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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.

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.

A guide to research at the National Archives of India

The main campus of the National Archives of India (NAI) in New Delhi holds the major official records produced by the Government of India during the colonial and independence periods, as well as some records from the pre-colonial Hindu and Muslim kingdoms that ruled parts of India. If you study Indian history, a visit to NAI will be essential at some point during your academic career. A year ago, I had the opportunity to spend two months researching at NAI, jointly funded by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations and my home institution, Auburn University. Getting registered and oriented at NAI took some time. The National Archives’ website has plenty of useful information, but there were some things I wish I had known as I was planning my visit. I have written this guide with hopes that that foreign scholars coming after me will find it useful for planning their research visits to NAI.

(Note: All prices listed in this guide are current as of March 2015.)

Orientation

The National Archives of India are located on the southwestern side of the intersection of Janpath and Dr. Rajendra Prasad Marg, just north of Rajpath in the heart of New Delhi. Like most official buildings in New Delhi, the Archives are located in a gated compound. The main gate is on Janpath; at the reception office to the right of the gate, researchers need to sign up for a free pass to enter the compound each day. There is also a back gate on Rajendra Prasad Marg.

There are two main buildings inside the compound, simply called the Old Building and the New Building. The Old Building, completed in 1926, was designed by Edwin Lutyens, who also created several of New Delhi’s most prominent monuments, including Rashtrapati Bhawan and the India Gate. The Old Building is an elegant structure with columns on the outside and chandeliers inside, although it has something of an airy, neglected feeling, with pigeons flitting around inside the hallways. Apart from visiting the cashier’s office on the ground floor, and idle curiosity, a researcher at NAI won’t have much reason to visit the Old Building.

The New Building, which is located at the end of the driveway leading in from the main gate, was built in 1991 in a plain post-independence style. It is where a researcher will spend most of his or her time. The reading room is located on the ground floor: take a left after the lobby, and then another left before the stairs. The NAI website says that researchers can keep their bags in lockers downstairs, but most people just stash their bags in a glassed-in area in the corner of the reading room. There are about twenty-five tables in the reading room. The room can get crowded in the afternoon, so be sure to get there in the morning before the rush.

The NAI compound also includes a park and an outbuilding with a canteen, where you can get some of the cheapest food anywhere in the city (Rs. 10 for a plate of daal or rajma and rice). I preferred to eat at a dhaba just outside the back gate on Rajendra Prasad Marg. The dhaba does brisk business every day selling veg thalis for Rs. 40. The cooks vary the menu from day to day so it doesn’t get boring.

Getting there

The best way to reach NAI is by the Delhi Metro. From the Central Secretariat station on the yellow and violet lines, it is an easy seven-minute walk to the NAI front gate. Use Gate 2 to exit the metro station. From there it is a straight shot along Rajendra Prasad Marg, past Krishi Bhawan and Shastri Bhawan, two large government office buildings.

Access requirements

Anybody can get a daily pass to enter the NAI compound, but in order to actually request records, you need to fulfill further registration requirements. For foreign nationals, NAI requires the following documents: 1) a notarized form from the diplomatic mission of your country in India, 2) a letter of introduction from your home institution, 3) a copy of the photo page of your passport, and 4) a copy of your visa. (A tourist visa is acceptable provided you aren’t doing fieldwork.) Gathering these documents can take some time, so be sure to plan ahead.

If you are a citizen of the USA, you can get the form through an appointment with American Citizen Services, which you can sign up for by calling +91 011 2419-8000 or using an online form. American Citizen Services are accessible by appointment only. The requirements for citizens of other nations are probably similar; just check your Embassy’s website.

The US Embassy, along with the embassies of most other nations, is in Chanakyapuri, a post-independence southern addition to the plan of New Delhi. Chanakyapuri is not accessible by the Delhi Metro. To get there, an autorickshaw is probably your best bet, starting at either the Race Course or Dhaula Kuan metro stations. The entrance is on the southwest corner of the Embassy compound (just look for the crowds of people). Security regulations for the Embassy are very strict, but if you have a proscribed item such as a mobile phone, you can check it at an unofficial counter across the street (next to where more people are waiting on benches) for Rs. 50 an item. The Embassy letter (actually a notarized form) costs $50 or the current equivalent in rupees.

For the letter of introduction, a printout of a scan is acceptable, although I recommend getting an original copy before you leave your home institution.

Once you have all of your documents in order, present them in the reading room and fill out a form that they give you. Then you will be permitted to start requisitioning records right away. The NAI website mentions a researcher card, but this seems to be a metaphor, because I didn’t receive any physical confirmation that I had registered.

Requisitioning records

Like every other archives I have been to, NAI is closed-stacks, and to access records you must fill out a requisition slip and wait for the staff to gather the requested records for you. Records are pulled at three set times during the day: 10 AM, 12:30 PM, and 3 PM. It takes about two-and-a-half hours for staff to fulfill a request. NAI has a computerized records catalog, which is accessible within the research room but not through the NAI website. Once you have filled out your request forms, place them in the box at the requisition counter. Archives staff do not need to sign off on your requests. Researchers are allowed to submit ten requisition slips per pull time, for a total of thirty a day.

When the staff have retrieved your requested records, they will place them on shelves behind the requisition desk. You can go behind the desk yourself to pick them up. Sign on the form that comes with them and deposit the form in another box at the requisition desk. Now you are ready to start your research at NAI.

At the end of the day, records do not have to be checked in behind the requisition desk. If you are done with them, return them at the records counter. If you want to keep looking at them later, place them on the hold shelf against the wall below the A/C units. Tuck a paper into your stack of records with your name and the date you will be done with your documents. The NAI website says that you shouldn’t hold records for more than a week. A sign in the reading room puts the limit at a month. In practice, scholars can hold their records for several months.

Copying records

Use of cameras or scanners (including mobile phone cameras) is against research room policy. This rule is strictly enforced. To get copies of records, you have to order them from NAI’s service, on a fee basis. The rate for plain paper copies is Rs. 6 a page. The catch is that NAI imposes a limit of one copy order per researcher per month, with a maximum of 500 pages each. Plan carefully.

Placing and picking up a copy order is a complicated process, and it took a long time for me to figure it out the first time. Place a copy order by following these nine steps:

Step 1: Mark pages that you want to copy with paper strips supplied in the research room.

Step 2: Fill out the two copy request forms in duplicate.

Step 3: Ask the research room manager to calculate the bill amount. For plain paper copies, the bill will be Rs. 6 per page plus an additional Rs. 125 search fee.

Step 4: Deposit the advance fee with the cashier. In the morning, go the the Nehru Room in the New Building; in the afternoon, go to the cashier in the Old Building.

Step 5: Turn in your complete copy order to the research room manager.

Step 6: Go back to the copy room behind the research room and schedule a time to pick up your copy order. (This was a step that I missed the first time around, so my copy order took far longer than it should have.)

On the scheduled day:

Step 7: Return to the copy room. The copy room manager will ask you to fill out another form.

Step 8: Take this form to the cashier to settle the account.

Step 9: Lastly, return to the copy room and supply the final receipt along with a photo ID. After the manager has run off a copy of these two documents, he will send you on your way with your completed order.

Conclusion

I found the two months I spent researching at the National Archives of India to be immensely rewarding, on a personal and academic level. I hope that I will get to use the archives again in the future. If you found this guide helpful, or if you notice that any information needs updating, please leave a comment below.

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