NMML Head Quits, First Casualty of ‘Culture Wars’ Between BJP, Congress

Whatever the immediate trigger, the turmoil at NMML is likely to strengthen the perception that the NDA government is looking to assert direct control over key cultural and educational bodies with a view to changing their character

Teen Murti Bhavan, home of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. Credit: Abrinsky/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Teen Murti Bhavan, home of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. Credit: Abrinsky/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

New Delhi: Publicly targeted by Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma in the wake of a spat between the BJP and Congress following the RSS’s recent conclave, Mahesh Rangarajan, director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), has put in his papers and been relieved of his position with immediate effect.

Addressing a press conference on Thursday, Sharma said Rangarajan submitted his resignation on September 16 and that the Executive Council of NMML had accepted it.

Rangarajan, a respected historian who is credited with turning the cloistered and somewhat sleepy institution into a vibrant academic space in the four years that he ran it, cited the need to look after an elderly family member as a reason for his resignation.

“Our ministry did not put any any pressure on him verbally or in writing,” Sharma told reporters, rejecting the charge that Rangarajan’s exit was part of the BJP-led government’s drive to ‘saffronise’ cultural and academic institutions. “I have not spoken to him for the last three months. Rangarajan has already cited personal reasons for his resignation,” he said.

Sharma said Rangarajan handed in his resignation earlier too – September 9 –  but the EC had not accepted it and had asked him to stay on. “But he resigned for the second time. The Council has accepted the resignation now and informed the government that the post is lying vacant. Now we have to appoint a new director.”

Belated questioning of appointment

Though the minister denied his recent criticism of the allegedly “illegal and unethical” manner in which Rangarajan had been appointed by the previous UPA government had anything to do with the resignation, he was unable to explain why the government began talking about these “irregularities” only after the RSS conclave.

Asked why he had waited 15 months before probing Rangarajan’s appointment, Sharma claimed that  an anonymous letter was received three months ago and that he started examining the issue only then. “There has to be some limit to irregularities,” he said.

The ministry distributed a two-page note on Thursday detailing the time line of Rangarajan’s appointment in order to make the case that the UPA government flouted Election Commission guidelines in taking a decision before the 2014 election process was over.

Rangarajan was initially appointed director of NMML in 2011 for a three-year term that was due to end in August 2014. In April, the UPA government decided to extend the appointment till his retirement age but was warned by the EC to wait till the elections were over. The Appointments Committee of the Cabinet nevertheless cleared his name for for the job on May 14, 2014 – four days before the EC’s embargo was lifted – though the appointment itself was made one day later, on May 19, 2014. Curiously, none of these “irregularities” became a major issue when the Modi government took charge.

Although the NDA government took office on May 26, 2014, the first public indication of its intention to shake things up at the NMML came on September 2, 2015 in interviews Mahesh Sharma and NMML chairman Lokesh Chandra gave the Economic Times. Evidently timed to coincide with the opening of the RSS conclave in New Delhi that day, the newspaper was told that NMML “will be recast as a museum of governance, showcasing contemporary India, including PM Narendra Modi’s campaign for smart cities and Indian Space Research Organisation’s unmanned flight to Mars.”

EC had approved modernisation plans

NMML sources say that while Rangarajan was disturbed by the Culture Ministry’s attempts to encroach on the library’s functioning by seeking the transfer of the Nehru papers – a key holding – to the National Archives, he was not particularly worried by the government’s official plans for the institution’s modernisation which had been approved by the EC in June 2015. The EC included two persons, Nitin Desai and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who had been appointed by the previous government, and two BJP/RSS nominees – Surya Prakash and MJ Akbar – besides Rangarajan, Lokesh Chandra, and two bureaucrats as ex-officio members.

Mahesh Rangarajan. Credit: Ravi Sankaran memorial Lecture, 2012

Mahesh Rangarajan. Credit: Ravi Sankaran memorial Lecture, 2012

Indeed, a day after the Economic Times story appeared, prompting a sharp reaction from the Congress party as well as from a group of academics, Rangarajan issued a statement that made it clear the plans the EC had approved did not envisage any dilution of Nehru in the museum or library:

The Government of India has taken a number of initiatives as part of the 125th Birth Anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru (2014-2015).

Keeping in mind the basic objective of the NMML to spread the ideas of Jawaharlal Nehru and awareness about freedom struggle and history of modern India the National Implementation Committee constituted by the Government of India has recommended plans for modernisation of the NMML.

There will be a special focus on the governance of India under Jawaharlal Nehru as the first Prime Minister of India which has been largely left out in the present exhibition. Teen Murti Bhavan is the house of Nehru the Prime Minister, and the Museum will focus on his years as Prime Minister as he, along with great colleagues, laid the foundations of post-colonial India.

Political war of words

As a scholar and administrator who preferred resolving differences discreetly rather than through public confrontation, Rangarajan was wary of being drawn into an emerging political war between the BJP-RSS and the Congress – with the latter accusing the government of subverting the NMML’s mandate by diluting the salience of Jawaharlal Nehru in both the library and museum, and the BJP hitting back with charges of its own.

Rangarajan’s wariness was well placed for by the time the RSS conclave ended on September 4, it became clear that the NMML director had become the target in the increasingly sharp war of words between the government and the Congress.

Mahesh Sharma repeatedly raised the question of the “illegality” of his appointment – though he claimed he was doing this not so much to target Rangarajan as to remind Congress leader Sonia Gandhi that her government had no business to make accusations against his.

In the EC meeting which was held earlier this week, council members unanimously backed the embattled historian and warned the government against interfering in the functioning of NMML. However, Rangarajan, whose confidence was shaken by the minister’s repeated attacks on his appointment, insisted on putting in his resignation again.

Direct target or collateral damage?

Whatever the immediate trigger and the motivations of Mahesh Sharma, the turmoil at NMML is likely to strengthen the perception that the NDA government is looking to assert direct control over key cultural and educational bodies with a view to changing their character.

In his own time – and well before the 2014 elections – Rangarajan had broadened the academic programme of the institution to such an extent that the BJP’s charge of its activities being in some way confined only to “Nehru and his family” was patently false. Every week, seminars were being held on a wide range of contemporary and historical subjects that had nothing to do with the Congress first family. The library’s holdings, too, contain much more than Nehru’s papers.

The fact that Rangarajan was allowed to continue as director for 15 months suggests the BJP was not particularly unhappy with the work he was doing. With the Culture Minister’s change of heart coming right after the RSS conclave, the BJP is vulnerable to the charge that Nagpur is running government policy by remote control. What is not clear is whether the RSS directly sought Rangarajan’s ouster, and if so, why it waited so long. Is he the first victim of the BJP’s newly declared fight against “cultural pollution” or merely “collateral damage” in the fierce battlefront that has opened up between the government  and Sonia Gandhi and the Congress in recent weeks?

Either way, historians and academics are stunned by his departure and are steeling  themselves for the rapid descent of a storied institution – as it inevitably falls into the hands of either an uncaring bureaucrat or an agenda-driven ideologue with no interest in objective scholarship.