A fortnight ago, as former Speaker Meira Kumar was named the Opposition candidate against Ram Nath Kovind in the election for India’s next President, an old controversy over the conversion of a government bungalow into a memorial for Kumar’s father, Babu Jagjivan Ram, was resurrected. The UPA government had leased 6, Krishna Menon Marg, Jagjivan Ram’s official residence until his death, to a trust in his name — finding a way around a longstanding ban on such conversions. However, it is not just the UPA that has found it convenient to tweak these norms.
Where do the rules on allowing government bungalows to be converted into memorials stand now?
To ward off the many requests to allow Lutyens’s Zone government bungalows once occupied by senior leaders to be turned into memorials after their death, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had, in 2000, ordered a ban on such conversions. Until then, there were no fixed guidelines on this issue — and the Supreme Court had, in 1996, directed the government to frame rules to avoid arbitrariness. The circular effecting the ban said that these bungalows were exclusively meant for Union Ministers, the Chief Justice, Supreme Court judges, and other high dignitaries, and would not, henceforth, be turned into memorials. Moreover, the 300-odd highly coveted Type VII and Type VIII bungalows have never been enough to cater to the huge demand. Currently, there are only a couple of such bungalow-turned-memorials in the Lutyens’ Zone, including The Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum at 1, Safdarjung Road and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library at Teen Murti Bhavan.
How and when were the rules changed?
In 2007, the UPA government tinkered with the norms to sneak in a provision for allowing memorials in the garb of trusts as long as their activities were of “national or international importance”. A day after the guidelines were issued, 12, Gurdwara Rakab Ganj Road was allotted to the Bahujan Prerna Trust — allegedly in return for BSP chief Mayawati’s support for the civil nuclear deal with the United States. In 2013, these rules were used again to allow Mayawati to merge the bungalow with two others for expanding the Kanshi Ram Memorial. This time, the favour was granted allegedly in order to secure the crucial votes required to bring in FDI in retail. That same year, the Type VIII bungalow at 6, Krishna Menon Marg was allocated to the Jagjivan Ram Trust. The bungalow had been occupied by the Dalit leader until his death in 1986, and thereafter, by his wife Indrani Devi. Meira Kumar was Lok Sabha Speaker at the time the allotment was made.
What stand has the present government taken on this issue?
In S D Bandi vs Divisional Traffic Officer, Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation and Others, the Supreme Court ruled on July 5, 2013, that no government bungalow could be converted into memorial. In October 2014, the Narendra Modi government issued a circular reiterating the ban put in place by the previous NDA government in 2000. The move was prompted by the fact that just the month earlier, RLD leader and former Aviation Minister Ajit Singh and his supporters had held protests, demanding that his allotted bungalow at 12, Tughlak Road be converted into a memorial for his late father, Chaudhary Charan Singh, who had lived there.
Last year, there was a furore over the allotment of the bungalow at 10, Rajaji Marg, once occupied by the late President Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, to Minister for Culture and Tourism Mahesh Sharma. In the face of demands to instead convert the bungalow into a memorial for Kalam, the Ministry of Urban Development referred to the ban on such conversions.
Has there been an instance where the BJP government has acted in a manner similar to the UPA in this matter?
Despite its officially stated position in the Ajit Singh and Kalam cases, the government has, indeed, used the loophole that the UPA had created. It allotted 9 Ashoka Road, adjacent to the BJP party office at 11, Ashoka Road, for the Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Trust. The bungalow, which was occupied by Arun Jaitley when he was the Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, is currently being used as an extension of the BJP office.