Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Saving the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library

Saving the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library

In a note of 10 June, addressed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is also minister of culture, a group of scholars and academics urge him to immediately set into motion the steps necessary to revive the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. They observe that until the 1990s the NMML was a centre of scholarship and research, but that in recent years, however, the institution has precipitously declined. In their note, the scholars trace the causes of the decline of the NMML and outline a constructive charter for its renewal. Edited excerpts from the letter.

On behalf of the community of scholars and writers, we urge you to take the necessary steps necessary to save one of India’s great national institutions. This is the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). Once a vigorous centre of intellectual work, and a byword for excellence, it is now trapped in a culture of apathy and mediocrity. Over the past few years, the decline of the NMML has led to a deep feeling of dismay in the academic community. Given its pivotal place in scholarly life, its fate may well determine the future of the humanities and the social sciences in India. Were the NMML to continue on its current downward slide, it would bring to an end a great tradition of scholarship and research on Indian history and culture.
The NMML was established in the late 1960s in memory of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was not merely India’s first prime minister, but also a liberal, a democrat, an internationalist, an institution-builder, and – not least – a scholar. Working from Teen Murti House, the first director of the NMML, B R Nanda, laid the foundations of a firstclass research library and archive. Thus the NMML acquired the private papers of the men and women who fought for India’s freedom, conducted oral histories with activists and politicians, collected runs of old newspapers in many languages, and built an excellent collection of books and journals.
B R Nanda’s work was taken forward by his successor as director, Ravinder Kumar. Ravinder Kumar expanded the scope of the collections beyond the Indian nationalistmovement, to include the fields of women’s history, environmental history, social history, art and literature. He established the Centre of Contemporary Studies, under whose Fellowship programme India’s finest thinkers came to the NMML to research and write major works of scholarship. He also started a seminar series which, through the 1980s and much of the 1990s, was verily the epicentre of intellectual life in the capital. At this seminar spoke scholars young and old, unknown and famous, Indian and foreign, often attracting large and always interested audiences. The NMML also regularly held academic conferences on issues of topical or historical importance. From these Fellowships and conferences emerged a series of landmark books that have helped reshape and redefine the humanities and social sciences in India.
Under Ravinder Kumar’s stewardship, the NMML became a truly world-class centre of scholarship and research. In this, it was almost unique. While India has manyfine centres of science and technology, in the humanities and the social sciences only two institutions have come close to being considered “world-class”. These are the Delhi School of Economics (DSE) in the 1960s, and the NMML in the 1980s and 1990s. The reach of the NMML was indisputably greater than that of the DSE; it took in a greater range of disciplines, and a wider range of intellectual and social concerns.
Pluralism and Ecumenism
In two respects, in particular, the first two directors of the NMML were faithful to the ideals of the person after whom their institution was named. They were not dogmatistsbut pluralists, who encouraged debate and dissent, and who paid careful attention to all aspects of political and intellectual life in India. The NMML was not identified with a particular political party. Despite being founded while the Congress was in power, and despite the Congress having played a leading part in the freedom struggle, the NMML made it a point to house and properly preserve the papers of such major opponents of the Congress Party as S P Mookerjee, Meghnad Saha, C Rajagopalachari, S M Joshi,E M S Namboodiripad, and M N Roy (and many others). Among the institutional collections that the NMML acquired were the papers of the All India Congress Committee, but also those of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Communist Party of India.
This pluralism and ecumenism was strikingly manifest in the seminars, the Fellowships, and the books promoted by the NMML, where all disciplines and all tendencies were represented, with the work of scholars being assessed by scholarly commentary criteria alone. It is this open-mindedness and lack of partisanship that, along withthe dedicated hard work which accompanied it, made the NMML a world-class centre of research and scholarship.
B R Nanda and Ravinder Kumar never sought to identify the institution with themselves. Scholars all over the world have reason to be grateful to an outstanding set of deputy directors – V C Joshi, D N Panigrahi, Haridev Sharma, and N Balakrishnan – whose selfless work over the decades helped bring the NMML to its position of glory. There were, and are, many other staff members who have likewise devoted their entire working lives to building up the NMML. Their struggle and dedication were recognised by their superiors, under whose nurturing care all members of the NMML staff could contribute to the greater good of the institution.
Ravinder Kumar’s term as director endedin 1997. His successor did not elevate the profile of the NMML; nor, however, did he diminish it. It is in the past few years that the NMML has rapidly deteriorated in its functioning. Some objective indicators of this deterioration are given below:
