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Remodeling Nehru’s house

In the three years since I did a little of my dissertation research there, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in New Delhi has become the subject of controversy over plans to remodel the museum or its surrounding grounds.

As much as I like NMML, I grant that the museum could use a good remodeling. It is housed in Teen Murti Bhawan, a British-era mansion that was originally built as the Commander-in-Chief’s house before independence, and after independence served as the official residence of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. After Nehru’s death in 1964, the house was converted into a museum rather than serving as the official residence of subsequent Prime Ministers.

Backside of Teen Murti Bhawan.

Backside of Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bottom floor of the house has exhibits about Nehru’s life and the independence movement. It is a standard textbook-style narrative, and it is quite unengagingly presented with black-and-white photographs and hard-to-read text in English and Hindi. The upper floor has some preserved rooms, including Nehru’s office and the bedroom where he died. The rooms are certainly interesting too look at, but they are not in the best of condition. I remember seeing water damage on the ceiling in one or two of them.

View of Nehrus office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

View of Nehru’s office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bedroom that Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi used when she stayed at Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bedroom that Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi used when she stayed at Teen Murti Bhawan.

Surreal Lok Sabha replica, with trompe-l'oeil walls, mannequins of MPs, and spots on the benches for real people to sit too. I really hope this is preserved in any remodeling of the museum

Surreal Lok Sabha replica, with trompe-l’oeil walls, mannequins of MPs, and spots on the benches for real people to sit too. I really hope this is preserved in any remodeling of the museum.

The house is located on a large landscaped estate, which also includes a research library, a planetarium, and a medieval hunting lodge that was incorporated into the site plan when the mansion was built.

SLV-3, India's first satellite launcher, on display next to the planetarium at Teen Murti.

SLV-3, India’s first satellite launcher, on display next to the planetarium at Teen Murti.

Proposals to remodel NMML go in two different directions. One direction is modernizing the existing displays but keeping the nationalistic, Nehru-centered narrative intact. This is outlined in a document posted on the NMML website, “New Design Plan for the Nehru Museum,” from September 2015. The black-and-white photographs and hard-to-read text will go, to be replaced by touchscreens.

The other direction for remodeling the museum is completely overhauling it to honor all prime ministers, not just Nehru. This seems to be favored by the current ruling party, the BJP, which has made it a point to play down the legacy of Nehru.

From what I can tell, the proposals have reached a compromise of sorts, with Teen Murti Bhawan set to stay as it is and a national prime ministers museum to be built somewhere else on the estate.

These proposals to remodel Nehru’s house are at their heart political, but I would like to look at them from a historical perspective—or rather a historiographical perspective, which means how history is interpreted.

I don’t know enough about the national prime ministers museum proposal to comment on it, but from studying the “New Design Plan for the Nehru Museum,” I feel that it has missed an opportunity to reinterpret Nehru and his legacy in an appropriately critical light. As is it now, there is no room in Indian popular discourse for a critical discussion of Nehru. He can be either all good or all bad, and the debates about remodeling NMML fall into these predictable ruts.

Like every leader in the history of this planet, Nehru left a mixed legacy. This legacy should be open for interpretation, but it shouldn’t be inevitably polarized. Like many leaders of his time, Nehru promoted industrial growth and democratization at the expense of minority communities. He proudly trumpeted anti-colonialism but refused to criticize Soviet interventions in eastern Europe. He claimed to believe in democracy and self-determination but took a firm line on Kashmir and brutally suppressed an insurgency in Nagaland. This ambiguity in Nehru’s legacy needs to be taken seriously, not papered over by heroizing or villainizing narratives.

But isn’t it inevitable that a museum dedicated to one man’s legacy would portray him as a hero? I argue that it is not. As an example to the contrary, consider the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, USA. As president of the United States from 1963 to 1969, Johnson had as mixed a legacy as Nehru. He promoted civil rights legislation and social welfare programs known as the Great Society. But he also escalated the the American war in Vietnam, a war that left over a million people dead. The LBJ Library does not softpedal Johnson’s role in escalating the war.

The same approach can and should be taken for a remodeling of NMML. Nehru’s contested legacy should be acknowledged and explored in the museum dedicated to him.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President and First Lady Johnson in Washington, DC, March 1966.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President and First Lady Johnson in Washington, DC, March 1966.

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

  • Assam State Archives have an interesting and informative website, including a virtual tour as well as more practical information about the collection.
  • NEHU Library
  • Shillong Times
  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.

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