The historian Ramachandra Guha tells an interesting story. Back in 1977 when the Janata government ended 30 years of Congress rule, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the recently appointed minister of external affairs, stepped into office at South Block and saw a blank spot on the wall.
It marked the absence of a hastily removed portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. “Where has it gone?” Vajpayee asked.
“I want it back.”
Now, on Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary, the Narendra Modi government has announced plans to overhaul 39 cultural institutions, including the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), Nehru’s home after 1947 and a memorial since his death in 1964. A report in The Economic Times states that culture minister Mahesh Sharma wants the NMML to be recast as a museum of governance that would showcase contemporary India, including Modi’s campaign for smart cities and the Mars mission.
The absurdity of refashioning an eponymous memorial aside, this move was not going to pass without a political storm. The Congress called it ‘diabolical’. And Congress president Sonia Gandhi declared at a meeting this week: “History is sought to be rewritten with special targeting of Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of modern India and builder of democratic institutions.”
Sharma was forced to backtrack on his plans for a governance museum, muttering that Nehru was a national leader and not a ‘fiefdom’ of the Gandhi family (forgetting perhaps that one branch is now ensconced within the BJP). Meanwhile, the NMML clarified that the recasting would increase, not decrease the emphasis on Nehru.
Despite the clarification, suspicion persists. Partly this is because of a traditional liberal unease of entrusting the BJP with history — a suspicion not without foundation. Murli Manohar Joshi and NDA1 preoccupied itself with rewriting history textbooks on the lines of RSS mythology about a grand Hindu rashtra.
NDA2 seems to have similar priorities. Barely days after coming to power in May last year, HRD minister Smriti Irani declared that Hindu texts would be included in school curriculums. This was followed by the appointment of Y Sudershan Rao as chairperson, Indian Council of Historical Research.
Rao as head of the Bharatiya Itihaas Sankalan Yojana (RSS’ history wing), has been engaged in such projects as one that will date the Mahabharata wars. And while Modi’s own public references to the great glories of Hindu civilisation — the elephant-headed Ganesh is proof of plastic surgery etc — were laughable gaffes, they are also indicative of his RSS-prescribed worldview.
But there is another reason for the continuing unease. The RSS’ antipathy to Nehru is well-known. It sees him as an anglicised Indian who insisted that a newly independent Hindu-majority State would be secular and ‘pandered’ to minorities, and — perhaps most unforgiveable — the man who banned the organisation following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
There is a two-pronged attempt to downplay the iconography of Nehru. The first is to broaden India’s pantheon of national icons — and in this the BJP is right to redress a historical neglect by boosting such figures as Vallabhbhai Patel.
But the second effort is to simply negate Nehru and his idea of a secular, pluralistic India. The BJP has promised a ‘Congress mukt Bharat’, and in doing this must diminish the fountainhead of the Gandhi dynasty.
It is this effort that results in the public calling of a book-burning spree of Nehruvian historians by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy in October. And it is this effort that results in the omission in April of even Nehru’s name by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj at the 60th anniversary of the Bandung conference that led to the Non-Aligned Movement.
For Vajpayee, the traditional antipathy of the RSS, an organisation he called his ‘soul’ and ‘family’, to Nehru did not come in the way of basic decency. To occupy the office of India’s longest-serving foreign minister minus his portrait on the wall was an affront. Sadly, his party’s new leadership might not share his views.
(The author tweets from @namitabhandare. The views expressed are personal)
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