February 15, 2020
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Nehru’s House Needs A Fresh Discovery

The once venerable Nehru Memorial Library is in peril

Nehru’s House Needs A Fresh Discovery
Narendra Bisht
Nehru’s House Needs A Fresh Discovery

Indians are far better at destroying institutions than at nurturing them. Among the exceptions was the historian B.R. Nanda, who died on the last day of May, after a full and very productive life. While serving in the Indian Railways, Nanda wrote the first scholarly biography of Mahatma Gandhi, published by George Allen and Unwin in 1958. Four years later, he brought out an elegant dual biography, of Motilal Nehru and his son Jawaharlal.

In 1964, the younger Nehru died. The government wished to make a memorial to him. Fortunately, the minister in charge of the project was the great Bombay jurist M.C. Chagla, who had a clear idea of what shape it should take. Nanda once recalled for me how Chagla took him for a walk through Teen Murti House, explaining why the old building should house a memorial to the freedom struggle, while a new structure devoted to archival research comes up in the grounds beyond.

Nanda was the ideal choice as the institution’s founder-director. As an experienced civil servant, he knew how to manage both files and people. As an accomplished historian, he knew the value of primary sources. In a 13-year tenure, he—and his motivated staff—built a first-class collection of letters and documents relating to all aspects of the freedom movement. The effort was genuinely ecumenical; thus, the private papers of Communists and Hindu Mahasabha-ites were sourced as eagerly as the collections of Congressmen.

While running the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), B.R. Nanda continued to write. In 1977, the Princeton University Press published his biography of Gopal Krishna Gokhale. This is a model of rigorous research and lucid presentation that brought this far-seeing social reformer back into public discourse. The book analysed, with scrupulous fairness, Gokhale’s relations with his fellow Punaikar Bal Gangadhar Tilak, his mentorship of a young Mohandas Gandhi, and his adaptation of the ancient ideal of renunciation for modern secular ends.

A cronyism culture overtook the place. A great research library was being transformed into an “extension centre of the congress party”.

Nanda retired from the NMML in 1979. He was succeeded by Ravinder Kumar who—as the author of a classic history of western India—also knew the value of primary sources, and who had a keener interest in the social sciences. With the help, again, of an outstandingly devoted staff, Kumar made the NMML the centre of humanistic scholarship in India. Through the 1980s and 1990s, this was the place where the most innovative research in modern history took place. The seminars at the NMML showcased the finest Indian scholars, young and old, radicals and conservatives, nose-to-the-ground empirical historians as well as high-flying literary theorists.

Nanda and Kumar came to the NMML in the right order. The civil servant laid the foundations of a modern research library; the polymath expanded its scope to include other disciplines apart from history. The commitment of the directors inspired their colleagues. The librarians and archivists were knowledgeable and competent, and even the clerks and peons had a sense of identification with the institution. One sign of their collective impact is the fact that—as a preliminary search of Google Scholar revealed—as many as eight hundred works of scholarship have acknowledged the help of the NMML in their making.

Sadly, B.R. Nanda’s last years were spent watching a creeping decline of the NMML. A culture of cronyism overtook the place. The staff was sidelined in favour of unqualified consultants. Worse, a determined non-partisanship was replaced by an identification with the party in power. A great research library was being transformed—in the words of a Delhi academic—into “an extension centre for the Congress party”.

As a regular user of the NMML, I watched the institution deteriorate from close quarters. On one visit, I made a discovery that underlined the staggering distance between the institution as it once was and as it had since become. In a back drawer of an upstairs hall, I found nine microfilm reels containing records of the South African government for the period 1893-1910. These had priceless information on the Indian community in Natal at a time when Mahatma Gandhi was working there.

When the microfilms came to the NMML, the apartheid regime was in place in South Africa. However, NMML deputy director Haridev Sharma had located an American scholar who had trawled through the Natal archives. He was prevailed upon to microfilm these documents, and pass on a set to the NMML. For this, Dr Sharma had to overcome not merely the diplomatic cold war between India and South Africa, but our obdurate bureaucracy as well. That was the kind of work the NMML staff were once motivated to perform. Now they were instructed to serve tea to Youth Congress workers.

My anguish over the decline of the NMML was very widely shared. In 2008 and 2009, senior historians met several times with Dr Karan Singh, who is the chairman of the NMML’s executive council, and urged him to set in motion the steps necessary to revive the institution. Then, in May 2009, a group of 57 scholars wrote to the prime minister about the decline of the NMML. (The PM is also in charge of the ministry of culture, under which the NMML comes.) They included such distinguished historians as Rajmohan Gandhi, Sumit Sarkar, Sugata Bose, Nayanjot Lahiri, Shahid Amin, Joya Chatterji, A.R. Venkatachalapathy and Sanjay Subrahmanyam.

The scholars urged the PM to restore the plural and non-partisan character of the NMML, to end the reign of consultants and thus restore the morale of the staff, and to resume the active procurement of archival collections and the publication of books. The scholars pointedly observed that “if a private firm like Satyam collapses, there are other private firms that shall take its place. If a once great college like Presidency in Calcutta or St Stephen’s in Delhi declines, other colleges will continue to provide quality education.... But there is no possible substitute for the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Its decline is visible for all to see; its destruction will be a national calamity.” (The letter was reprinted in its entirety in the Economic and Political Weekly, June 27, 2009.)

A recent audit report of the government of India reveals that the situation is even more dire than the country’s finest scholars had thought it to be. The report’s 43 pages are peppered with the words “irregular” and “profligate”. The report confirms that there has “been (an) abject failure on the part of the NMML so far as research work is concerned”. As it happens, the fiduciary failure is even more extensive than the intellectual one. For instance, the ministry of culture gave the NMML Rs 5 crore for specific projects, among them the publication of the works of C. Rajagopalachari. This money was then transferred to a private trust chaired by Sonia Gandhi and staffed by Congress loyalists. The trust invested the money in fixed deposits, while the work for which it was allocated remained undone.

The audit report says the NMML has recruited as many as 64 consultants, with several people being paid for the same job (while 39 sanctioned staff posts remain unfilled). These favoured consultants often had “no experience whatsoever”. As the audit report dryly observes, this “shows the utter contempt with which NMML handles various economy instructions issued by the ministry of finance”. The report concludes that the “NMML appears to be working with a mindset to provide benefit to individuals rather than to the Institution”.

Ironically, the report was submitted to the ministry of culture weeks before B.R. Nanda died. One hopes, for his sake, that he did not read it or read about it. Fortunately, Ravinder Kumar passed on well  before the institution he so inspirationally headed went into decline. Of course, their work as scholars lives on. I urge younger Indians especially to read Nanda’s book on Gokhale, and Kumar’s wide-ranging collection of essays on the social history of modern India.

However, to read the works of Nanda and Kumar afresh is not enough. For the institution they built, which in its heyday was a rare case of intellectual resources being matched by intellectual leadership, is now being dismantled under the very nose of a government that claims to be creating a “knowledge society”. Can we then honour their memory in a more substantive manner, by redeeming the once great centre of research and scholarship that they helped nurture?

The two people who can best answer this question are Dr Karan Singh and Dr Manmohan Singh. They are the country’s two senior scholar-politicians, and the two people directly responsible for the fate and the future of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. In 2008 and 2009, the country’s leading scholars presented them with manifest evidence of the intellectual and organisational decline of the NMML. They refused to act then. Now their own government has presented them with even more damaging evidence of financial malfeasance. Will they still fail to act?

(Guha’s books include India after Gandhi and A Corner of a Foreign Field, both based in good part on the collections in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.)

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