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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.

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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