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View of Shillong with Shillong Peak in the background.

The restless records of Assam

On January 21, 1972, the Indian state of Assam lost its capital Shillong to a new state, Meghalaya. Shillong had been the capital of Assam since colonial times, and the Assamese were proud of their capital, a charming hill station at 4,900 feet above sea level. A cosmopolitan, polyglot town, Shillong was surrounded by tribal land where the dominant language was Khasi rather than Assamese.

The location of Shillong became an issue after the state legislative assembly passed the Assam Official Language Bill, 1960, which declared:

Assamese and English … shall be used for all or any of the official purposes of the State of Assam.1

The tribal population of the Khasi Hills felt marginalized by the elevation of Assamese over their own language. Khasi tribal leaders joined leaders from the Garo and Jaintia Hills from to form the Hill State Movement, agitating for separation of the tribal areas of the Meghalaya Plateau from Assam. In 1970, Meghalaya became and autonomous state in Assam, and in 1972 it became a full-fledged state within the Indian union.

The capital of Assam moved from the hills down to Dispur, a suburb of Gauhati (Guwahati) in the Brahmaputra River Valley. (Dispur has since been swallowed up in Guwahati’s urban sprawl.) Assam government offices and institutions moved down to Dispur. In 1980, the records of Assam shifted from Shillong and were set up in the Assam State Archives in Dispur. Meanwhile, the Government of Meghalaya set up its own State Records Room in Shillong. The records kept there were about the period after the split with Assam, because the records from before had moved down to Dispur.

This is something I wish I had understood before going to Guwahati and Shillong for research: most of the pre-1972 records are in Guwahati, even if they pertain directly to Shillong. After spending a week in Guwahati, I headed up to Shillong and went on some wild-goose chases looking for things that were back in Guwahati.

I spent two days in Shillong looking for the Shillong Times from the 1960s. I had already looked for the newspaper in the Library of Congress, which has practically everything. Although the LoC does have master copies of the paper from the time period I was interested in, there were no copies that patrons could read. No matter, I thought; I would look for Shillong Times in India. It seemed reasonable to assume that I would be able to find the newspaper in the city where it was published—but I couldn’t.

I started my wild-goose chase at the Central Library, but the head librarian told me that they only had post-1978 issues in Shillong; everything earlier was down in Guwahati. She suggested that I try Sacred Heart College Library and NEHU (North-Eastern Hill University) Library. I spent the afternoon visiting the two institutions, but the helpful staff at both failed to turn up anything. The next day, I went looking for the Shillong Times office, which a librarian at NEHU had assured me would have what I needed. It took me a while to find the office, as it was tucked away in a residential neighborhood in the Rilbong area south of the city center. In Rilbong, I had to ask a couple of people before I found the newspaper’s office, housed in a yellow Anglo-Assamese bungalow. There was no sign out front, just two brass medallions on the gate, one that said “S” and the other “T.” I inquired in the office about the newspaper from the 1960s. An employee went into the back and returned with the oldest issue they had, from 1986.

The mini-partition of Assam imposed an archival amnesia on Shillong. The Central Library does not even have archives of the city’s newspaper before the split—and neither does the head office of the paper.

A southern magnolia in front of the State Central Library Shillong.

A southern magnolia in front of the State Central Library Shillong.

The NEHU Library is in a grove of tall, skinny pines that could almost be in Alabama.

The NEHU Library is in a grove of tall, skinny pines that could almost be in Alabama.

Compound wall of the Assam State Archives, Guwahati.

Compound wall of the Assam State Archives, Guwahati.

Links

  1. The full quotation is: “Without prejudice to the provisions of Articles 346 and 347 of the Constitution of India and subject as hereinafter provided, Assamese and English, and when the latter is replaced under Article 343 of the Constitution of India, Hindi in place of English shall be used for all or any of the official purposes of the State of Assam.” The Assam Gazette, October 10, 1960, pp. 623-25. []
Panoramic view of the Maidan, Kolkata.

