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A museum for all prime ministers? Political tug-of-war over NMML

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By Professor  

A tug of war is playing out between those who want to preserve the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and those who want it to honour other Indian prime ministers as well.

New Delhi: Amid vast green acres in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi, a tug of war is playing out between those who want to preserve a memorial to Jawaharlal Nehru as it is, and those who want it to honour other prime ministers of the country as well.

In newspaper advertisements on 23 August, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), an autonomous institution under the ministry of culture, called for the “appointment of professional advisor for setting up a new museum on Prime Ministers of India.”

The advertisement appeared a day after the annual general body meeting of NMML which was chaired by Union minister Rajnath Singh.

According to a press statement, Singh, who is also vice-president of the NMML Society, told the meeting that the planned museum for former prime ministers will be showcased as an iconic one and will utilize 3D technology to offer a virtual reality experience.

According to a Times of India report dated 23 August, a few members at the meeting including Congressman Jairam Ramesh objected to the proposal on the grounds that it would diminish Nehru’s legacy.

Built in 1929-30, Teen Murti Bhavan was the official residence of the commander-in-chief of India. It went on to become the official residence of Jawaharlal Nehru after Independence. In 1964, after his death, the government decided that it would be dedicated to him and house a museum and library. The library’s archives contain the bulk of Mahatma Gandhi’s writings, besides papers of C. Rajagopalachari, Jayaprakash Narayan, Charan Singh and Saorjini Naidu, among others.

For historian Irfan Habib, one of the first Jawaharlal Nehru Fellows (NMML offers a fellowship for scholarly research), NMML is not a memorial to Nehru as much as it is to the national movement. “I think a proposal to extend it into a memorial for other prime ministers is not really worthy of consideration. If national movements are not important, then it belittles everything.”

The memorial gives visitors a glimpse into the working life of India’s first Prime Minister with his study, meeting room etc. preserved as they were during his time. However, it is the library which is one of the richest sources for papers and archival material related to the history of modern India that draws people.

For Dr. Soumya De, assistant professor of history at O.P. Jindal University in Sonipat, Haryana, NMML occupies a cardinal position in the academic and intellectual circles of Delhi. “For academics and research scholars, it is a place to meet and ideate…the NMML resources have a lot to offer to sociologists, economists and political scientists as well. No serious work in the social sciences can be done without periodic visits to it.”

But the current administration has a different viewpoint. In an interview to The Indian Express, culture minister Mahesh Sharma had said in 2016 (23rd May) that the NMML constitution states that the institution is to “showcase the life of Nehruji and those who had contributed to the freedom struggle…but the Congress believed that it’s only for showcasing Nehru or his family.”

A national memorial, especially of a political leader, is meant to commemorate true leadership and the individual’s ideological development of the country. “They allow for the continuity of the values of the individual and values of a society can be maintained through memories,” says K.T. Ravindran, former Dean of School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, who also designed the Rajiv Gandhi memorial at Sriperumbudur.

“NMML is located in a very critical place, it’s a beautiful estate and is a very important part of India’s development heritage. As such, it has to have an active public face which it does through its library, the seminars that are held there, etc. We can interrogate the kind of modernity Nehru brought to the country only because there is a face to it (NMML),” he says.

But a memorial has to be more than just a collection of brick and mortar; it also has to be interactive. It can’t, according to Ravindran, just be something that evokes memory.

He feels that the sprawling grounds of Teen Murti Bhavan where NMML is housed can easily be used for a memorial for others as long as it has an active interface.

Political debates around the proposed memorial aside, it does beg the question—Should the memory of every individual who has held one of the highest public offices in the country, be commemorated, simply by virtue of having held that position? In America, presidential libraries, which house the papers, records, collections and other historical material of every US President since Herbert Hoover (31st President) are maintained in the home state of the President. They also include museum exhibitions. De, quoted earlier, cites the example of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC as a narrative of not just Lincoln’s life but perhaps also of the United States.

“We are a lot more complex than the USA because we are so diverse and there are so many tensions inherent in our society and polity.” Each memorial, according to him, projects a narrative and in India, we see such a profusion precisely because each group has a narrative or the other. “So, if today, there is a proposal to revive the purpose of NMML, it is because it has become a site of contesting narratives…in the first narrative…Nehru looms upon all of post-independence India, in the second narrative post-independence India is the work of not one but many people.”

Amid all this back and forth, the one assurance that has been sought and given is that NMML will remain intact, even when newer facets are added to its narrative.