Ajit Bhattacharjea 1924-2011
A diminutive, quiet and firm elder sat through the Jan Sunwai in Beawar. Not missing a single word and occasionally asking for clarifications of a name and its spelling, he was totally engrossed in the proceedings. In 1996, Ajit Bhattacharjea, then Director of the Press Institute of India, had come with Prabhash Joshi to support and move the Right to Information campaign forwards. When he met the motley group of protesters, he asked many questions. Curious onlookers wondered at the angrezi bolne wala panellist. He steadfastly refused to speak in public fora. He passed the obligation on with, ‘Prabhash will speak.’ Any attempt to force him to do so, invariably met with a stubborn refusal. In the early years and even later, Prabhash Joshi and Ajit Bhattacharjea were a twosome who attended meetings, participated in dharnas and protests, and together lobbied with chief ministers and prime ministers for the RTI (Right to Information) Bill.
Ajitji was never happier than when he had to visit and stay in rural India. He spoke fondly of many people whom he had met and who continued to keep out of Delhi and the artificial glitter of the corridors of power. He insisted that power lay with the people of India, who lived with the minimum. He never made the smallest fuss about staying anywhere, eating the coarsest of rotis and standing in the blistering sun. His last visit to Rajasthan in 2010 was spent quarrelling with what he called an over-fussy and unnecessarily anxious concern about his health, as he stood in the heat and looked at MGNREGA worksites in Vijaypura panchayat in Rajasthan.
He apprenticed as a reporter in the Hindustan Times in 1946, the year that I was born. But I never felt weighed down by reminiscences and stories of ‘when I was…’ In a visit to Bhilwara in Rajasthan with Prabhashji in 2009, the two of them went back to the old days with Ramnath Goenka in The Indian Express, and the days when ethics were taken for granted in Indian journalism. Prabhashji was fighting the phenomena of paid news, with a case before the Press Council and was disgusted with the deafening silence of the journalist establishment. The stories of their early years gave us listeners a vivid picture of what India has lost. A media, conscious first and foremost, of its obligation to keep constitutional democracy going. Ajitji’s best years were perhaps those spent with JP when he edited Everyman’s. He was an ardent Sarvodayi in his ideas, despite his impeccable English and his very Stephanian ways. He was always with the poor and their points of view.
Since 2007, a major concern of Ajitji and Prabhashji was the growing institutionalizing of state terror through draconian laws and its implementation. The two of them went to Raipur soon after Binayak Sen was jailed and came back dismayed at the individuals occupying all important posts, hand-picked or so it seemed for their indifference if not hostility to democratic and human rights. Their social and political commitment was consistent. After Prabhashji passed away and Mira his wife died, his consolation was in his concern for the underprivileged. He drowned his sorrows in trying to understand and write about the much deeper and persistent problems of the poor.
The RTI owes Ajitji an immeasurable debt. In a world dominated by glitter, of power defined in its narrowest terms and metropolitan media-promoted priorities, he brought centre-stage the involvement of the poor in defining RTI, refusing to be swayed by the concerns of others better placed in the power spectrum. His steadfast support and persistent writing on these issues were critical in giving shape to the discourse of the RTI in the early years. Apart from writing about them, I remember some years ago, his insisting at the inauguration of an important high-profile seminar in Bangalore on using Information Technology for Change, that Naurti Bai, dalit worker and fighter for wages, neo-computer literate, someone who had fought with equal tenacity against her illiteracy and her age, be the chief guest along with Azim Premji. It was an excellent choice. Naurti conveyed more about the values of the RTI for change in her persona than anyone else could.
When the advocacy for a legislation reached a critical mass, he helped set up the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI). Both the need for and the shape this platform acquired, drew on a strong collective support, and Ajitji was an intrinsic part of the founding process in 1996. Ajitji and Prabhashji were key partners, along with Justice P.B. Savant, Chairperson, Press Council of India, in drafting an RTI legislation. This draft called the ‘Press Council draft’ in 1996, eventually became the basis of all future attempts to redraft the RTI Act. Different states worked on this draft and changed it around; the national RTI Act (2005) too is built around this draft.
In his professional career he spanned a great range of jobs and preoccupations. It began with Kashmir in 1948. He worked with almost all major English dailies.1 After he retired in 1983, he was Editorial Advisor for the Democrat, the Nigeria and the Deccan Herald. In 1995, he was appointed Director of the Press Institute of India, relinquishing charge in 2004. Ajit Bhattacharjea was a fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla and Editor of the Transparency Review, a journal of the Centre of Media Studies, New Delhi which focuses on the Right to Information. He has written several books, among them, Kashmir: the Wounded Valley; Jaiprakash Narayan: A Political Biography; Countdown to Partition; Tragic Hero of Kashmir: Sheikh Abdullah; Dateline Bangladesh and Social Justice and the Constitution.
He was a writer who cared, whether as a journalist or as an editor. Though we often say this about people we lose, in his passing away India has lost a strong voice of the people. He was a journalist who took his responsibility to speak the truth seriously, and though an engaged participant, never compromised with his journalistic concern for ‘objectivity’. He will be missed as a person, a friend, as an upholder of people’s rights, and as a great citizen of India.
1. He was with The Statesman, New Delhi in 1951 where he covered the Parliament, with the Hindustan Times as their correspondent in Washington and the United Nations, and returned as its editor in 1967. In 1971, he was appointed Resident Editor of the Times of India in Bombay. In 1975, he left the Times of India to join Jaiprakash Narayan’s weekly magazine, Everyman’s, which was closed down during the Emergency, as an editor. He then moved to The Indian Express as editor.