[Editorial Analysis] Is it right to turn NMML into a museum for PMs?

Mains Paper: 1 | Indian Heritage

Prelims level:  NMML

Mains level: Is it right to turn NMML into a museum for PMs? – Explain it.

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Context 

• Nations set up museums to preserve collective memory for future generations.

• Democracies are more about institutions than individuals, but often the latter are commemorated for special acts they may have performed.

• Public museums in democracies should serve larger collective purposes, not partisan ones.

• The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) is in the news.

• The idea of setting up a museum for all Prime Ministers (PMs) in the Teen Murti Bhavan complex.

• Some feel that other than Jawaharlal Nehru, no one deserves a place in Teen Murti; others feel that institutional arrangements, not location, is the issue.

• The NMML is an autonomous body with the PM as its President.

• However, the property belongs to the government, which decided to set up a museum for PMs.

In favor above this argument

• India’s freedom struggle

• The museum is only a part of it, and is not even the dominant part.

• The museum itself is focussed more on India’s freedom struggle than Nehru’s life, and its narrative ends in 1950.

• The NMML is famous globally because its library, reprography and manuscript sections house the best collection of journals, books, photos and personal papers of individuals and institutions. It is invaluable to researchers on modern and contemporary Indian history.

• The claim that introducing other PMs, and making provision for future ones, would detract from Nehru’s legacy does not stand scrutiny, and does not do justice to Nehru himself.

• The NMML and Teen Murti house the library and other related units, all established after Nehru’s death.

• A substantial portion of the Teen Murti Estate has been diverted to other public uses.

• A private body set up a planetarium in the 1980s, albeit named after Nehru, which it transferred to NMML in 2005.

• The role of the Prime Minister

• The role of the PM bothered both Nehru and Sardar Patel and there was a contentious trail of letters between them.

• Nehru argued for a more activist role that included guiding ministries within their respective domains.

• From Patel’s passing away till the present, the PM has had, for the most part, an overwhelming role in the government.

• Studying this is key to understanding the beauty and uniqueness of Indian democracy.

• Two, Teen Murti was selected in 1948 as the residence of the PM, not of Nehru.

• Even after it became a museum in his memory, the Union Cabinet, on August 9, 1968, decided that it should once again become the residence of the PM. The NMML agreed to shift the museum to Patiala House, but it did not happen.

• With its 25 acres in the heart of Delhi, Teen Murti is the most suitable location for the new museum.

• Nehru’s legacy is not so weak that it would be threatened by the celebration of Indian democracy in Teen Murti.

• Perhaps those who object in his name should read him, his life and his works.

In against above this argument

• The NMML was established with the explicit aim of honouring India’s first Prime Minister and the national movement.

• It has done exactly that. It is a treasure trove of original material related to the man who made modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru.

• But in Indian history, Nehru towers above everyone who followed him in terms of vision, stature, accomplishments, and democratic spirit.

• The NMML also houses the greatest collection of material relating to India’s fight for freedom.

• All shades of views are represented there, including papers of Hindutva proponents like Syama Prasad Mookerjee.

• It has truly established itself as an internationally renowned seat of research.

• Any attempt to genuinely augment the NMML would be welcomed wholeheartedly. But is that really the case here?

• When Lal Bahadur Shastri was offered the opportunity to move into Teen Murti Bhavan, which was where Nehru lived throughout his prime ministerial years, he declined as a mark of respect, and set in motion the process of converting it into a memorial to Nehru.

• Decades later, the Modi government has proposed a ‘museum of governance’, which will include a memorial for all PMs at Teen Murti Bhavan.

• But memorials to Shastri and Indira Gandhi already exist.

What are the insidious strategy?

• The government’s intention is to belittle the legacy of India’s longest-serving and most impactful PM.

• The Sangh Parivar is on a long-term mission to oust Nehru from his rightful place in modern India’s history, because he stood for an idea of India which is the antithesis of their divisive, regressive world view.

• This proposal is only one of many methods to implement this insidious strategy.

• The trouble at NMML began when Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma made unwarranted hostile remarks in public against the institution.

• As a self-respecting and independent historian, the NMML Director, Mahesh Rangarajan, resigned in 2015.

• One of India’s leading public intellectuals, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, appointed by the NDA government, resigned from the NMML’s Executive Council on grounds of dilution of criteria for appointment of the new Director.

• The level of pettiness at NMML descended to the replacement of Nehru’s portrait in the main seminar room with Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s photo.

Sabotaging NMML

• Despite growing protests not only from the Congress, but independent scholars and institution builders of repute.

• The Modi government has redoubled its efforts to sabotage NMML.

• Governance does not belong in a museum.

• There is ample space elsewhere in Lutyens’ Delhi for a memorial for the rest of India’s PMs.

IT’S COMPLICATED

• The NMML has four functional units — a library, a museum, a research centre and an archive.

• Each has an independent flavour.

• The institution was set up in the 1960s. B.R. Nanda, its first Director, introduced an important dimension to it.

• He started an oral history section, in which interviews of important political leaders, bureaucrats, social leaders and litterateurs were collected.

• Many important people from the period of the freedom struggle were able to record their impressions for posterity.

• Thousands of such interviews have by now been conducted, and constitute an important repository for research on modern India.

Best repository of research

• Ravinder Kumar, who took over from Nanda in the ’70s, transformed it into a vibrant research institution.

• A large number of fellowships were offered to young and senior scholars to work on a various social science themes.

• The NMML also brought out a large number of publications on important historical themes.

• The number of scholars visiting NMML for research far exceeded those visiting the National Archives of India.

• The NMML became perhaps the best repository of research documents on the British period of India’s history, consisting of government records, newspapers, private collections of important individuals and papers of political parties.

• It is just not true that the documents and records are confined to any single political party or ideology.

• The NMML is the best place to go to even for research on the politics and ideology of the Hindu Mahasabha.

• It contains papers of the Hindu Mahasabha, the private collection of V.D. Savarkar, and also the files of the weeklies brought out by it. Mridula Mukherjee, as NMML’s Director, initiated an extremely important project of digitising all the documents of the NMML archive.

• This was nothing short of a dream come true for any regular researcher of modern India.

• If it had been completed, it would have made available millions of important documents to everyone in India. Unfortunately, the project was shelved after she left.

It’s Not just about Nehru

• The museum tells the story of the freedom struggle through a display of documents since the late 19th century till 1950.

• It also has a display of the many gifts Nehru received as PM.

• The museum is located in the building where Nehru lived as PM.

• But apart from that, there is nothing particularly ‘Nehru’ about the institution.

Conclusion

• Therefore, any symbolism notwithstanding, substantively NMML is not about Nehru.

• All the four components — library, archive, research centre and the museum — have their own dynamism and relevance, which go far beyond any individual.

• All the four components need to grow.

• The library should get more books.

• The archive should acquire more documents, preserve them and ideally digitise them. The research centre should continue to promote social science research on important facets of modern and contemporary India, by inviting distinguished research scholars.

• The museum should continue to tell the story of India’s freedom struggle, but in more imaginative ways.

• It needs to continue to be what it has been and do a better job of what it has been doing so far.

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