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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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Gandhi, Nehru, and the Machine

At the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi, a reconstruction of Mahatma Gandhi’s house at Sabarmati Ashram, Gujarat, shows visitors to the free museum how the Father of the Indian Nation chose to live. The room is empty but for a mattress, a writing table, and a spinning wheel. The emptiness of the room emphasizes the asceticism of Gandhi’s life. Although he had come from a middle class family and had a legal education from England, he chose to live like a peasant so the rural masses could associate with him.

The reconstruction of Gandhi's room at the National Gandhi Museum, New Delhi.

The reconstruction of Gandhi’s room at the National Gandhi Museum, New Delhi.

Five miles away from the Gandhi museum is Teen Murti Bhawan, the house where Jawaharlal Nehru lived when he served as the first Prime Minister of independent India. It is also a museum, having been preserved in the condition that it was when Nehru lived there fifty years go. Although the house is not opulent by Indian or European standards (it was originally built in the colonial era as the commander-in-chief of the colonial military’s official residence), the contrast with Gandhi’s house is striking. Nehru was not an ascetic. His family started out better-off than Gandhi’s, and he did not give up as many of the trappings of the privileged life as Gandhi did. While Gandhi lived in poverty, Nehru lived in comfort, surrounded by his fine furniture and extensive collection of books.

View of Nehrus office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

View of Nehru’s office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

Just as the ways they lived their lives were different, so were their approaches to industry and economics. Gandhi’s hope for independent India was that the country would develop its villages and emphasize small-scale, local economies. Nehru, on the other hand, believed in large-scale, modern industry, mechanization, big dams, steel mills, and the like. Gandhi wanted hand-spinning; Nehru wanted cotton mills. The two men’s visions for independent India were nearly compete opposites of each other.

Underlying their radically different visions, though, were markedly similar ideals. Gandhi disbelieved in modern industrial capitalism not because he thought that machines were inherently evil, but because he believed that machines’ potential to concentrate wealth and power in the owners’ hands outweighed any potential benefits that machinery might offer. Industrial capitalism enriched the bourgeois minority but left the proletariat poor. Gandhi felt that the inequality produced by modern industry was immoral and socially unacceptable.

Nehru was also alarmed by the inequalities inherent in modern industrial capitalism. Rather than rejecting modern machinery, as Gandhi did, Nehru took a different approach. He believed that industry could be tamed and turned to the benefit of all if it existed in the context of a socialistic command economy. Rather than permitting free-market capitalism, Nehru believed in nationalizing the most important industries and instituting economic planning to define the course of the entire economy. According to Nehru, state industries, economic planning, and the command economy would allow India to enjoy the material benefits of industrialization without suffering its social consequences. As chairman of the National Planning Commission, Nehru inaugurated India’s first three Five-Year Plans before his death in 1964.

The legacy of Nehru’s industrial-economic philosophy was mixed. Although the command economy prevented some of the worst abuses of power that other countries experienced under industrial capitalism, India’s predominantly rural population remained poor and subject to the interests of the urban elites. India’s command economy grew slowly during the four decades it existed. In 1991, the Indian government liberalized the economy. Since then, the Indian economy has grown more quickly, but this growth has been followed by an intensification of the inequality that both Gandhi and Nehru had feared.

Although the Indian command economy no longer exists, state industry is still common in India in the twenty-first century. Across India, factories, stores, power stations, agricultural research centers, and other institutions bearing the motto “A Government of India Enterprise” are glimmers of Nehru’s socialistic economic philosophy that persist in contemporary, free-market India.

Umiam Dam (part 1)

On January 8, 1960, at the town of Aswan in southern Egypt, President Gamal Abdel Nassar of the United Arab Republic formally initiated construction of the Aswan High Dam. In front of a crowd of foreign dignitaries flown in from Cairo for the occasion, Nassar pushed a button to trigger charges of dynamite along the river half a mile away. The resulting explosions began to open the first diversion canal for the waters of the Nile. The Soviet Union, which had financed the construction of the dam with a starting loan of $93 million, was represented at the festivities by Ignati T. Novakov, the Soviet Minister of Electric Power Station Construction. The total cost for the 12,500-ft dam was then estimated at $1 billion.1

The next day, 3600 miles away, a similar scene played out in the Khasi Hills of northeast India. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, on a three-day tour of the northeastern state of Assam, dedicated the construction of the Barapani Hydroelectric Project on the Umiam River. Like Nasser, Nehru pushed a button to set off the first explosive charge of the project. Scheduled for completion in 1963, the project included a 580-ft concrete dam and two earthen dams designed to create a reservoir in a ravine of the Umiam River.2

The Aswan High Dam justifiably attracted international attention from the project’s inception in the 1950s. Nasser promoted the dam as a symbol of postcolonial Egypt’s entry into the modern age. The project was—and still is—famous as a major engineering work; modern technology had finally gained the ability to tame the ancient caprices of the Nile. The project also gained notoriety for displacing local populations by flooding their homelands, and for inundating ancient Egyptian cultural sites. UNESCO launched a publicized, and ultimately successful, attempt to cut apart and relocate the monument of Abu Simbel, but other unexplored cultural sites were lost under the Nile.

By comparison, the Barapani or Umiam project received mostly local attention, as it was just one of scores of dam projects initiated during Nehru’s tenure as prime minister. The river Umiam was little-known outside of northeast India, and the project was comparatively small. Nevertheless, the Umiam project reveals much about its time period. The project brings together many recurring themes of the industrialization of India during the Nehru era. These include transfer of technological artifacts from highly-developed nations (in this case, the United States and Japan) to India; transfer of technological expertise to India; displacement of local populations by development projects imposed by societal elites; and the need for foreign funds to build the dam. Unlike Aswan High Dam, Umiam Dam was financed almost completely by American capital, in the form of PL-480 and DLF loans. (These were later consolidated under USAID – the United States Agency for International Development.) The Umiam project was one of the first Indian development projects financed to such a large degree by American capital. The Barapani Hydroelectric Project illustrates how development projects in Nehru’s India used foreign capital and equipment to create new Indian technologies.

(In the next post I will describe the Umiam project in detail.)

  1. “Nasser Starts Construction of Aswan Dam on the Nile,” New York Times, January 9, 1960. []
  2. “Nehru Envisages Assam’s Great Future; Umiam Hydel Project Inaugurated,” Assam Tribune, January 10, 1960; “Umiam Hydel Project,” Assam Tribune, January 9, 1960. []

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