SHAKTI SINHA IS in office as early as 8.30 in the morning and soon he is snowed in with back-to-back meetings. A seasoned bureaucrat who is remembered mostly for his days as private secretary to the late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he takes the hectic routine in his stride. And when he meets you, now in his role as director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), he is as cheerful and sprightly as ever, undeterred by the pressure that has built around him over the past two years with the institution courting one controversy after the other. His appointment in August 2016 was vehemently questioned by then NMML executive council member Pratap Bhanu Mehta who resigned in protest. By the time Sinha joined NMML, it had already invited charges that the new Government that came to power in 2014 was looking to change the character of a great institution by holding exhibitions to honour the likes of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, including events where senior-level BJP leaders and appointees made oblique remarks at Nehru. Lately, the institution is back in the news for a plan that had started much earlier, thanks to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s letter to his successor Narendra Modi in which he expressed anxieties about ‘attempts’ to change NMML’s ‘nature and character’. Singh urged Modi to leave the Teen Murti complex ‘undisturbed’ respecting both its history and heritage.
But the Government has other plans. It has endorsed a move— despite agreeing to leave NMML untouched—to set up a museum for all prime ministers in the complex of Teen Murti Bhawan, once the official home of Jawaharlal Nehru, which also houses NMML. This was discussed at the 43rd annual general meeting of the NMML Society held at the North Block on July 26th and though several members had vehemently opposed it, the Government is unlikely to budge.
Days ahead of the meeting, AGK Menon, one of the members of the NMML Society and a heritage expert at INTACH, is known to have come across an image of a six-storey glass structure—apparently the design for the proposed museum for prime ministers to come up at the Teen Murti complex. The leaked image came from a digital printing shop in the heart of the Capital.
When contacted, Menon refused to give any details of the image and said he could not attend the last meeting because he was out of town. He has maintained that any structure at the estate, which has been notified as a Grade I monument under the Delhi State Archaeology Act, 2005, should follow the required legal protocols needed for obtaining permission to be built in the vicinity. An amendment to the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (amendment and validation) Act 2010 bans any new construction within 100 metres in all directions of an Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) protected monument. “As a society we value heritage but we seldom practice its imperatives of respecting it. Hence, we have laws to protect heritage. Yet, we go on ahead, changing, circumventing or ignoring and making a mockery of our profession of respecting heritage,” he says.
In fact, according to people close to the matter, Menon had shot off a letter to Sinha after he received the agenda papers for this year’s AGM of the NMML Society. In his mail, it is said, he expressed reservations about procedural issues regarding the construction of new buildings in the vicinity of notified heritage buildings.
At last year’s meeting, when the idea of a makeover at the Teen Murti complex came up, Menon had to be kept in the loop about the new design. However, it appears that he wasn’t because it was a ‘worked-out proposal’ that was presented for approval at the AGM this time around. This apparently prompted him to flag the concern that the pattern followed in designing new buildings has been to ‘first design and then steamroll’ the statutory agencies to accord approvals ‘in the name of development or importance and urgency for a hasty favourable decision’. In his letter, Menon, it is learnt, suggested due processes should be followed in this case.
At the July 26th AGM meeting, 13 of 34 members did not turn up, citing their ‘inability’ to take part in the meeting and were ‘given leave of absence’, according to agenda papers reviewed by Open. Of the rest, several members raised their objections to the changes proposed to the museum.
Historian and member of the Society, Nayanjot Lahiri, said at the meeting that she felt there was a systematic attempt to whittle down Prime Minister Nehru’s legacy partly through neglect, and partly through cutting down the exhibition space for his life and times in this building. “Changing the Memorandum would further aggravate this state of affairs. The other reason why I object to this is that if the NMML administration cannot successfully and speedily execute the renovation project of the existing museum which goes back to 2015, it can hardly be expected to be the nodal agency for the museum for prime ministers. So, the Memorandum should remain the same, and the museum for prime ministers should not be set up by the NMML. A separate museum body should be set up. This is how it is done all over the world where culture matters as, for instance, in London where there are separate institutional structures for the British Museum and for the Victoria and Albert Museum. If we do not create a separate institutional structure for the new museum with its own Memorandum of Association, and if the proposed change in the NMML Society Memorandum is approved, it will result in further mismanagement of the present museum. It will also result in a poorly conceived and executed museum for prime ministers which will reflect poorly on the country in general and on us as a Society in particular.”
Even a member who is known to be pro-government but couldn’t attend the meeting is said to have sent a mail to NMML Society members stating his disapproval of lumping all prime ministers together in a museum. Another member told Open that placing the likes of AB Vajpayee alongside those with very short stints in power would amount to diluting their importance as moderniser-premiers. Without naming prime ministers, he said all of them cannot be treated equally especially because their contributions are hugely different, “some big and some small”.
Some other members said Nehru was the first prime minister of independent India and that his significance should not be diluted. Others said all prime ministers can be celebrated at other sites and Teen Murti should be left for Nehru alone. According to people close to the matter, author Udayon Mishra, another member, said in a letter three days before the meeting that he was against the idea of a separate museum for all prime ministers, particularly taking exception to the annexure detailing the project suggesting the prime minister as the supreme head. He described the inclusion of the sentences—‘India has evolved into an almost Presidential-style parliamentary democracy and this is quite different in other countries following the Westminster model’— in the annexure as a subversive argument and a clear violation of provisions of the Constitution. In his letter reviewed by Open, Mishra expressed the view that this is a dangerous trend for the Indian democracy and that the NMML has always stood for the best principles of democracy. He proposed that the Government could have a museum for all prime ministers anywhere in Delhi. The annexure also argues that ‘if one compares the situation with that in Great Britain, only two prime ministers in the 20th century could dominate their governments though they too had to ultimately make way as their party moved on and desired change. These were Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. Australia in recent times has seen considerable quick turnover with prime ministers being replaced by challengers within the ruling parliamentary party, becoming ministers and sometimes bouncing back as PM. Canadian prime ministers have also generally been dominant leaders of their parties, who could lead their parties to victory on their coattails’. Such entries have earned the displeasure of some academically-oriented members.
