Nikhil Chakravartty, a pioneering figure in Indian journalism for more than four decades of the last century, is being deeply missed by sections of the media fighting hard to protect the hard-won freedom of the press against the onslaughts of the Narendra Modi government. In the second half of the twentieth century, NC, as Nikhilda was known, was the father figure of the movement for press freedom launched by various Indian journalist organisations. Whether it was Bihar Press Bill or the restrictions during the Emergency era from 1975 to 1977, or in the case of the Defamation Bill during Rajiv Gandhi era in 1989, NC always led from the front, along with other luminaries like Kuldeep Nayar, H K Dua, S Nihal Singh. Right now, at the end of 2023, the independent media is under severe attack once again, as evidenced in the case of NewsClick, many of us are sorely missing NC’s stalwart leadership of those trying days.
Nikhilda was born on November 3, 1913 in an educated middle class family of Faridpur district of present-day Bangladesh. After his brilliant performance at Presidency College, Calcutta where he was taught history by the legendary Marxist Professor Susobhan Sarkar, Nikhil went to Oxford University for further studies and got involved in the activities of Indian students in Britain, who were a part of the independence struggle back home.1930’s was a volatile period in world history, especially in Europe, with the rise of Hitler in Germany. Nikhil got involved with the Communist Party of Britain and became close to the veteran Rajani Palm Dutt. It was in London that Nikhil became close to Feroze Gandhi and Indira Gandhi, apart from Bhupesh Gupta, P N Haksar and others.
After completing his studies at Oxford with distinction, Nikhil came back to Calcutta and devoted to the work of CPI. He taught for some time at the Calcutta University in the Department of History but soon gave up the job to take up journalism for the CPI papers. He worked for People’s War, People’s Age during pre-independence years. His reports on the 1943 Bengal famine as also the stories and commentaries on the politics of those times, including the internal developments within the Congress leadership, were hugely appreciated. Despite a difficult political period for CPI during war years, People’s War reports were followed by both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and they took note of what Nikhil was writing. Nikhil was also active in the cultural movement of the CPI during those years.
After the second party congress of CPI in Calcutta in 1948, the adventurist line of B T Ranadive led to convulsions. The party was banned. Nikhil as a disciplined member went by the official decision. After the ban on CPI was lifted and the first general elections were held in 1951-52 Nikhil shifted to Delhi as his wife Renu Chakravarty was elected to the Lok Sabha. From 1952to till his death on June 27, 1998, for 46 years, Delhi was his field of activity as a journalist.
After settling in the national capital, he worked at ‘Crossroads’ for two years and then joined the CPI weekly ‘New Age”. He was itching to do something innovative on his own. Finally, he founded India Press Agency (IPA), a new type of commentary service for the medium and smaller newspapers, with the objective of feeding them sharp news analysis focusing on the urgent issues of the day. He was joined by David Cohen, another legendary communist journalist, a Calcutta-based Jew. In 1962, Nikhil founded the weekly Mainstream and ran it until a few years before his demise. His son Sumit Chakravartty is running itnow.IPA is also equally active after completing 65 years without any break.
I joined IPA as a junior reporter in Delhi in 1969 and stayed with the agency for five years. No matter what I did in later years professionally, was mainly due to the training I got under Nikhil Chakravartty. That was the period of Congress split. NC used to hold our reporters meeting in the morning. He used to give a few leads and we were asked to meet our sources in our respective fields. His advice to the young reporters was: meet one new person every day, the lowest person including the peons can be your source, listen more, speak less, don’t just talk only about the news you are looking for, discuss other issues including literature, films even. That will lead to a bond, a relationship of a kind.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Chakravartty was most sought after by the senior political journalists of Delhi. They knew that he was the most informed, so all of them put pressure on him to give them leads. When bank nationalisation took place on July19, 1969,,three days before that, Nikhilda told me to check up with my sources in the finance ministry what they were feeling about the banks being taken over by the Government. I was stunned when I came to know about bank nationalisation from the official announcement after 72 hours.
I had a unique experience during the India-Pakistan war in December 1971. On December 3 morning, I was told by him to be ready for late night work. The rumours were there that the war may start any time but that was there since the last week of November. I had a hint that this time really something bigger would take place. Only a full-fledged war could be a bigger event. That afternoon at the PIB briefing on the Bangladesh developments, I had a bet with my good friend Mohan Ram of The Mail Madras which was coming out then in the evening. He told me before the briefing: ‘Give me a big story’. I said: Fine. You send your story that full-scale war will start within 24 hours. He promised me a bottle of beer if I was right. That evening, finally at the briefing, the then information broadcasting secretary R C Dutt announced ‘We are at war. Pakistan has attacked India and we have retaliated. This is a full-scale war’. That evening at Mohan Ram’s place at IENS building, I had two bottles of beer, courtesy Nikhilda.
Nikhilda was always encircled by media people as also, bureaucrats, historians, economists- all sorts of people. He was a great storyteller. He used to narrate little known incidents about famous political leaders including the left leaders. It was a hilarious experience to listen to those tales. Many people came to him for assistance in getting their jobs done. His was an open house. He refused Padma Bhushan offered by the V P Singh government in 1990. He pointed out at that time that a journalist carrying out his professional obligations should not appear to be close to any government or any political establishment.
However, he was made chairman of Prasar Bharati by the then Prime Minister I K Gujral a year before his death. Gujral insisted and Nikhilda had to agree, since the two shared a close friendship. Unfortunately, before he was able to seriously start working on anything transformative at the Prasar Bharati, he passed away. It was a loss not just for the institution, but for the country as a whole. Even now, Nikhil Chakravartty can shine a light and teach many a valuable lesson or two to our working journalists, senior or junior. (IPA Service)