(i) Publications Programme: While the NMML once brought out several very good books a year, since 2006 not a single publication has emanated from the NMML. The excellent journal published by the NMML, Contemporary India, has been discontinued without explanation. The Occasional Paper series, in which were published seminal contributions to contemporary scholarship, has also been discontinued. The NMML once regularly published the selected writings of our leading nationalist thinkers and leaders – this too has been stopped.
(ii) New Research Materials: The acquisition of manuscript collections and the microfilming of newspapers in Indian languages, once so vital and valuable a part of the NMML’s programme, has come to a standstill. Virtually, no new oral histories have been conducted. Letters by eminent scholars offering help in augmenting collections or arranging for oral histories go unanswered.
(iii) Morale of Staff: The competent and well-trained staff is utterly demoralised. The practice of holding regular meetings with heads of sections has been discontinued. Their work and responsibilities have been undermined by the appointment of several dozen consultants of uncertain experience and qualifications, this creating a parallel administrative structure without any accountability. In a final blow to staff morale, the outstanding Deputy Director of the NMML was served a notice of suspension without even a show-cause notice.
(iv) Denial of Pluralism: On the intellectual side, what little activities do take place have a very narrow focus. Whereas once the academic culture of the NMML represented the diversity of scholarly thought and practice across India, now it is hostage to a particular faction of Delhi-based academies. What is worse, for the first time in its long history the NMML has allowed itself to become identified with a particular political party. For more than a year, prominent portraits of Congress Prime Ministers were placed in the foyer. (These Prime Ministers were figures of considerable importance in Indian history; still, the fact that they alone dominated the entrance was at odds with the spirit of inclusiveness that the NMML had previously stood for.) Meanwhile, the administration allowed the Congress’ youth wing to hold its meetings in the NMML. Later,after a private protest by senior scholars to a senior politician, this practice was discontinued by the party. But that the NMML could allow and encourage this showedhow far the present administration has departed from the high ideals and standards that once defined the institution.
These problems have collectively contributed to making the NMML a pale shadow of itself. Once a hub of intellectual work, attracting scholars from all over the world, now the NMML seems neglected, forlorn, and abandoned.
Sir, in your dual capacity as Prime Minister and Minister of Culture, we urge you to recognise that as the repository of our modern history the NMML is absolutely unique. The NMML contains within its walls the histories and memories of the very many remarkable people who made India a nation state and who helped nurture it as a democracy. Some of these patriots are famous; others obscure. They came from all parts of the country and from a variety of social backgrounds. They owed allegiance to a wide variety of beliefs and ideologies. In giving all these trends a home, the NMML is a microcosm of India itself. In this sense the NMML is absolutely irreplaceable. 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 Kolkata or St Stephen’s in Delhi declines, other colleges will continue to provide quality education. If one political leader fails to honour his or her mandate, the voter or citizen can elect another in his or her stead.
Restoring an Institution
But there is no possible substitute for the NMML. Its decline is visible for all to see; its destruction will be a national calamity. We now ask you to immediately set in motionthe steps necessary to save the NMML from becoming a failed institution. To revive the NMML, and to set in motion the process by which it can be restored to its former place of pre-eminence in the intellectual life of India, the Ministry of Culture needs to do the following things:
First, restore the morale of the dedicated and experienced staff by ending the tenure of all consultants, and by revoking the suspension of the Deputy Director;
Second, induct into the Executive Council (EC) three or more distinguished scholars. According to the bye-laws of the NMML, the EC must have an adequate representationfrom academics and scholars. However, at present the EC has only one scholar – this is B R Nanda, whose advanced age (he is over 90) and indifferent health has made it impossible for him to actively participate in the EC. The other members of the NMML EC are all from outside the academic community. Clearly, the absence of scholarly expertise in the body charged with supervision has contributed to the inability to stem the decline of the institution;
Third, once the present Director’s term ends in August, her successor must be chosen through an open, transparent process. As with Directors of IIMs and IITs, the Director of the NMML should be chosen by a committee of acknowledged experts. This selection committee should consist of historians, sociologists or political scientists of national and international renown, and who are known to be utterly non-partisan. Applications for the post of Director, NMML, should be solicited through advertisements placed in leading academic journals in India and abroad. The selection committee can then short-list and interview candidates before choosing, through this rigorous process, the best person for the job;
Fourth, once a new Director takes office, he or she must be encouraged by the reconstituted EC to reach out once more to the scholarly community as a whole, thus to restore the NMML’s non-partisan and plural character.

