The Fight for Nehru’s Legacy

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The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library faces an unprecedented uproar from Indian historians, and it’s not without reason

It made waves when it happened: in November 2001, the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee replaced Sonia Gandhi as president of the society in charge of Delhi’s Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. The widow of Nehru’s grandson was re-designated as just a member. It marked a momentous loss of control over an important inheritance the Nehru-Gandhi family had cherished ever since the first stone was laid in the mid-1960s—under Indira Gandhi’s aegis—for this repository of material on India’s freedom movement.

Almost a decade later, the Nehru Memorial has undergone another shift, a subtle yet surreptitious one that observers say dilutes its avowed aim of nurturing scholarship in modern Indian history. What makes it all the more glaring is that it has been effected not by a BJP leader as astute as Vajpayee, but by Karan Singh, a Congressman ‘close’ to the Gandhi family as well as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. And it has been done via the simple device of a change in recruitment rules for the Memorial’s director, as the tenure of Professor Mridula Mukherjee ends this August.

On 28 December last year, the Nehru Memorial’s Executive Council headed by Karan Singh redrafted an essential qualification for the post. Earlier, the director had to be ‘an eminent scholar with a specialisation in modern Indian history.’ Now, it is open to anyone with ‘a specialisation in social sciences’.

On the face of it, the move merely widens the selection ambit. But the Indian History Congress, which recently held its 71st session at Gour-Banga University in West Bengal, is highly suspicious of it. In a resolution passed unanimously by nearly 1,200 delegates on 13 February, this huddle called it a sneaky attempt to appoint someone ill-suited to uphold the Memorial’s Memorandum of Association which enjoins it to conserve material related to ‘the history of modern India, with special reference to the freedom movement’, and to undertake research ‘in the field of modern Indian history, especially the study of Indian nationalism and the life and work of Jawaharlal Nehru’.

Karan Singh, however, refutes the charges: “We don’t want to narrow it [criterion for the appointment] only to modern Indian historians… In fact, the first director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, BR Nanda, was not a historian, nor was its last director, OP Kejriwal. It does a lot of sociological work as well. We have, therefore, decided to widen the scope for the selection of a new director.”

Others are not convinced. Professor Arjun Dev, renowned historian, former head of the National Council for Educational Research and Training, and a member of the Nehru Memorial Society, calls it a “most unfortunate development” that he finds “completely inconsistent with the memorandum of association” which governs the Executive Council’s mandate. “It cannot introduce a change which is in conflict with the very aim of the institution,” he says.

Indeed, the manner in which the criterion was changed is questionable. First, it did not have the support of even half the Council’s members. Only four of the eight were present that day: Karan Singh, Suman Dubey, secretary of Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, Dr T Kumar, joint secretary at the Culture Ministry, and Professor Mridula Mukherjee, who filed a note of dissent saying that ‘the proposed change is in direct conflict with the objects for which the Nehru Memorial Society is established’ and that ‘since it amounted to a basic change in the character and objectives of the institution, it first needed to be referred, deliberated and approved by the Society, as it is only the Society which can alter or amend the purposes for which it is established’. While Suman Dubey, Dr T Kumar and Professor Mridula Mukherjee are Society members, note that just two of them approved the change.

Second, the issue was not listed on the agenda document circulated for the Executive Council meeting of 28 December. As Arjun Dev points out, this was extremely odd, given its significance. According to the minutes-of-the-meeting record: ‘After the agenda of the Executive Council was completed, the Chairman placed on the table two letters and apprised the EC that their contents pertained to amendments in the recruitment rules for the post of Director… He stated that he was placing these before the Executive Council for ratification.’

Of the two letters, one was dated 12 July 2010, written by Karan Singh to Culture Secretary Jawhar Sircar suggesting a switch from ‘modern Indian history’ to ‘social sciences’ as the key qualification. The second, dated 31 August 2010, conveyed the PM’s approval of the amendment, subject to the EC’s approval.

So, if the PM had approved of it as far back as that, why was the item kept off the Executive Council’s circulated agenda till the very last minute? Something strange was going on. One of the Council members, Professor Suranjan Das, vice-chancellor of University of Calcutta, had even written to Karan Singh a day before the meeting that he had not received any agenda paper: ‘I am sure you will agree that it is difficult to deliberate on any serious matter if the concerned paper is placed on the table. I shall, accordingly, remain grateful if no final decision is taken in the meeting of 28 December on any administrative matter of long-term consequence or any issue of long-term academic importance. Such issues may please be circulated in the form of proper Agenda Papers… so that proper thought can be given to them.’

Historians are not amused by Karan Singh’s arm-twisting of the Nehru Memorial with the apparent support of the PM, who is also the President of the Society (Sonia Gandhi remains a member). While no one wants to speculate on Karan Singh’s motives, there is broad agreement that the Memorial is at risk. “It is primarily a resource centre for research,” says Professor KN Panikkar, a well-known historian, “It is one of the richest centres in the world in terms of collections of non-government papers. From the beginning, it has promoted research in modern history. I was myself a senior fellow there. It must be headed by someone who specialises in modern history.” Professor Bipan Chandra, professor emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), is scathing: “I completely agree with the Indian History Congress resolution… This amendment will ultimately destroy the institution.”

On Karan Singh’s argument that bureaucrats like BR Nanda and OP Kejriwal have headed the Memorial and there ought to be no fuss over the change, historian Satish Chandra, one of the founding members of JNU’s Centre for Historical Studies, says: “Nanda was a great historian, and Kejriwal was a bad choice.” Indeed, Nanda wrote the first scholarly biography of Mahatma Gandhi, and an equally worthy dual biography of Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru. Even Kejriwal, a PhD in modern Indian history, has written a book on the Asiatic Society. “Only a historian who has wide contact with historians and historical materials is best suited to become the director of this institution,” says Chandra.

The switch in selection criterion was not all that Karan Singh managed to effect in that 28 December meeting, he also sneaked himself the right to appoint a search committee to look for a new director. ‘The Chairman, Executive Council, also proposed that the EC should authorise [sic] to appoint a search committee for the post of Director, which was agreed to,’ says the record of the meeting’s minutes. Since this was not on the circulated agenda either, it attracted the dissent of Professor Mridula Mukherjee, the only historian present.

Sure enough, the search panel has had Karan Singh appointing himself its chairman, with such members as Balmiki Prasad Singh, Governor of Sikkim and former home and culture secretary, and Nitin Desai, economist and former adviser to the United Nations Secretary General. There is no historian.

“A search committee should be headed by an academic, not a politician,” says Professor Panikkar. Also, the haste with which it’s being done is unseemly, says Professor Arjun Dev: “Professor Mridula Mukherjee, the incumbent, has another six to eight months to go. Is it the idea of a section of the Executive Council to make the incumbent feel out of place in advance? Are they trying to provoke her to resign or render her a lame duck? What purpose will it serve? Would it not harm the Nehru Memorial?”

The Indian History Congress sees little credibility in the search panel. Says its resolution: ‘With regard to the procedure of appointment, the method of search committees can be credible only if those serving on those committees are themselves academics of unquestionable distinction in the field in which the Nehru Memorial is to work.’

If historians fear the worst, it’s largely because the Memorial is involved at this juncture in more historical research and archival activity than ever before. The risk is not just that it would lose the esteem in which historians hold it, but its research focus would shift away from the freedom movement—indeed, from the Nehruvian era of modern history. That would be a loss to India’s modern sense of selfhood.