AT THE MEETING, besides Lahiri, Congress leaders Jairam Ramesh and Mallikarjun Kharge and economist Nitin Desai also lashed out at the proposal for the museum inside the Teen Murti compound. Ramesh wrote to the director pointing out that NMML should carry a picture of Nehru in its seminar hall instead of Jan Sangh ideologue Deendayal Upadhyaya. In his response, Sinha says pithily, “I was not sure which specific photograph was it that he [Ramesh] mentioned. We wanted to put back the same photograph, but then we realised that at different times different photographs were put up there.”
Sinha told Open that no changes will be made to any other constituent of NMML other than the museum besides which it includes the library and documentation centre that houses important papers of 400 other people, including institutions, other than those of Nehru. He avers that the parts of NMML that serve as a platform for researchers will see no change at all. Where change will happen will be in the museum, which as of now largely showcases India’s freedom struggle and Nehru until 1950. He rues that there is nothing in the museum that talks about Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India. Which is why he believes that a makeover is in order to include his prime ministerial legacy as well as those of others. “Nehru’s relationship with Mahatma Gandhi, with Sardar Patel; Nehru and foreign policy; Nehru and development, all will be covered under the new plan. Frankly, we are going to create more awareness about the Nehru legacy,” says Sinha, emphasising that research scholars who wish to study the contributions of prime ministers will find the new museum a one-stop shop. “Nehru was a true democrat. Nobody can destroy his legacy just because a museum is set up here for other prime ministers. He was the one who built our institutions. He as prime minister engaged with Sardar Patel though they had heated exchanges,” Sinha says.
The NMML director maintains that the Teen Murti compound is now 25 acres while it was 45 acres earlier before land was given from the estate to the police and for setting up a planetarium. “Which means that Nehru’s legacy was not hurt when the land was given away earlier, so why now?” he questions.
The counter-argument to criticism by the opposition is that the Government’s intention is not to undermine Nehru’s legacy but to pay rich tributes to his contribution and that of other prime ministers in building the country. “This was the prime minister’s house, not Nehru’s personal residence. It was later turned into a museum. If there’s commemoration of the evolution of modern India through all prime ministers, I don’t see why there should be any objection, unless someone imagines Nehru was the only worthy prime minister,” says journalist and Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta, a member of the NMML Society.
The BJP rejects the Congress’ accusations that the Government is hell-bent on running down Nehru at every opportunity as part of an effort to trash the Congress, which has stayed in power for the longest period after Independence. Says BJP vice-president and Rajya Sabha MP Vinay Sahasrabuddhe: “Although it is named the Nehru Memorial Library, the quantum of land it has can accommodate all prime ministers in the estate. This country has produced great prime ministers and their contributions should also be acknowledged. This should not be seen as an attempt to belittle Nehru.” Sahasrabuddhe heads the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge had argued in the last AGM of the Society that NMML should explore other locations for the construction of the new museum, which is pegged at Rs 270 crore.
IT IS NO secret that several BJP and Sangh leaders have consistently blamed Nehru for India’s shortcomings while staying silent on the great strides the country had made under his watch, especially with respect to building institutions and in containing internal insurgencies. In their bid to denigrate the Nehru-Gandhi family that controls the opposition Congress, Pandit Nehru has often ended up being the whipping boy of right-wing enthusiasts and conservative academics. Though Vajpayee, BJP’s first prime minister, was a great admirer of Nehru, the current crop of leaders at the helm of the party and the Government are perceived as being unkind to him.
When Vajpayee was external affairs minister in the 1977 Morarji Desai government, he had once noticed that Nehru’s photo was missing from a wall inside the Parliament House complex. He just had to ask where it had disappeared and the photograph was put back in its original place. In contrast, leaders such as Modi and BJP president Amit Shah have time and against launched into tirades against India’s first prime minister, especially at election rallies, prompting other junior leaders also to hurl abuses on Nehru. This May, Modi criticised Nehru at a meet in Karnataka, saying he had belittled war veterans from the state: “But, how did the Congress governments treat Field Marshall Cariappa and General Thimayya? History is proof of that. In 1948 after defeating Pakistan, General Thimayya was insulted by PM Nehru and Defence Minister Krishna Menon.” Modi also got his facts wrong: Menon wasn’t defence minister at the time.
Speaking at NMML itself, Shah criticised Nehru over Kashmir. “Suddenly, without any reason… the reason is not known even today, truce was declared. Never has any leader of the country made such a historic blunder. If Jawaharlalji had not declared a ceasefire [with Pakistan] at that time, the Kashmir issue would not have existed,” Shah said. RSS, the head of all Hindutva organisations, has attacked Nehru for centralising power notwithstanding its praise for him in sacking the communist government of Kerala in 1959.
A former NMML-affiliated research scholar who retired last year told Open that though Nehru was never above criticism, in recent times “every attempt was being made to paint him in a negative light and undermine his legacy”. An exhibition projecting Mookerjee as a builder of institutions held at NMML was “the unkindest cut”, says another member of the Society. Even director Sinha should have a rethink about accommodating his idol Vajpayee alongside others whose roles as prime ministers were insignificant, he adds.
“We are only making efforts to uphold the Nehru legacy,” is all that Sinha has to say.
First published in Open with inputs by Amita Shah