Jawaharlal Nehru, widely regarded as the architect of modern India, had deep affection and regard for literature and scholarship. The Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (NMML) here bears this out, but has been the subject of much controversy during the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led dispensation. Critics say that the government is “diluting” Nehrus legacy by changing the character of his memorial whereas the government has maintained that it is only “upgrading” it.
The NMML is housed in Teen Murti Bhavan, located south of Rashtrapati Bhavan, and was designed by Robert Tor Russell. It was built in 1929-30 as part of Edwin Lutyens’ imperial capital and was initially the official residence of the Commander-in-Chief in India. In August 1948, after the departure of the last British Commander-in-Chief, Teen Murti Bhavan became the official residence of independent India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
It remained Nehru’s residence for 16 years until his death in May 1964; and barely six months after his demise, S. Radhakrishnan, the then President of India, formally inaugurated the Nehru Memorial Museum in November 1964. Despite several additions and changes on the official website of NMML in recent months, it still acknowledges that the Government of India decided that the Teen Murti House should be dedicated to him (Nehru) and house a museum and a library.
An exclusive library building was constructed a decade later to make it a place of pilgrimage for the Indian masses on the one hand and a premier research centre for intellectual activity on the other. It was inaugurated by V.V. Giri, then President of India, in January 1974. The steady increase in the volume of research material further necessitated the construction of an annexe, which was completed in 1989. The Centre for Contemporary Studies was set up as a new unit of NMML in this building in 1990.
Over the next two decades, the NMML fast emerged as a premier institution of research on Indian history but never before had it faced an unrest comparable to what emerged after the rise of Narendra Modi and the BJP at the Centre in 2014.
The turmoil began as early as September 2015 when Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma said that the appointment of Mahesh Rangarajan as the director of NMML during the Manmohan Singh led-United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was “unethical and illegal”; this was followed by the latter’s resignation.
Founded as an autonomous institution, the General Council, President and the Vice-President of the NMML are nominated by the central government.
The NMML remained headless for almost a year but saw another controversy when a new director was appointed. Shakti Sinha, who was a private secretary to Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he headed the first BJP-led government at the Centre, was appointed as the new director of NMML in August 2016. Within days, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a member of the executive committee (EC), resigned from his post citing that rules were tweaked to appoint Sinha as the director.
Ironically, the advertisement (in picture) for the post of the director said that the Executive Council of NMML is the “Appointing Authority”, but Mehta alleged that, according to the rules, only a scholar or writer could occupy the top post of NMML whereas the government tweaked it to allow an administrator (Sinha) to apply for it. Mehta maintains that the advertisement was never approved by the Executive Council.
Nonetheless, Sinha’s appointment was the opening of the pandora’s box as controversies continue to surface at India’s premier research institution. On a new section recently added on its website, NMML says that it “reflects the democratic system of India” and “has been tasked by the Government of India to set up a New Museum on Prime Ministers of India”.
This faced intense criticism from Congress leaders, including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who, in a letter, urged his successor Narendra Modi to “leave the Teen Murti Complex undisturbed as it is” and reminding him that it is “a memorial to our first Prime Minister Pandit Nehru. This way we will be respecting both history and heritage”. The Opposition suspected that a plan was underway to change NMML into a Museum of all Prime Ministers of India.
In this context, Sinha, speaking earlier to IANS, said that the motive was to upgrade the NMML. “Even though NMML is not only limited to Nehru in its current form, the upgrade will see a greater representation of all former PMs, including Manmohan Singh,” Sinha had said.
The government said that it was not changing NMML but merely building another museum inside the premises of the Teen Murti estate. Critics hit back saying that the proposed museum could be built anywhere else in the capital, but building it inside the premises of Teen Murti Bhavan would be changing the existing character of NMML.
The government, it turned out, was bent on its purpose. But where is the space for a new museum in Teen Murti estate? Are you going to cut down the trees?
In a surprise move, the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, chaired by Sonia Gandhi and housed in the Teen Murti estate, was asked by Ministry of Housing and Urban Development in September to vacate the premises on grounds of “unauthorised occupation”. The letter said that NMML is in “dire need of space” and alleged that the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund is occupying the premises “without any authority of law”.
Responding to the notice, N. Balakrishnan, Administrative Secretary of the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, refuted its premise and asked that it be withdrawn. The five-page response noted that the premises has been in its occupation since 1967, and has “remained unchallenged and never questioned and has been cemented”.
Even as there was (and is) no clarity over where the proposed museum would be built, the foundation stone for the “Museum of Prime Ministers” was laid on Oct 15 by Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma and Minister of State for Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Singh Puri.
(Saket Suman can be contacted at [email protected])