Government publications, periodicals, and communists at the National Library of India

Kolkata (or Calcutta, as it is still sometimes spelled), the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, was once the capital of British India. After 1912, when the capital moved to Delhi, most imperial institutions also relocated once new facilities were ready for them. The Imperial Records Department, for instance, moved from the Imperial Secretariat Building in Calcutta into its own building designed by Edwin Lutyens in the new capital. (After independence, the IRD became the National Archives of India.) But even as most institutions moved, some stayed behind, and one of these was the Imperial Library. Renamed the National Library of India (NLI) after independence, it is today the largest library in the country.

I had the privilege of spending two weeks at NLI while doing research for my dissertation in 2015. Of the three major institutions I visited for research in India (the other two were NAI and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library), the National Library was certainly the easiest to find and navigate once I was there. My Rough Guide tourbook had a listing for NLI, including details on registration requirements. The people at the India Tourism office told me how to get there, by catching the 230 bus from Esplanade. Upon registration at the library, I received a full-color orientation booklet, with details of the different buildings at the complex and what can be found in each.

The National Library of India is located south of the city center at the Belvedere Estate, a big landscaped compound with a former imperial residence in it. The Belvedere House, as the residence is known, had once been occupied by Warren Hastings and (much later) was the main library building after independence, but in 2015 it was much the worse for wear and was being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India. The current main library building, Bhasha Bhawan (Language Building) is in the back of the compound. It is an attractive library building, with neither the dreary institutionality of the NAI New Building nor the high-class staidness of NMML.

Belvedere House.

Belvedere House.

Main gate of Belvedere Estate.

Main gate of Belvedere Estate.

A statue of Rabindranath Tagore in front of Bhasha Bhawan.

Statue of Rabindranath Tagore in front of Bhasha Bhawan.

Registering to use the National Library is free, and foreign nationals need only to fill out some forms and hand over one’s passport for copying along with two passport-sized photos. There is no need to present a letter of recommendation or any other credentials. Getting permission to use a laptop computer in the library requires filling out an additional form.

My NLI reader card.

My NLI reader card, issued to me after registration.

I spent most of my time at NLI in the periodicals reading room in Bhasha Bhawan. The library has a huge collection of magazines and journals bound into volumes, as well as the exhaustive gazettes produced by the central and state governments.

Bhasha Bhawan is climate-controlled, but at some time in the past the periodicals I looked at had been stored in a less favorable environment. Some of the volumes were covered with black dust, and many of them had holes in the pages where bugs or worms had eaten through them.

Request slip for the Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development.

Request slip for the Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development.

I also spent some time in the government publications reading room in the Annexe Building. The Annexe is a forbidding early-independence period highrise, with a plaque at the entrance saying that it was dedicated by Nehru in 1961. The government publications reading room is on the second floor, and it is reached by an elevator with doors that are opened and closed by hand. The reading room is as dreary as Bhasha Bhawan is attractive, with bare concrete floors and walls painted in an institutional blue without primer. The shelves holding the government publications are in the reading room, but readers are not supposed to enter the stacks. Instead, readers can request documents by submitting a slip at the front desk.

Foundation stone of the National Library Annexe.

Foundation stone of the National Library Annexe.

Since registration and orientation at the National Library were straightforward, I was able to start research quickly and without much confusion. The main challenge I faced at NLI was when employees in certain departments would abscond from work for political reasons. West Bengal has a long history of being ruled by democratically-elected communist governments. Even though the communists have not been the ruling party for several years, they are still active and wield some power. One day, the Left Front (communists) and Bharatiya Janata Party staged a state-wide bandh (strike) to protest the results of the recent state and municipal elections; in the latter, the Trinamool Congress won a huge victory (114 seats for the TMC as opposed to 15 for the communists and seven for the BJP).

Wall-painting by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) announcing a statewide strike on April 30.

Wall-painting by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) announcing a statewide strike on April 30, 2015.

Despite the huge showing for the Trinamool Congress in the election, much of the city went on strike, including some workers at the library. I spent the morning of that day in the periodicals room, and I had no trouble getting the volumes I needed. But when I went over to the government publications reading room in the afternoon, a lone worker there told me that most of the staff were on strike, so I wouldn’t be able to request documents. I left the library early that day, at 2:00.

The next day was May Day, an important holiday in India’s most communist city. The staff at the library departments were back at work, but then in the evening my bus got trapped in an epic traffic jam caused by a long parade of the different trade unions on Chowringhee street.

May Day procession on Chowringhee Street.

