In India, A Battle Brews Over A Museum Honoring A Revered Leader

September 16, 2015

Jawaharlal Nehru towered over 20th century India — a thinker, a statesman, the heir to Mahatma Gandhi. As one of the founding fathers of modern India, Nehru oversaw his country’s transition from a British colony to a democracy, and announced the birth in 1947 of a free India.

In the capital, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library honors the man’s legacy. Depending on where you stand, new plans by the government to modernize the museum fall somewhere between an apostasy that dilutes the great struggle for Indian independence and a facelift of a faded but once glorious building.

With plaques and pictures set against bad lighting and crumbling burlap, the museum has a homespun quality. A walk through leaves little doubt it is in need of an upgrade. But the question that’s gripping the public imagination these days is whether any modernization should include a repurposing of the museum.

The plans of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to recast the museum as a “Museum of Governance” highlighting some of Modi’s own initiatives have inevitably stirred passions. Critics accuse Modi of attempting to diminish the legacy of one of India’s greatest statesmen and threatening to undermine Nehru’s secular vision.

Paying tribute to Nehru, 1.5 million schoolchildren parade each year through the museum, housed in his old home in leafy, central Delhi. Nehru inhabited the once-grand residence for nearly 20 years, taking it over from the British. The house contains memorabilia and photos chronicling Nehru’s life and the enormous sweep of history through which he lived.

Visitors learn how Nehru famously penned a history of the world from prison, without using a single note, and how he became India’s first prime minister and continually held power from independence in 1947 right up to his death in 1964.

“That’s kind of a heady era,” says Ananya Vajpeyi, a historian and former fellow at the Nehru Library. “A lot happened by way of governance, because the new state was just beginning to form itself and settle in.”

The museum covers Indian history up to 1964, the year Nehru died. But the chairman of the museum’s executive council says it should showcase contemporary India — including Modi’s initiatives, such as Smart Cities.

“Nothing wrong about that,” declares India’s culture minister, Manesh Sharma, who says there’s no reason not to expand the museum’s focus to include the present day.

To help make his case, Sharma flips through the original rules of the museum, fixing on one particular passage: “To acquire, maintain, and preserve papers of nationalist leaders of Modern India and other eminent Indians who distinguished themselves in any field.”

Sharma sidesteps the rules’ many references to “Nehru,” “his papers,” and the “Freedom Movement” and insists that the criteria of what belongs in the museum are elastic.

“History means what?” Sharma says. “From which date to which date we count as history? We the government and our prime minister [have] got no vision to undermine any great personality’s vision, his remembrances, his contributions. But we want to add to it.”

Manish Tewari, the spokesman of the Congress Party, which Nehru once led and Modi now battles, says conflating Nehru’s legacy with the current administration would be like combining the libraries that enshrine the lives and work of the various U.S. presidents.

“For example,” he says, “if you were to try and interpolate into President Kennedy’s library the papers of President Nixon, it would not only be an oxymoron, it would be a monumental stupidity.”

Historian Romila Thapar co-signed a statement by prominent India intellectuals condemning the proposed revisions of the museum as “inappropriate and unjustified,” even though she says the breadth of research at the museum today is so diverse that she no longer thinks of it as dedicated solely to Nehru.

Thapur says the Modi administration is Hindu nationalist at its core, and that appropriating space devoted to Nehru is a way to eclipse the past leader’s vision of India as secular and pluralistic.

“It’s part of the decision: you dismantle institutions, you convert them into something they are not, and then you have full control of what you’re doing,” she says. “And then you rebuild a new ideology on the full control that you have. That’s unpleasant, to put it mildly.”

Historian Vajpeyi joined Thapur in issuing the statement denouncing the planned revisions.

“Where do you draw the line that this is not simply a propaganda venue,” Vajpeyi says, to “broadcast the current government’s ideas?” Judging a government’s achievements requires “the perspective of history,” she says. “And that time has simply not passed.”

At the museum, where schoolgirls spill out into the sweeping gardens, their teacher is equally firm. Chitra Sharma, 32, says it’s “useless” to disseminate present-day issues because they are “continually flashing on news channels.”

Rather, she says she wants “to inculcate the moral values of Mr. Nehru” and let her students see what sacrifices were made “to make us free.”

Sharma says any modern repurposing of this place could never match the original purpose: honoring the patriots who won India’s freedom.

“It’s the heritage, actually,” she says. “Incredible India is because of these people — not because of the current, so-called politicians.”

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