Controversy over celebration of first War of Independence.
It was a rebellion of a different sort at a recent meeting of the National Implementation Committee (NIC) on the celebration of the 150 years of India’s first War of Independence.
The proposal of Youth Affairs ministry to organise a cultural event at the ramparts of Red Fort on May 11 was resisted by several members of the committee including chairperson HRD minister Arjun Singh, though on different grounds.
Singh raised the issue of ‘conflict of interest’ as the work for conducting the event had been awarded to Asian Heritage Foundation, with which a NIC member Rajeev Sethi is closely associated. Secretary Youth Affairs S K Arora informed that the committee Sethi indeed was closely associated with the foundation.
At a meeting of NIC held on April 23, Singh went to the extent of cautioning the members that such an arrangement would not only be improper but also ‘fraught with serious consequences”. Arora, however, explained that the ministry has set up a technical committee to estimate the cost and the payment would be made as the actual spending, subject to the overall ceiling. He also said that the foundation would only get Rs 37 lakhs as administrative charges.
Despite the clarification, Singh insisted that awarding the work to the foundation was a ‘clear case of conflict of interest’. “Under the given circumstances, I am unable to support this activity organised by Asian Heritage foundation,” he told the NIC members.
Although most members agreed with Singh, the committee felt that finding an alternate in a short span would not be possible, therefore, grant the work to the foundation. Some members also pointed out that the cost of the cultural event was not very high. However, the NIC decided that the cultural programme to be organised would be vetted by a committee of historians in Indian Council of Historical Research.
Before Singh, I&B minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi had raised the issue of high cost of conducting the cultural event and said that the I&B ministry would have conducted the function at a much reduced cost.
He urged the committee to reduce the cost of a daylong function. Culture Minister Ambika Soni also supported him. At the end, NIC approved a budget of Rs 26.35 crore for the daylong functions with a request to Youth Affairs and Culture ministry to economise expenditure.
Former Congress MP Shashi Bhushan tried to put historical perspective by stating that the May 11 function should symbolise march of the sepoys from Meerut to Red Fort and no cultural programme should be organised. Youth Affairs minister Mani Shankar Aiyar opposed Bhushan saying that one should consider that the event was inaugural function of the 150 years of the anniversary of India’s First War of Independence.
The daylong function would start with top leaders of the country assembling at Red Fort to pay homage to the martyrs of 1857 and watch the cultural event. Thereafter, the government has planned a series of events throughout the day including a light and sound show in the evening.