Over the past 18 months, distinguished members of the scholarly community, including some former Senior Fellows, have several times addressed these concerns tothe management of the NMML. In March 2008, a long note describing the deterioration in the NMML and prescribing ways to arrest it was prepared by seven former Fellowsand sent to all members of the EC. Among the authors of this note were Sumit Sarkar, Neera Chandhoke, Mahesh Rangarajan, and Ramachandra Guha. In May 2009, a letter of protest at the shocking suspension of the Deputy Director was sent to the EC. This letter was signed by more than 40 scholars, among them Rajmohan Gandhi, Mushirul Hasan, Sunil Khilnani, Krishna Kumar, and Geeta Kapur. The letter observed that “this draconian decision has sent tremors through the dedicated staff, many of whom – seeing the treatment of a senior and respected colleague – now live and work in fear, scarcely a conducive atmosphere for an institution of such importance”.
The concerns of the scholarly community about the sad state of affairs at the NMML were also communicated in private letters and conversations with members of the EC, and with senior civil servants. Since a General Election was around the corner, we did not make our protests public, for we were concerned above all with the integrity of the institution and with seeking to revive it. We did not wish for any individual or party to make political capital out of the matter. Now, with a new government in power,and with the existing Director’s term shortly to expire, we have chosen to articulate these concerns of the scholarly community in a positive, forward-thinking manner. We believe that if our suggestions are acted upon in full, we can yet redeem and revive the NMML. On the other hand, if the EC of the NMML continues to be indifferent to academic standards and intellectual credibility, then there is little hope. Moreover, if the new Director is chosen through a secretive and preferential process, then he or she will act not in the interests of the institution but merely seek to please those who gave him or her the job. Were that to happen, the NMML will certainly enter into terminal decline. As representatives of the scholarly community, we urge the ministry and the government to act immediately to preserve a great and unique Indian institution. We look forward to working with an institutional leader who shall revive the NMML and re-dedicate it to the memory of the Indian intellectual and democrat after whom it is named and whom it was meant to honour.
Rajmohan Gandhi (University of Illinois, United States), *Krishna Kumar (NCERT, New Delhi), Sunil Khilnani (Johns Hopkins University, US), Partha Chatterjee (Centre forStudies in Social Sciences, Kolkata), *Sumit Sarkar (formerly of Delhi University), Sanjay Subrahmanyam (University of California, Los Angeles), *Ramachandra Guha (the New India Foundation, Bangalore), Shahid Amin, Delhi University), *Mushirul Hasan (Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi), Sugata Bose (Harvard University, US), Veena Das (Johns Hopkins University, US), Nayanjot Lahiri (Delhi University), David Arnold (Warwick University, United Kingdom), *Nivedita Menon (Jawaharlal Nehru University), Gyanendra Pandey (Emory University, US), *Mahesh Rangarajan (Delhi University), *Susan Visvanathan (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi), David Hardiman (Warwick University, UK), Joya Chatterji (Cambridge University, UK), Narayani Gupta (formerly of Jamia Millia Islamia), Devesh Kapur (University of Pennsylvania, US), Venu Govindu (Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore), A R Venkatachalapathy (Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai), *Neera Chandhoke (Delhi University), Tapati Guha Thakurta (Centre for the Study of Social Sciences, Kolkata), *Madhavan Palat (formerly of Jawaharlal Nehru University), Zoya Hasan (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi), Amita Baviskar (Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi), *Sudha Mahalingam (Member, National Security Advisory Board), Alok Rai (Delhi University), *Sumit Guha (Rutgers University, US), Srinath Raghavan (King’s College, London), Prachi Deshpande (University of California, Berkeley), *Mukul Kesavan (Jamia Millia Ismalia, New Delhi), *Prabhu Mohapatra (Delhi University), *Ravi Vasudevan (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi), Rukun Advani (Permanent Black), Tridip Suhrud, Sabarmati Memorial Preservation Trust, Ahmedabad), Charles Lewis (formerly of Oxford University Press), V Suryanarayanan (formerly of Madras University, Chennai), *Ananya Vajpeyi (University of Massachusetts, US), Satyajit Singh (Delhi University), Nirmala Lakshman (The Hindu), *Dilip Simeon (formerly of Ramjas College), Malini Parthasarathy (The Hindu), Nandini Sundar (Delhi University), Aditya Nigam (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi), *Dilip Menon (University of Witwaterstrand), Ishita Banerjee- Dube (El Colegio de México), Deepak Malghan (Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore), Saurabh Dube (El Colegio de México), CrispinBates (University of Edinburgh, UK), *Brinda Bose (Delhi University), *Geeta Kapur (Delhi), Siddharth Varadarajan (The Hindu), Jahnavi Phalkey (Georgia Tech-Lorraine France), Rudra Chaudhuri (King’s College, London).
*past Fellows or Senior Fellows of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

Source: Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) June 27, 2009; 44(26-27), pp. 27-29.