This is a guest post by NIYATI SHARMA AND SNIGDHA KUMAR
The latest in a line of institutions to fall victim to the BJP government’s campaign against “cultural pollution” is The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). The agenda is loud and clear – anything which ‘pollutes’ the current government’s preferred way of life and thinking will be done away with. Bans such as the recent ones on porn and meat are the most obvious instruments at the disposal of the government to achieve this goal. The more effective interventions, however, are not those which instantly deny people their choices and freedoms. Presented instead as minor improvements and renovations, interventions in art, history and academic institutions allow the government to introduce subtle long term changes – changes with the capacity to access and alter our very being.
Given the enormity of these interventions in the long run then, it is particularly curious how the clear recent attempts to take over academic institutions such as the ICHR, FTII and now NMML have managed to raise only a few eyebrows while the bans on porn (and meat to an extent) have met with much protest and were subsequently lifted. Perhaps this is because such spaces appear to be remote islands inhabited only by those interested in history, film and/or academic research. Only such an impression can explain the rather meek public debate and outcry that these clearly targeted changes have generated.
The big question is why these spaces matter at all. Indeed, the biggest hint lies in the current government’s sudden surge of interest in them. Why is the government interested in (cleaning) academic institutions? After all, they do not necessarily help deliver on the promise of vikaas. It is because academic institutions are not isolated spaces of learning but important centres of knowledge production. In producing knowledge about the nation, its people, its past and its culture, these spaces play a fundamental role in shaping what we read, what we know, what we see, how we think and react. To have supreme control over this power is what the campaign against “cultural pollution” is all about. Therefore, it is to restrict the misuse of such power and to secure the autonomy of knowledge production that we must begin to discuss this issue with as much urgency as we discuss the bans.
‘Revamping’ the Nehru Memorial Museum
The government’s proposal to ‘revamp’ and ‘renovate’ the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library – arguably India’s most prestigious academic institution for history and the social sciences – is nothing short of an attempt to rewrite the history of a nation. In the scant debate generated by the prospect of its renovation, the focus has mostly been on whether Nehru ought to be remembered at all. The BJP has of course made a habit of viciously attacking Nehru’s supposedly ill-thought out policies and the mess he created with Kashmir. Similarly, many associate Nehru with all that is wrong with the Congress and hence make a case for purging Indian history of everything Nehruvian. Liking or disliking Nehru however, cannot be the basis for deciding whether the NMML needs to be preserved. A legacy – no matter how ugly or favourable – is inherited and cannot be wished away on a whim. While Nehru’s role in our history can and should be subject to endless scrutiny, what cannot be denied is that he lived in Teen Murti Bhawan, thus turning it into a unique material archive of objects from a lived life. As a space which encapsulates a fragment of history then, the Nehru Museum preserves the tangible truth of Nehru’s existence. The move to convert the Nehru Museum into a ‘Museum of Governance’ – by bringing in other figures who supposedly played a role in the “evolution of Indian democracy” – is nothing short of an attempt to rewrite and render obscure this very specific association between Nehru and Teen Murti.
While the BJP government might claim to be ‘rescuing’ previously side-lined heroes of our freedom struggle, to do so by inserting figures into a space removed from their original contexts is to contrive a relationship where there is none. Under the pretext of overturning an apparently Nehruvian history, the BJP government is actually appropriating historical figures to fabricate a past suited to its own ideological agenda. While all history-writing is politically motivated to an extent, this move by the BJP is not an innocuous ‘recovery’ of an alternative non-Congress past – as the government has made it out to be. Instead, it is part of the government’s larger agenda to actively concoct a BJP-centric and certified history; one which even seeks to forcibly establish the exclusive presence of Hindus in an ‘India’ prior to the Indus Valley Civilization. Incidentally, this history fits in dangerously well with current happenings – such as Ghar Waapsi, Love Jihad and the recent mob lynching of Muslims – which target and invalidate an equal existence for religious minorities in India. What is being concocted, then, is a Hindutva history. Be it the recasting of Maharana Pratap as the true saviour of cows or the proposed ‘revamping’ of the Nehru Museum, a highly selective, even make-believe version of our history is being shoved down our throats. In the NMML, this superimposition of a Hindutva history began last week with the BJP using it to ‘celebrate’ the birthday of Deendayal Upadhyay. That the first figure to be incorporated into this space is that of a prominent member of the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh and the RSS speaks volumes about the direction in which the BJP intends to take the NMML.
