One by one the leading lights of Indian journalism during the second half of the last century are going out. Since the passing of Prem Bhatia, Nikhil Chakaravartty and Sham Lal — that is the sequence in which they went to meet their Maker — no death of a colleague has shaken me so much as that of Ajit Bhattacharjea, a former Delhi editor of The Indian Express. Here is a brief word about his excellence in his craft and his rare personal qualities of warm friendliness combined with a marked disinclination to say a harsh word about anybody under any circumstances.
If what follows has an undercurrent of emotion, I must be forgiven because my friendship with Ajit went back a little over six decades. I was lucky enough to make his acquaintance immediately after I joined our trade that is both thrilling and troubled at the same time. I was then an unpaid apprentice in the United Press of India (on whose ashes was built the United News of India) while he had already served in the Hindustan Times for more than three years. He gently taught me a great deal about reporting and most subtly helped me cope with my impecunious circumstances. Over the years I realised that this was his nature. A couple of years later he went to England and returned with a brand new, left-hand drive Fiat car. Whenever we were covering the same event, he would drive up to my office and insist on giving me a lift. In 1956, I joined The Statesman where had already been ensconced for five years. We were to be colleagues again in The Times of India that both of us joined on the same day in early 1971. However, it mattered little whether we were in the same stable or not. Nor did any disagreement over men and matters make the slightest difference to our friendship and cooperation.
Ajit was a man of strong views, as became evident in early 1975 when he left a very comfortable job in a major newspaper, to edit the weekly of Jayaprakash Narayan, better known as JP. At that time the JP movement was in full blast, and the hammer-blow of the Emergency only a few months away. As is well known, Ajit boldly opposed the Emergency, along with many others, and later wrote a biography of JP. However, the pertinent point is that whatever his views, in his writings he stuck to the highest journalistic standards. Professional probity was always his doctrine, and he virtually shed tears over the advent of the “paid news” era. Ajit was a biographer also of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, his deep interest in Kashmir dating back to the autumn of 1947 when he covered the first Kashmir war (1947-48). Till the end he agonised over the plight of the “wounded valley”, to quote the title of one of the books he wrote.
This was symptomatic of his deep attachment to every cause in defence of freedom and equality and against poverty and exploitation. As director of the Press Institute of India, he started Grassroots, a superb magazine to focus on the lives and miseries of the people at the bottom of the social heap — something for which mainstream media has little space.
Sadly the paper did not last long. But he was undeterred and continued to spread his message through the journal of the Centre for Media Studies. Only half jokingly, a friend once remarked that Ajit was always ready “in defence of lost causes”. That, however, was not always the case. Aruna Roy, one of the most respected and resolute activists, has said more than once that the credit for the enactment of the Right to Information Act (RTI) should go not to her but to Ajit Bhattarcharjea and Prabhash Joshi, a former editor of Jansatta, who died some time ago.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator