Nikhil’s birth in Silchar was rather coincidental. His mother, going by the Bengali middleclass social custom and practice, gave birth to the child in her brother’s house in Silchar.

Nikhil was relocated to Kolkata after a few months. That is Barak Valley’s only known connection with Nikhil Chakravarty. The family, however, had a glorious tradition in Sylhet.

Nikhil’s 103rd birth anniversary (03 November) passed off last week with expectedly not many people caring to record the event.

Yet, with the number of journalists of his ilk dwindling in contemporary India which is being ideologically torn asunder by obscurantist forces under state patronage, it is perhaps the right time to recollect why and how Nikhil Chakravarty had refused to accept the Padma Bhusan in 1990. 

Back then, it was the National Front government with VP Singh as the Prime Minister. In a dignified letter to the President of India, Nikhil had pointed out that “a journalist carrying out his professional obligation should not appear to be close to any government and / or any political establishment.”

Noted historian, Romila Thapar, delivered the Third Nikhil Chakravarty Memorial lecture on 26 October last year in New Delhi. The lecture, instituted by the Book Review Literary Trust, was conscientiously captioned To Question, or Not to Question? : That is the Question.

There, Romila reminisced how “Nikhil respected intellectual and academic opinion about public matters.”

She went on to contextualise Nikhil, as she lamented: “He provided space to those who questioned the nature of inter-dependence of society and politics. Today that space has shrunk and the intellectual parameters have narrowed. It seems that those in authority and those influencing public opinion have less respect for the public intellectuals than was so before.”

Nikhil Chakravarty loved his journalism more than his political affiliation. His university days in England brought him close to Communism. Back in India, he continued on this association. In fact, he went on to edit the mouthpieces of the undivided Communist Party of India.

Nikhil’s wife had won Independent India’s first general election in 1952 on CPI’s nomination and became an MP. But such cerebral and cardiac connections to the Communist Party notwithstanding, he severed the link with the Party, and founded Mainstream in 1962.

Mainstream Old Copy

This he did, to concentrate on committed, objective and unbiased brand of journalism. He felt it very dearly to further the cause of an open, diverse and accommodative democracy that India had opted for at the crack of its sovereign journey in 1947.

Nikhil was a sharp and relentless critic of Emergency and Indira Gandhi. In fact, he went on record taking his party to task for its soft support to both.

Mainstream incurred the wrath of Indira-Sanjay dispensation several times for its virulent attack on emergency. He took umbrage at the 42nd Amendment to the Indian Constitution, and considered that the Preamble could and should never be changed.

It was his journalistic prowess coupled with a deep love for a tolerant India that made him use the Nehruvian diction as a weapon to intellectually resist the draconian misdemeanor of the same dynasty.

This led to a hilarious diktat from Indira Gandhi’s government that effectively sought to censor even Jawaharlal Nehru. This exposed the inner contradiction and intellectual hollowness of post-split Congress. His job was done. Nikhil could not be muzzled nor mellowed down.

Today, when the country is facing a new kind of threat to the freedom of free expression, revisiting this doyen of Indian journalism is perhaps the best recourse we can fall back on.

In his Marx and Marxism: A Personal Testament (Mainstream, 02 April 1983), Nikhil described himself as a “god-fearing nationalist putting on khadi-kurta.” What he essentially tried to drive home in that article, penned to commemorate the centenary of the death of Karl Marx, was his commitment to impartial journalism dedicated to shaping a modern, secular and tolerant India.

For this he was ready to offload his ideological baggage. Can the talk shows and high decibel debates in the Indian television take a leaf out of the Testament of this Silchar born scribe?

(Joydeep Biswas is an associate professor of economics at Cachar College, Silchar, Assam. To see all his previous articles, click here)  

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