What is at stake however is not just the ‘content’ of the NMML but also the thriving culture of critique it embodies. The proposed ‘revamping’ of the NMML is based on the BJP’s claim that as a space, it only furthers the legacy of the Congress. The NMML, however, has always been committed to non-partisan scholarship and critical vigour. Although it has been used time and again to commemorate Nehru, the academic culture of the NMML has been open, liberal and freely critical of the Congress. In fact, some of the most critical studies of the Congress have emanated from Teen Murti – as is evident in its diverse seminar series, public lectures and fellowship supported research projects. To then suggest that the NMML only celebrates the golden age of the Congress is to completely misconstrue the character of the space. At this juncture, it is crucial to ask: will the BJP’s model of history even allow for critique in the same way or at all, for that matter? In BJP’s crude understanding, history amounts to resurrecting or worshipping a haloed past; one which it believes to be the absolute truth – leaving little room for debate or dissent. In fact, so strong is the BJP’s desire for an incontestable past that it even cooks up ‘pseudo-scientific’ proofs to cement this history. In such a scenario then, any critical engagement with the history of the BJP’s ‘eminent’ leaders will be labelled disrespectful and unpatriotic. If veneration is the only form of engagement available, can there even be a space for critique? If not, then what kind of a history are we signing up for?
Moreover, such a move appears to completely overlook what the Museum stands for in the present. As a structure, the Nehru Museum has organically become part of our present – entangled as it is with the everyday lives of not just researchers and scholars but also school children, tourists and various inhabitants of the city. But it is not as though the BJP does not understand how structures from the past integrate into the present; instead, it understands the process only too well. For instance, renaming Shahjahan Road after Dashrath Manjhi or Aurangzeb Road after APJ Abdul Kalam might appear to be random instances of innocuous and tokenistic name-changing; but in the BJP’s long term plan, there is a deeper logic at work. In this logic, altering names and symbols – of roads and institutions alike- has the power to completely attune future generations to a different order of Hindutva nomenclature, a different reference system altogether. The NMML too is one such important symbol of the past, in addition to being an influential academic institution whose reach extends to the present and the future. Any intervention in its functioning today, therefore, must be seen as part of the government’s intended move towards making Hindutva the ideological norm of the past, the present and the future.
‘Renovating’ the Library
To begin with, one needs to ask what exactly does ‘renovating’ a library entail. Does changing the leadership of NMML come under such a program of ‘renovation’? Also, can archives from the past possibly be ‘renovated’ or renewed? ‘Renovation’ is a fine example of the BJP government ‘using’ a word- ‘using’ not in the sense of utilizing but in the other sense of manipulating something. It is official doublespeak at its best – a glossy euphemism- which cloaks the real sinister agenda of cleansing the library of any traces of not only Nehru but also its flourishing academic culture.
It is well known that archives in our country are in a state of disarray; yet, instead of providing an infrastructure for their betterment, the government seems to want to meddle with them. What is worse is that it tries to pass this meddling off as an attempt to upgrade the library. Recently ‘The Wire’ reported that the Culture Ministry sought to transfer Nehru papers from NMML to the National archives. Like most libraries in India, the NMML can do with an improved infrastructure but to fiddle around with its archive is to alter the very material which has formed the basis of the history known to us. It is to create conditions where the only model of history possible will be a saffronized Hindutva one. These may be big, sweeping inferences to draw but the BJP government’s insidious plans for the NMML do not merely envision minor tweaks to the library.
Aside from being a political move, the government’s tampering with the archives also amounts to a war on good-quality research. The long-term effects of these changes are clear – critical scholarship with archival depth on modern Indian history will henceforth happen mostly in universities outside India. Our generation is witnessing a massive brain drain in the fields of humanities and social sciences with people ironically going to universities abroad to produce work on India. It may appear that this mass exodus of researchers and this tampering with the Nehru Memorial library are not connected in a direct sense; it is however symptomatic of the larger ways in which the government has launched a crackdown on academic institutions. Thus while the government bemoans the lack of world-class research by Indian scholars, it is adept at creating conditions in which scholars and scholarship cannot thrive. The message here is not mixed but crystal clear – the only archives which can then exist are for the kind of scholarship the government wants you to pursue.
While history is indeed a malleable weapon and the powerful often wield the pen to write or rewrite it, the government has taken this tampering with the past to another level. As more and more bans in our present become commonplace, the ‘renovation’ of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library will also amount to an interference of a different league – one which will deny us access to a particular time in Indian history. And while there is still an urgency with which we respond to the meat and porn bans, this tinkering with the past will go by unnoticed only to have an afterlife- an impact which will alter the way our collective memory is wired and the very act of remembering itself.
Niyati Sharma is a PhD researcher at the Department of English, University of Oxford. Snigdha Kumar is an MPhil researcher at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi.