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Picking chief of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library: The controversy and background

Probably India’s most prestigious centre for historical research has frequently been a battleground for competing ideologies and styles of working.

Written by Ashutosh Bhardwaj |
August 23, 2016 12:31:20 am
nehru museum, mehru museum panel, mehru museum new panel, new nehru museum panel, nmml, nmml panel, india news The NMML was set up in 1966 after the death of Nehru at his residence. (Archive)

The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) is back in controversy. Political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta resigned from the Executive Council (EC) of NMML earlier this month to protest the “marginalisation” of academic credibility and scholarly credentials in the selection of the successor to historian Mahesh Rangarajan, who had resigned as Director last September.

NMML has at various times been the battleground for top scholars, government officials and political parties who have criticised its functioning. What is the reason for the tussle over an institute that does not run any academic course, and has no other branch?

The repository of some of the richest archival material on the history of Modern India, NMML is an unmatched centre for research and scholarship. Though often seen as the home of studies related to Jawaharlal Nehru and the intellectual cradle of Nehruvian thought, NMML’s exhaustive archives make it the premier institute of Modern and Contemporary Indian history as a whole. It has papers of the Communist Party of India, Socialist Party of India, All India Muslim League, All India Shia Conference (1907-1941), Home Rule League (1916-1921), Mahar Movement (1835-1906) and the Meerut Conspiracy Case, among others.

It also has the largest collection of private papers in the country, originally belonging to some 1,000 personalities of modern India, encompassing the entire spectrum of its leadership. Its archives have details of FIRs registered in Delhi from as early as 1861. Many of these papers are on microfilm, others are paper archives.

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NMML has been home to generations of scholars and students of political science and history, providing them with its facilities, and nourishing outstanding academic talent through a range of scholarships and fellowships.

Given NMML’s prestige, successive governments have found the temptation to control its affairs irresistible. For around two decades after it was set up in 1966 after the death of Nehru at his residence, NMML remained fairly insulated from the central government’s influence. But then, as with several other institutions, the slide began.

The Congress — and more specifically the Nehru-Gandhi family — have been seen to maintain a stranglehold over NMML’s affairs. Now, with the NDA government in power, no member of the family is part of either the NMML Society or the EC. NMML is under the Ministry of Culture, though as an autonomous institution. Its governing bodies are dominated by the government. The president of the NMML Society is Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Home Minister Rajnath Singh is vice-president.

How are the Director and staff of NMML appointed?

Posts are advertised and applications are invited. A selection committee formed by the EC picks the candidates. However, since the top posts need approval of the Ministry and, subsequently, the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, the government’s imprint is generally to be seen on them. In June 2014, days before he left office, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had approved the permanent absorption of Mahesh Rangarajan as Director, despite objections from the Department of Personnel & Training. MoS Culture Mahesh Sharma had criticised the appointment, saying “rules were thrown out of the window”, and “there has to be some limit to irregularities”.

On July 22, 2016, the vacancy for the Director’s post was advertised, with August 1 as the last date for applications. An interview was held on August 11. Ever since, the name of Shakti Sinha, who was private secretary to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has been widely circulated as the next Director, even though a formal announcement remains awaited. It has been suggested that the advertisement was modified to favour Sinha: the draft approved by the EC had “scholar or writer” as the eligibility criteria, but the one that appeared had “scholar or writer or administrator”. EC members objected, and in his resignation, Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote that “appointing an administrator, who does not have the requisite track record in the field of scholarship… sends a very bad signal about the stature of NMML”.

But what is wrong with an administrator heading the NMML?

NMML’s founder-director was civil servant B R Nanda, who, during his 13-year-tenure, made the institution among the most prestigious places for research on Modern Indian history. During this phase, NMML gathered some of its most valuable possessions, and papers of all ideologies. The big difference though, was that Nanda was also a distinguished historian with important research works to his credit, the biography of Gopal Krishna Gokhale being among the most significant.

Is there any truth to allegations that the Congress used NMML as its fiefdom?

Minister Sharma’s accusation that the Congress believed the NMML was “only for showcasing Nehru or his family” is not new. Expressing anguish over the decline of the NMML, historian Ramchandra Guha once wrote that its staff were routinely “instructed to serve tea to Youth Congress workers”.

There were other controversies, involving the academic community itself. In 2008-09, 57 top historians and scholars including Guha, Rajmohan Gandhi, Sumit Sarkar, Sugata Bose, Shahid Amin, A R Venkatachalapathy, Joya Chatterji and Sanjay Subrahmanyam wrote to Prime Minister Singh about alleged deterioration of standards at NMML, saying, “There is no possible substitute for (NMML)… Its decline is visible for all; its destruction will be a national calamity.” The scholars attacked the NMML leadership, then headed by historian Mridula Mukherjee: “In past times, the NMML was open to all ideological currents… (Now) portraits of Congress Prime Ministers are routinely displayed in the foyer, and meetings of the Youth Congress routinely held in the auditorium — these artless displays of sycophancy being so utterly at odds with academic distinction and integrity.”

What happens in the present controversy now?

Shakti Sinha has resigned from the India Foundation, where he was Director, apparently anticipating his selection for the NMML post. The selection panel has recommended two names to the Ministry — Sinha and historian Kapil Kumar. Sinha’s appointment was thought to have been a given, but Mehta’s resignation from the EC has upset plans. The RSS-BJP leadership is believed to be considering the consequences of being seen as “anti-intellectual” just before the UP elections. A year ago, writers and poets had ignited an award wapsi campaign to protest “rising intolerance” in the country, which a section of the RSS believes cost the BJP in the Bihar elections.

In this stalemate and uncertainty, NMML is suffering. It has seen hardly any major seminar or scholarly event over the past year. Such is the stagnation that the last date on its web site for “application for the current round of fellowship”, among the most prestigious projects of the NMML, continues to be read “July 24, 2015”.

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