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Tampering with Nehru Museum draws scholars' ire

Suhas Munshi | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 4:07 IST

The plan

  • The Central govt wants to recast the iconic Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in Delhi
  • Its intent is to focus is on the evolution of Indian democracy and to highlight recent achievements
  • It plans to spend Rs 10 crore to revamp the NMML as a \'museum of governance\'

The concern

  • Historian Dilip Simeon thinks this is an RSS ploy to demonise Nehru and replace him with its own icons
  • Scholars say the library has many rare insights into the early years of India that need preservation
  • Congress feels the govt is forgetting that museums are about history, not to publicise the present govt

There are only two ways to look at the Central government's decision to 'recast' the iconic Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (NMML) in the capital.

The first is to see the refurbishment of the museum as the government's keen academic interest in bringing a relic up-to date with recent history. The government's stated intent is 'to focus [the NMML] on the evolution of Indian democracy and highlight recent achievements'.

The other way, the widely-held view, is that a BJP-led government is trying to sideline the legacy of a historic, national leader who belonged to the Congress party.

At the very least, historians, scholars, opposition leaders, and some users of the library are quite skeptical about government's intentions.

Looking back at what happened to Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), the Film and Television Institute (FTII) and other institutions, some claim it is a case of direct political interference in a reputed national institution.

The government's plans

As per a report in a national daily, the government is working towards making major changes at the museum, dedicated to the first Prime Minister of India - Jawaharlal Nehru.

The NMML is housed in Teen Murti Bhavan, the residence of Nehru. It was made into a museum on the independence struggle, an annexe for researchers, a planetarium and a children's centre.


Nehru's room, in a picture displayed in the museum

The government reportedly plans to spend Rs 10 crore to recast the NMML as a 'museum of governance'.

The refurbished museum will showcase 'contemporary India, PM Narendra Modi's campaign for smart cities and the Indian Space Research Organisation's unmanned flight to Mars'.

Not just Nehru's legacy at risk

Dilip Simeon, a well-known historian and public intellectual, thinks the government's latest plan bear an RSS trademark.

"It the latest extra-constitutional authority interfering in the working of the Government of India. They want to demonise Nehru and indoctrinate the public with their preferred Savarkarite dogma. Nothing prevents them from setting up another centre to promote Modi's schemes, but the NMML is one of the world's foremost historical archives on South Asian history. They should leave it alone," he said.

According to Simeon, the Sangh Parivar, through the government, is likely to expunge inconvenient scholarship and records in this refurbishment exercise.

The govt's stated intent is to covert the NMML into a museum showcasing the evolution of Indian democracy and recent achievements

"If you inquire into the research being done, you will find proof of this. There is even a research study of the legal aftermath of the 1984 pogrom in Delhi. I wonder if the Sangh Parivar would take kindly to a research programme on the number of violent incidents it has been implicated in, as part of India's evolving democracy," he said.

Similar apprehensions were raised by a person who has been associated with the NMML for the last three decades.

Not willing to speak on record, the scholar said, "The museum and library is not just about Nehru. There is a wealth of information there in the form of manuscripts and reports. This government has shown no respect towards its monuments or towards preserving its documents. How do we know how well it will handle this proposed redevelopment of the museum?"

The scholar recounted some of the documents and manuscripts present at the NMML to give an idea about the richness of its archives.

"I've come across the Gyan Prakash committee's report on the Hashimpura massacre. There are manuscripts of socialists like Madhu Limaye and his wife Champa Limaye, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Aruna Asaf Ali. There are important records on Madame [Bhikaji] Cama, land acquisitions, a debate on the uniform civil code, where female representatives of the Hindu Mahasabha like Jankibai Joshi were recorded opposing the Ambedkar and BL Rao committee reports," he said.

Some, like former NMML scholar and retired IPS officer KS Subramanian, believe that at the very least, what the government could do is to appoint a team of competent historians to recommend any improvements that need to be made to the institution.

The Congress view

The Centre's decision to refurbish the museum has also, predictably, drawn criticism from the Congress party.

"The lame alibi of making the museum 'contemporary and relevant to governance in present times', being put forth by the government is self-contradictory in itself. Museums are supposed to be about the past and history, not showcases for publicising the ruling dispensation," said Randeep Singh Surjewala, party spokesperson, through an e-mail statement.

Former diplomat and senior member of the Congress, Mani Shankar Aiyar, thinks there's reason to be vigilant.

"The BJP government led by [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee also tried to renovate this library earlier. But Vajpayee was a Nehru admirer, so he could control the saffronisation [of the NMML]. But the current government is bitterly opposed to the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru. We should be vigilant. The government has made its intentions clear by dealing with the FTII, ICHR, IIMs and IITs the way it has," Aiyar said.

On the question of whether the principle of 'updating' a museum was objectionable in itself, Aiyar said a distinction needed to be made on political versus heritage museum. He implied that the first sort of museum needed to be handled with extra care.

"The NMML is a political museum, which keeps records of the freedom movement and the early stages of nation building. If there is any attempt to distort history there, we will be the first to raise our voice," he said.

Mahesh Rangarajan, director of the NMML, politely refused to comment on the issue.

First published: 3 September 2015, 9:45 IST
Suhas Munshi @suhasmunshi

He hasn't been to journalism school, as evident by his refusal to end articles with 'ENDS' or 'EOM'. Principal correspondent at Catch, Suhas studied engineering and wrote code for a living before moving to writing mystery-shrouded-pall-of-gloom crime stories. On being accepted as an intern at Livemint in 2010, he etched PRESS onto his scooter. Some more bylines followed in Hindustan Times, Times of India and Mail Today.