A group of nearly 300 scholars and academics from India and abroad have questioned the Indian government’s efforts to shift the focus of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), saying people should “protect the space for democratic discussion, dissent and minority views”.
The NMML has been at the centre of a controversy since its director Mahesh Rangarajan, who was chosen by the previous UPA regime, quit last month after the ruling NDA described his appointment as “illegal and unethical”.
Since then, reports have suggested that the NMML, which has focussed on the life and work of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, would be revamped and its scope expanded to look at the contributions of Subhash Chandra Bose, Veer Savarkar and Deen Dayal Upadhyay, or even reinvented as a museum of governance that showcases contemporary India.
In an open letter, the group of scholars, academics and journalists expressed concern at the developments at NMML and commended Rangarajan for “his outstanding work” at the institution over four years.
They said Rangarajan had allowed a “diverse range of people with a plurality of perspectives to inhabit a space of academic research and intellectual exchange” and his leadership revitalised NMML’s connection with teachers and young scholars.
The letter said it was “unjustified to assume that if a research institution is named after a particular individual – in this case Jawaharlal Nehru – the entire body of research and public activity around it is meant only to preserve his legacy”.
Its collections included eminent figures such as mathematician and historian DD Kosambi, scholar Amrita Rangaswamy, scientists like Professor Yash Pal and S Varadarajan and industrialist Rahul Bajaj, they said.
“We recognise that the bid to control and regulate the autonomy of cultural and political institutions, to substitute one kind of orthodoxy for another, can emerge from different sites of power,” the letter said.
The letter noted that there are “other histories, increasingly strengthened by the power of institutional and social hierarchy, which seek to embed a narrative of majoritarian triumphalism in our educational system and cultural institutions”. This narrative “excludes diversity and dissent and violates the constitutional right of citizens”.
The letter added: “We strongly feel that NMML should not be paralysed by one such bid just when its activities are establishing a stronger connection between professional academic life and wider discourses about history and society.”
The group asked concerned citizens to urge institutions such as NMML to “protect the space for democratic discussion, dissent and minority views”.