September 04, 2015
The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library bears the name of Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), a political leader, intellectual, lawyer, thinker and author who became India‘s first Prime Minister. Beyond that, and the observance of his anniversaries, the NMML (or Teen Murti, as it is popularly known) is unconnected with the perpetuation of his name or legacy – a task given over to bodies that are mandated to do so, like the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund.
The Nehru Museum, located in the former Prime Minister’s residence on the precincts is, quite naturally, about the years he spent living in that house, which was also the period immediately following India’s independence from British rule, and the first phase of the nation’s life as a new republic. Nehru lived and worked from Teen Murti for close to two decades, so that his residence is full of memorabilia connected with his person, with the office of the Prime Minister, and with the history of post-colonial India until the mid-1960s.
The Nehru Museum like all museums deserves and requires periodic conservation, renovation and modernization. According to news-reports, an eminent conservation architect has been appointed to attend to this museum and a sum of Rs.10 Cr set aside for this task. We welcome such a step, long needed, to spruce up and enhance the visual, architectural and aesthetic value of the museum buildings, campus, grounds as well as the adjacent planetarium.
However, we note with concern that there are reportedly plans afoot to transform the Nehru Museum into a “Museum of Governance”, and to repurpose it to broadcast the activities of the current government. While the government has every resource at its disposal should it want to build a Museum of Governance and use such an institution to display its own achievements, the Nehru Museum was never meant to be anything other than a museum dedicated to India’s first Prime Minister, his life and his times.
All around the world, houses of significant political leaders and politician-intellectuals have been converted into museums and memorials open to the public, and these act as excellent spaces in which to educate a wider citizenry about the modern history and political life of whichever country they might be located in. The Nehru Museum has exactly such a mandate and function. It must be allowed to fulfill its purpose even as decades pass and elected governments come and go.
Other museums with other goals can always be built specifically in order to showcase “governance”, “space research”, “smart cities”, the Mars Mission or whatever other idea that the Ministry of Culture has evolved during its deliberations and which it deems worthy of a separate museum for display, memorialization and public pedagogy. Imposing these varied concepts on what was and remains Jawaharlal Nehru’s prime ministerial residence from India’s Independence until his death is, from the perspective of both history and aesthetics, anachronistic, inappropriate and unjustified.
The Nehru Library has been and continues to be the country’s premier research library for modern history and the social sciences. It houses the papers of a range of writers, political leaders and significant scholars belonging to the founding generations. It also has an eclectic collection of institutional papers. Its holdings are non-partisan and reflect the broad swathe of political ideologies and schools of thought that have existed and flourished in nationalist–era and independent India. The Library, unlike the Museum, is in no way limited to Nehru’s papers, Nehru’s writings or scholarship that might be described as “Nehruvian”.
Why are ministers, spokespersons and special appointees of the current administration making statements to the press suggesting that the Nehru Library is focused on Nehru alone? This is patently false. Students, researchers and scholars working on a spectrum of topics in the history of modern India, from anti-colonial movements to communism to the world wars to Hindu nationalism to state and regional politics to Gandhian studies to non-alignment, all need to consult the books, papers, microfilms, newspapers, archival materials and journals that are housed in the Nehru Library. This has been the case from the very inception of the library.
The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library are set up in Nehru’s memory and in his name, yes, but not just to remember him. To insist that these institutions are limited to one man’s role or legacy is to misunderstand both their foundational mandate as well as misrepresent their actual functioning at any point in living memory.
INSTITUTIONAL AUTONOMY AND PUBLIC CULTURE
We and our colleagues and students and so many others have visited and used both the museum and the library, and can vouch for their consistently ecumenical character, transcending differences of Left and Right. These are autonomous institutions and public resources, open to all Indian citizens (as well as to academic researchers from other countries who work on India), and not the property or fief of any political party, government in power, ideological cabal, or department of this or that ministry.
Further, libraries and museums such as the ones on the Teen Murti campus are not limited to being collections of papers relating to politics and politicians alone. The NMML was also intended to study the working of many aspects of modern India, most of all the intellectual traditions and thought processes that went into Indian nationalism, as well as the vigorous debates on the kind of society that we wanted to build as an independent nation. So it goes far beyond just “governance”, which happens to be a buzzword of very recent vintage in government and policy circles.
Let there be bigger, better libraries, newer, more technologically advanced museums, and let the government work hard and give generously to ensure that forgotten, under-represented and neglected areas of our modern history be included, critically analyzed and widely disseminated in our national institutions of research and pedagogy. The academic community, parents, teachers and scholars are sure to welcome such steps, if they are taken now or in the future.
But Teen Murti’s essential task, standing and autonomy must not be impaired or distorted. We fear that the NMML’s role and repute are endangered by the sorts of irresponsible statements emanating from some sections of the government. A public debate involving historians, conservationists, educationists, cultural decision-makers and other stakeholders must be had before any changes are authorized to one of our most valued institutions of higher learning.