The exit of Mahesh Rangarajan as director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) raises uncomfortable questions about the government’s role in appointments at the highest level in institutions that have been central to the intellectual life of the nation. The loudest question is: Why now? If the minister for culture finds the permanent appointment of Rangarajan by the previous regime “unethical and illegal” today, it must have been just as questionable when the Narendra Modi government took office in May 2014. If it chose to retain Rangarajan while believing that the process of his selection was improper, that choice was equally improper. Due process is at the heart of the controversy surrounding Rangarajan, who offered to resign last week and has now demitted office. Institutions are equipped with a governing apparatus of their own, usually comprising specialist professionals who make up an executive body, which enjoys the benign guidance of an advisory board. Is it proper for governments to bypass this apparatus — which has the domain expertise and processes to appoint its own head — and hire and fire at will, selecting favourites to promote their agendas or propagate their worldview? Even if the UPA government foisted its chosen person in NMML as alleged, that does not justify an NDA government committing the same offence.
Rangarajan’s name is the latest in a long list of intellectual martyrs who have ceded office to the Modi government’s appointees. The Malayalam author Sethu was replaced at the National Book Trust by the former editor of the RSS mouthpiece. IIT Delhi director Raghunath K. Shevgaonkar and Anil Kakodkar, chairman of the board of governors of IIT Bombay, were practically forced to tender their resignations. And the new head of the Indian Council of Historical Research is not exactly revered by his peers. Even if the government chooses the extreme step of forcing changes at the top, it must do so by due process.
Indeed, the purge at NMML offers an inverted mirror image to the fracas still in progress at the Film and Television Institute of India. In sum, the government has told the students that Gajendra Chauhan has been made chairman by due process and therefore his appointment cannot be challenged. But at NMML, the government has opted for the quick and dirty way, fielding the culture minister to force the director to quit. Apparently, Rangarajan had been given permanent tenure after the model code of conduct came into force for the 2014 general elections, despite the Election Commission’s directive to defer the matter until after the polls. The issue is simple and could have been addressed institutionally without a public hue and cry. The summary manner in which Rangarajan was sent packing shows yet again that institutions need to be insulated from the politics of the day.