It is a matter of concern and disquiet that despite widespread protests the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) governors (Karan Singh is the current chairman of its executive council) are pushing through changes in the institution in a manner that could harm it irrevocably. While it takes vision to build an institution, careless handling and failure to maintain essential norms can lead to rapid decline.
Founded in the mid-1960s as the national memorial to Jawaharlal Nehru, it is today a premier institution in the country for carrying out research in Modern Indian History (MIH), particularly the Indian national movement. This is in keeping with its charter that states that the major objective is to preserve historical materials, establish a collection of books, newspapers, photographs, audio-visual materials, etc, which would facilitate research in the field of MIH, Indian nationalism and the life and work of Nehru. Following on this, the recruitment rules quite understandably required the director of the institution to be “an eminent scholar with specialisation in MIH” with the ability to “conduct and guide original research” in that area.
The objective with which the NMML was set up was fully met by its first two directors, BR Nanda and Ravinder Kumar, outstanding historians of modern India. Under their care, the NMML became the largest non-official archives in India, which now has over a 1,000 collections of private and institutional papers, including those of Gandhiji, Nehru, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) and the Hindu Mahasabha. It has also built up a huge oral history archive, a rare photographs and films collection, a newspaper collection in several languages dating back to the early 19th century and perhaps the best collection of books and journals for modern and contemporary India.
The present director, Mridula Mukherjee, also a renowned Modern Indian historian, has been carrying forward the earlier legacy and is taking the institution to newer heights. A massive modernisation programme of all constituents of the institution initiated by her is now underway, of which a critical part is the digitisation of the archival holdings, including manuscripts, newspapers, photographs and audio-visual material, in line with the best practices in the world. In a short time valuable archival material will be available at the click of a button on the computer, that too in a searchable format, revolutionalising access to historical material to researchers in remote parts of the country and indeed the world.
Quite inexplicably, the NMML governors decided to rock the boat and pushed through in an evidently irregular manner a basic change in the rules of recruitment for the director of the NMML, replacing the requirement of “specialisation in MIH” with “specialisation in social sciences”. This was done in contravention of the objectives laid down by the NMML Society and without any reference to it. Further, a search committee for the post of director was set up in unseemly haste of which Singh appointed himself the chairman and two retired civil servants as other members. No professional historian was included.
Surprisingly, a new director is being ‘searched’ for when the present one is only 61 years old, and the retirement age is 65 in NMML, as it’s not a fixed term appointment. One wonders whether the same vested interests (named by the petitions committee of the Parliament and a fact finding committee for irregularities), which two years ago tried unsuccessfully to remove the present director, are at work again. The Indian History Congress, the only representative body of historians in India, in a unanimous resolution passed on March 12, 2011, at its 71st session protested strongly the recent NMML initiatives. The media reported protest letters warning of “a future office holder being smuggled in whose orientation would be to undermine the secular character of the NMML”. Singh’s response was dismissive: “Many people are writing letters. They mean nothing. The decision has been taken…”
This refusal to heed reasoned argument and insistence on assertion of authority is no way to build an institution, that too one named after Nehru.
Satish Chandra is former chairperson, University Grants Commission; Bipan Chandra is national professor and chairman, National Book Trust; and Arjun Dev is former dean, National Council Of Educational Research And Training and member, NMML Society. The views expressed by the authors are personal