The legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru may be a contested one these days but what’s not is how the iconic Nehru Memorial Museum and Library established in his name — as an autonomous institution under the Culture Ministry — has changed colours to reflect the change in Government.
Of the 152 events held at the NMML in an 18-month period, from January 1, 2017 to May 31, 2018, at least 50 involved the presence or participation of Union Ministers, a BJP chief minister, top RSS-BJP functionaries or think tanks linked to the ruling party, an analysis by The Indian Express has found. These include Amit Shah to Smriti Irani, Prakash Javadekar to Krishna Gopal, Yogi Adityanath to Mahesh Sharma.
In comparison, from January 1, 2013 to May 31, 2014, the last 18 months under the UPA, 265 events were held at NMML, where only one Union minister — the then Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh — participated in a discussion. There were at least 22 other events in that period when functionaries linked to the UPA — Harish Khare, Shivshankar Menon, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Mrinal Pande — marked their presence.
The change is perceived differently by the Congress and the BJP. The Congress says the institution is now “blatantly partisan,” while the BJP counters that it is now “bringing balance to thought” that has been “lopsided” for years at a prominent Lutyens’ Delhi institution. BJP Rajya Sabha MP Vinay Sahasrabuddhe said there is a “fresh breeze” at the NMML. “No real knowledge centre can banish a particular ideology. Now, the kinds of events that are happening at NMML has ensured a fresh breeze where there is no partisan approach. All are welcome. We are the victims of ideological apartheid and not practitioners,” he told The Indian Express.
“Not only has the ideological content changed but the scholarship value has fallen steeply. All sorts of nondescript institutions and characters are now finding a forum… all part of the ideological brotherhood,” said Jairam Ramesh, who has visited the NMML for the last 30 years.
“There was a period in NMML’s history, where there was Left domination when Mridula Mukherjee was the director. But when B R Nanda, Ravinder Kumar, Mahesh Rangarajan were the directors, I do think it was a place for scholarship. When A B Vajpayee was prime minister, the NMML was not so blatantly partisan, nor was it affiliated to the ideological brotherhood, there was no attempt made to monkey around with NMML,” he said.
However, NMML director Shakti Sinha, who presides over several of these events, said “there is no political agenda” while choosing events.
“We have our own programmes that we organise and in others we have no role to play,” he said, adding that a wide spectrum of people across ideologies are chosen. The seminar room and the main auditorium are rented out, Sinha said.
“Issues of social policy were neglected previously. While we are not a think tank, the actual process of social policies around health, education have not been given attention,” Sinha said.
In the last 18 months, at least 20 events were organised at the NMML by think tanks affiliated to the BJP. Sinha said a lot of think tanks close to the government have started approaching NMML. “We are open to collaborations with other institutions, and do not allow overtly, party-linked activities,” he said.
Among the think tanks hosted by NMML in this period, according to its events calendar, are:
* The Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini, which has been organising the ‘Transforming India Dialogues’, with BJP MP Sahasrabuddhe as director. Formed after the death of BJP MP Rambhau Mhalgi, the organisation looks to carry forward Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s vision of “grooming” leaders through “training and orientation of socio-political activists”.
* The Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Research Foundation run by Anirban Ganguly, who is a member of the Central Advisory Board of Education. It has organised several talks, including on ‘Campaign Finance Reform in India’ on March 8, 2017.
* India Foundation run by Ram Madhav, BJP National General Secretary.
* Vivekananda International Foundation, linked to National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
* Others include Vision India Foundation, Think India, Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan and Antar Rashtriya Sahyog Parishad.
It is not just ideology, but regional, gender and subject diversity at NMML events have seen a perceptible change over the periods compared.
Asked about the vision for NMML, Sinha said: “I am committed to creating the best resource base for the study of Indian democracy generally, and prime ministers specifically. India’s success as a democracy has not been given its due place in the study of political science globally because it is so counter-intuitive according to standard frameworks. And Nehru onwards, Indian prime ministers have had a different role than in other parliamentary democracies.”
At least 100 of the 265 events at NMML under the UPA saw participation by women scholars who were either fellows at the NMML or academics from various universities and institutions from India and abroad. In comparison, in barely 15 events over the last 18 months, a woman was the main speaker of an event.
“The number of women speakers is very low, which is something that concerns us. We are actively trying to locate women speakers. Unfortunately, there is no data bank available for speakers,” Sinha said.
There is a similar trend with respect to NMML fellows. There are 30 instances in 2013-14 where NMML fellows were given a platform to present their work, but just two in the 2017-18 period.
While rules require NMML fellows to give a formal presentation of their work at least once a year, director Sinha said the reason for the dip is that there are only 10 fellows currently at the institution — the quota is 32.
One reason for this, sources said, could be that most of the women and academic scholars during the UPA years were from the “Left academic establishment that was seen as anti-BJP”.
“The fact is we don’t have, as yet, that many university professors or academics who are sympathetic to the Government or coming from the conservative, right-wing tradition. That’s why there seems to be an over-representation of BJP and Sangh functionaries,” sources said.
Sinha said: “I have no sympathy for any academic institution that thinks it lives in a hermetic vacuum. Individuals working in institutions funded by the Government also do not give up the right to have political ideas or leanings, but this must not affect their work. NMML cannot be partisan but it must facilitate discussion on government policies, as we have done. Critical views are freely discussed.”