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16 September, 2018 11:09:49 AM

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Battle between Prime Ministers

The Congress meanwhile reminded the BJP of Vajpayee’s move of demanding that the portrait of Pandit Nehru be brought back at South Block that the overzealous officers had removed
Kumkum Chadha
Battle between Prime Ministers

It is clearly a battle between Prime Ministers: a former Prime Minister writing to the present one about India’s first Prime Minister.  To put this in context, India’s former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has in a letter to India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked him not to tamper with the legacy of India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Singh has asked Modi to leave the situation "undisturbed" out of respect for history and heritage.

"Jawaharlal Nehru belongs not just to the Congress but to the entire nation," Dr Singh wrote to Modi recently.
Singh’s letter follows a controversy over the government's “expansion plans” of the Teen Murti Complex which as of now houses the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, the NMML as it is also known. Originally the residence of Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, Teen Murti House, was converted into a museum and library after his death.  Aimed at fostering academic research on modern and contemporary history, the library is an excellent resource centre which apart from being an archive on India’s  first Prime Minister also has the bulk of Mahatma Gandhi's writings;  private papers of eminent people like C. Rajagopalachari, Sarojini Naidu and Jayaprakash Narayan among others.

Given that it derives both its name and fame from Jawaharlal Nehru, it being Nehru centric is a given. In any case, the shadow of the country’s first Prime Minister looms large and dwarfs every other that has found its way in the complex.

It was probably this than anything else that irked the present dispensation that decided to set right what it saw as an anomaly. However this remained unsaid even while there was talk of   “expansion plans” of the complex.  If NMML version is anything to go by the decision is  “to increase its ambit and make it a centre for information and research on Prime Ministers. NMML is a national institute focusing on contemporary India. NMML is already much more than Nehru."

 And while the BJP’s version of “much more than Nehru” is to include the contribution of ALL Prime Ministers India has had, this has made the Congress see red and a move to dilute Nehru’s legacy and erode his significance. Hence it is crying foul and made even the otherwise reticent Dr Singh to sit up and actually write to Modi.

The museum, said Dr Singh, must retain its primary focus on Nehru and the freedom struggle because of his "unique role having spent almost ten years in jail between the early 1920s and mid-1940s. "No amount of revisionism can obliterate that role and his contributions," he wrote.

Singh did not stop at this. He even invoked another Prime Minister  Atal Behari Vajpayee and reminded Modi that during Vajpayee’s tenure,  "there was absolutely no attempt made to change the nature and character of NMML and Teen Murti complex in any way. But sadly, that seems to be part of the agenda of the government now."

Dr Singh quoted Vajpayee's speech in Parliament when Nehru died. "As Atal Bihari Vajpayeeji himself said in his moving speech to Parliament when Panditji passed away: 'Such a resident may never grace Teen Murti again. That vibrant personality, that attitude of taking even the opposition along, that refined gentlemanliness, that greatness we may not again see in the near future. In spite of a difference of opinion we have nothing but respect for his great ideals, his integrity, his love for the country and his indomitable courage'."

The former prime minister urged PM Modi to "respect this sentiment".

The Congress meanwhile reminded the BJP of Vajpayee’s move of demanding that the portrait of Pandit Nehru be brought back at South Block that the overzealous officers had removed way back in 1977 when the Janata government came to power.  Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then recently appointed minister of external affairs, stepped into office at South Block and found that Nehru’s portrait that he had seen during his earlier visits to South Block was missing. When he realised that it had been removed because the order order had changeth, so to say, he ordered: “I want it back.” Thus Nehru’s portrait was restored to its original position. Even while the BJP does not tire of eulogizing Vajpayee, his pro-Nehru act is not music to its ears.

Therefore ignoring the past it is talking of second museum for all the other 15 prime ministers to be  constructed at a cost of ₹270 crore.

“The new museum will be separate from the existing structure of the Nehru Memorial” even while it asserted  the government’s right to construct more museums, rather than limiting history to one or two leaders. Hitting back at critics, NMML officials state that  "it is not clear how exhibiting photos, speeches of other Prime Ministers would harm Nehru's legacy."

In this context, it is flagging its  The NMML, on its part, is flagging its Memorandum of Association, wherein five tasks are mandated. The maintenance of a museum of Nehru “personalia, memorabilia’’, and other objects pertaining to his life and the freedom movement is just one of them. The other tasks include acquiring, maintaining and preserving papers of nationalist leaders of modern India and other eminent Indians; establishing and maintaining a library on the history of modern India; and facilitating research in modern Indian history.

Armed with this, the museum to quote NMML officials “would extensively use state-of-the-art technology and effective tools of communication for its content and present an environment of informal space of learning. It seeks to transcend the static, fixed display brick-and-mortar model of museums that is prevalent at present…it should be a one-stop shop for all researchers engaged in studying the institution of the Prime Minister's Office, or individual Prime Ministers. This would mean placing all relevant books, personal papers, microfilms of newspapers/ journals, photos, videos under one roof.”

 The battlelines are drawn. Even while the Congress sees this as a move to dilute Nehru’s legacy, the  BJP is hell bent on taking history beyond the Nehrus and Gandhis and shift focus from one family to encompass the contribution of others in making India what it is today: “Anybody who has no problem with diversity should not have a problem with a museum for the other PMs” is the NMML’s stance even while they say that for all the hue and cry the Congress is making had Nehru been around he would not have any objection to the proposal: “It was not an either-or situation and that the creation of something new will not be at the expense of the existing museum; he also said that had Nehru been around, he would not have objected to the new museum.”

Prime Minister Modi had some two years ago expressed his keenness to construct a museum dedicated to the legacy of all former Prime Ministers. Given that it is his desire to take India beyond Nehru and Gandhi, the chances of BJP backtracking on this proposal are very bleak.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: (kumkum91@gmail.com)

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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