Indians are obsessed with individuals. One adverse result of this is that institutions do not get the degree of attention and care that they deserve. There are too many institutions around to list that have gone into decline and no longer perform at the level they once did or do not function to their full potential and promise. In Calcutta, one has only to think of Presidency College, the Calcutta Medical College, the National Library and many others. While talking about these institutions, the point to remember is that these are institutions with 100 years or more of service and work behind them. It could conveniently be argued that these institutions are suffering from natural fatigue even though we know that the real causes of the decline lie elsewhere. Moreover, a century is nothing in the history of an institution. What sets off alarm bells is when a relatively new institution with enormous potential and resources is said to be in decline.
One such institution is the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. Outside a small circle of academics, very few in Calcutta know about this place, so a few words about it are in order. It is located in Teen Murti House, the residence of India’s first prime minister. It was conceived in the late 1960s and became operational in the early 1970s. The project of editing and publishing The Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru was also housed in the premises of Teen Murti House. The library, when it was opened to scholars, was in a separate modern building, which was at the end of a long driveway and hidden away by a cluster of trees. Within a remarkably short time, it acquired a reputation of being an excellent library and repository of private papers and documents relating to modern Indian history and culture.
I remember when I was a post-graduate student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, a group of us — members of that group went on to pursue distinguished careers as historians, conservationists and bureaucrats — would go to study there. The university bus would drop us at the gate of Teen Murti House around 9.30 in the morning and would pick us up again a little after 7 pm. I remember those days with joy because the library was our little bit of paradise on earth. We read voraciously with may be an hour’s break for lunch and again for a few minutes at teatime. My previous exposure to a big library was the National Library in Calcutta, which was, of course, bigger in its holdings compared to what the NMML could offer. But working in the National Library was hardly a pleasant experience — books would take hours to arrive (often they did not arrive) and there was no ambience of scholarship. The NMML was open shelf: one could browse. The latest books and journals were available. (It was there that I began reading through the back numbers of that outstanding history journal from Oxford, Past and Present.) The library had every modern facility. Later, when I had the good fortune of studying in some of the best libraries in the United Kingdom, I realized that the NMML was an institution of international standards.
The NMML held out another major attraction for scholars. From the mid 1970s to the 1990s, it was the site for some of the best seminars and lectures in history and the social sciences. These debates were marked by intellectual originality and occasionally angry disagreements. There was excitement and dedicated scholarship. Sometimes out of these seminars came published volumes of importance. The book that comes immediately to mind was the one that was probably the first in the series. This was a volume edited by V.C. Joshi, the deputy director of the NMML, and was called Rammohun Roy and the Process of Modernization in India. Published in 1975, some of the essays in the volume began the process of re-evaluating not only the role of Rammohun Roy but also the entire analytical framework for understanding the forces that shaped India’s modernization.
When I went back to use the library intermittently once again in the late 1990s, I had the sense that its best days were over. I found that often books were not properly shelved and therefore could not be found. The latest publications had not been bought. The service wasn’t as quick as it had once been. It seemed to me that the Indian ennui had finally caught up with the NMML: it was going the way of all institutions in India.
It now transpires that my fears were not totally misplaced. As many as 57 eminent historians, social scientists, publishers and scholars — among them India’s best historians, political scientists and sociologists — have written to the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, about the state of affairs in the NMML. Among the signatories are quondam fellows of the NMML. Thus, there is no way that a scholar prime minister can ignore the note.
In their submission, the scholars have put forward what they see as some of the features of the decline and have suggested some steps to arrest it and to revive what is really a unique institution for the study of modern Indian history and culture. It goes without saying that the decline of an institution like the NMML can hardly be the responsibility of any one individual. (An individual can, however, hasten a process of decline or stop it by initiating or not initiating certain steps.)
What is important is that there is a feeling among a large body of scholars that a unique institution has slipped into decline. This perception cannot be ignored or written off as something that is motivated or driven by the self-interest of individuals. Neither should it be read as the condemnation of only one individual. The note points to neglect, which has deeper roots, and may even be embedded in the way the administration of the NMML is structured. The subject demands the prime minister’s immediate attention. Here is an institution that needs the touch of his reforming hand.
In October 1959, when Jawaharlal Nehru had gone to Nagarjunasagar to inaugurate a dam, a worker came up to him and said in Telugu, “Here you have lighted a lamp.’’ Nehru was so moved that he took this as the test of a person’s work and wrote, “Do we, in the course of our lives, light lamps, or do we snuff out the lamps or candles that exist?’’ From Teen Murti House, when Nehru lived there, many lamps were lit. Some years after his death, within Teen Murti House a lamp was lit in the shape of an institution called the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Let us try and keep that flame burning instead of snuffing it out.