May Day procession on Chowringhee.

Statues of Marx and Engels freshly garlanded for May Day.

Statues of Marx and Engels freshly garlanded for May Day.

Front facade of Teen Murti Bhawan, New Delhi.

A tryst with research

When he served as the first Prime Minister of independent India from 1947 until his death in 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru lived in Teen Murti Bhawan in New Delhi, a palatial residence originally built for the British Commander in Chief of India. Teen Murti Bhawan sits on a large landscaped plot due south of the president’s palace (Rashtrapati Bhawan), formerly the Viceroy’s House. A long circular drive leads from the compound gate to Teen Murti house itself. Behind the house is a formal garden planted with rose bushes. After Nehru’s death, the house was preserved as a memorial to the man and his times, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Schoolchildren flock to the free museum, tramping through the big house’s empty corridors and taking in a show in Hindi or English at the planetarium on the grounds (built after Nehru’s death).

Behind and to the east of the house, tucked in among the trees, is a remarkable research institution, the library of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Housed in a modern concrete building with dark wood paneling on the interior, the Nehru Library has an elite air, fitting for a place established in memory of wealthy, England-educated Nehru. The regular collection of the library is focused on modern India, and the Nehru Library is without a doubt one of the best places in India to study the late colonial and independence periods. In the back of the library, reached by its own stairway, there is also a small reading room for the library’s archival division, which is supposed to hold the world’s largest collection of manuscripts related to modern India.

The lobby of the library sometimes hosts public exhibitions, but the main stacks are only open to serious researchers, who have to apply for a membership and pay a nominal fee. (When I did some research for my dissertation at NMML two years ago, I paid Rs. 300 for a two-month membership. There are also options of a one-week membership for Rs. 100 and six months for Rs. 500.) Getting permission to access the archives requires its own application, with a letter of introduction from the researcher’s home institution and a form from the researcher’s diplomatic mission in India (for international scholars; I used a photocopy of a form I got for the National Archives of India).

The Nehru Library has open stacks, which is a rare treat in specialized research libraries. The archives, of course, are not open, and the holdings can only be accessed by filling out a request slip. Not all of the archival records are accessible even to legitimate scholars. The papers of Jawaharlal Nehru are only open to 1947. Nehru’s papers from his tenure as Prime Minister are off-limits because they are still classified. (The Indian government’s policy for declassification is not transparent. Even though Nehru has been dead for more than fifty years, his papers are kept out of public view because they theoretically still hold state secrets.) But scholars of modern India need not despair, because the papers of many other post-independence leaders are accessible.

When I did my research at NMML, I ran into two challenges that made my work there harder than I expected it to be. The first was just getting there. Teen Murti Bhawan is located in the sprawling neighborhoods of colonial bungalows on the south side of Rajpath in New Delhi, an area that is poorly served by the city’s metro. I rode the 604 or 620 city buses from Sansad Marg (still sometimes called by its English name Parliament Street) to Teen Murti Circle, but the street was frequently blocked by sit-down protests staged by one or another disaffected part of the population. When that happened, the bus would be routed down a different street, and I never did figure out where.

The other challenge was a result of my not understanding how government business works in India. The National Archives of India is closed for only a few holidays every year: Republic Day (January 26), Independence Day (August 15), Gandhi Jayanti (October 2), and the lunar festivals of Holi (February or March) and Diwali (October or November). NMML and most other offices are also closed on India’s many regular gazetted holidays, which are posted online on the official government calendar, but are not posted anywhere in the building itself. This was at least the case two years ago. I kept making the long trek to Teen Murti Bhawan only to find that the library was closed for a religious holiday celebrated by one of the minority communities. One day, the library was dark and empty for Mahavir Jayanti (Jainism), and the next it was closed for Good Friday (Christianity). If I had known to check for gazetted holidays, I could have planned accordingly and used my time better.

These challenges aside, researching at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library was a rewarding experience. The private papers I read at NMML provided a human counterpoint to the formal, technical documents I found at the National Archives. The landscaped setting of Teen Murti Bhawan was a refreshing place to research. When I needed a break from manuscripts, I could go walking outside. I enjoyed spending a few weeks at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library while researching my dissertation, and I hope I get the chance to return there for a future project.

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