The NDA government’s announcement that it plans to revamp 39 cultural institutions including the iconic Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) has kicked up a huge controversy. Understandably, the Congress is miffed; it has called the government’s plan “diabolical” and accused it of “subverting and diluting” the essential spirit and character of NMML.
So what’s the government trying to do?
First, it wants to acquire, preserve and maintain material related to nationalist leaders of modern India. “The freedom struggle is not about one person [Nehru/Gandhi]. Our purpose is that all eminent people associated with the freedom struggle and those who worked towards building a modern India find a place in NMML),” minister of state (Independent Charge) for culture and tourism Mahesh Sharma said.
The government's "eminent people's" list contains Veer Savarkar, Deen Dayal Upadhyay and Netaji Subhash Bose. Incidentally, it recently refused to declassify files related to Bose as it would “adversely affect foreign relations” even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi after assuming office had declared that files would be made public.
The government per se is not wrong in trying to initiate more research into the lives and times of public figures other than the Congress luminaries; history is not a static subject and should not be confined to a certain section of leaders and society; expanding the scope of research to bring in more leaders and subjects will only enrich our history and lead to more stringent evaluation.
No public figure or his/her followers should be afraid of such constant evaluation. EH Carr in ‘What is History?’ defines the subject as “a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past”.
In fact, the NMML’s progressive charter clearly that the autonomous organisation is dedicated to the objective of “promoting advanced research on modern and contemporary India”. And modern and contemporary India cannot be about a handful of leaders.
However, what is of utmost importance here is to ensure that the research into the lives and contributions of non-Congress leaders is thoroughly unbiased.
And this where the government’s real test would be. Its recent handling of institutions like ICHR and FTII, however, does not give us much hope.
The second change that the government apparently wants to effect is to make NMML more “contemporary”, recasting it as a museum governance, showcasing contemporary India, including the PM’s campaign for smart cities and Indian Space Research Organisation's unmanned flight to Mars.
Third, reports say the library too will now be a place where issues of governance and international problems are discussed. For instance, scholars from West Asia could be invited to debate on the perils of Islamic State or to discuss our PM's UAE visit.
While discussion on contemporary issues is acceptable, but focusing it solely on the PM, BJP government and its policies only reveal what the government’s real aim is: Further its own agenda to rehaul and “rebalance” India’s history. But NMML is not the place for such an agenda; there are enough institutions available to it to further its narrow view of history and contemporary India.
Of the three plans mentioned above, the second one is truly bizarre: How can a research centre with a strict mandate become a “museum” for government programmes?
India can do with more good, solid research into its history but the ultimate and sole aim here seems to be to make premier organisations an extension of the government’s propaganda machinery, and that’s unacceptable.