Monday, November 17, 2014
Nehru Papers come back to India
The 'Papers' are not 'private' anymore.
Last week, I had again written on my favourite topic in The Statesman.
The Indian Express yesterday reported that "Sonia Gandhi, Nehru’s granddaughter-in-law and the legal heir of his papers, has written to the [Nehru Memorial Museum and Library] to say that the family would have no problems if scholars were given access to them, it is reliably learnt."
From now on, permissions will be given by the Prime Minister's Office.
The Indian Express commented: "It is believed that this move by Nehru’s legal heirs is intended to counter impressions about Nehru’s position on several key developments of his time as PM, for example, regarding Kashmir or China."
Let us hope that this help to have a more balanced knowledge of the life and works of the first Prime Minister of India.
Here is my article in The Statesman (published on November 11):
During the first meeting of the National Committee for the Commemoration of Jawaharlal Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed the hope that the commemoration’s activities would be conducted in such a way that the common man became a part of the celebrations. That is nice.
Apart from the ‘Bal Swachhta Mission’, Mr Modi spoke of the ‘promotion of scientific temper among children’ as a prominent objective of the celebrations. That is exciting.
A host of eminent academics, scholars, retired bureaucrats and army officers took part in the deliberations of the committee; an interesting inclusion was the Director-General (DG) of National Archives of India (NAI), though it is true that the NAI has no permanent DG since Prof Mushirul Hassan left in May 2013, showing the lack of government interest for scholarly work and research.
As the Prime Minister invited suggestions on other possible subjects which could be included in the programme of the celebrations, I will give mine.
I believe that it would be the ideal occasion to promote the love of historical research among children and adults. In this context, the committee should open to the public what are known as the Nehru Papers (also referred to as the JN Collection) kept in Teen Murti Bhavan, and this without any restriction.
It has been one of the greatest enigmas of ‘modern’ India: how can the correspondence, notes, speeches of the first Prime Minister of India be considered ‘private’ and why should it be kept under the custody of one ‘private’ person (Mrs Sonia Gandhi)?
The State’s papers should never be ‘privatized’.
Apparently, Nehru had willed all ‘his papers’ to an organization to be created after his death (Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund). However, Nehru did not specify that thereafter special permission of the custodian would be required to access any file/document. Apparently, his daughter, Indira Gandhi added the odd rule that it should remain in the custody of her family.
The end result is that the Nehru Papers do not come under the Public Record Rules, 1997, which state that records after 25 years or more must be preserved in the NAI (and that no records can be destroyed without being recorded or reviewed). While legally, it is mandatory for each Government’s department to prepare a half-yearly report on reviewing and weeding of records and submit it to the NAI, the Nehru Papers are exempted. It would be fine to keep the papers as a ‘collection’, if they were openly available to the general public.
The Nehru Papers are an invaluable collection dealing with all topics under the Indian sky, looked after by the Prime Minister (Nehru was also Foreign Minister from 1947 till his death in 1964).
One can argue that the JN Collection is not completely closed; if one is ready to follow the cumbersome process and write to the ‘custodian’, one has technically a chance to have a darshan of the said file/letter. But why always complicate the researcher’s life?
I have always wondered whether those who have practically closed the Nehru Papers to the public of India (not only to scholars), have ever read what Nehru wrote about secrecy? On 27 August 1957, in a note to his Principal Private Secretary, he commented about some persons having been refused access to the National Archives of India ~ “I am not at all satisfied with the noting on this file by Intelligence or by the Director of Archives. The papers required are very old, probably over thirty years old. No question of secrecy should apply to such papers, unless there is some very extraordinary reason in regard to a particular document. In fact, they should be considered, more or less, public papers. Also the fact that a Communist wants to see them is irrelevant. I do not particularly fancy this hush-hush policy about old public documents. Nor do I understand how our relations with the British Government might be affected.”
One can hope that the committee for Nehru’s 125th anniversary will put this issue on its agenda, and as an offering to the memory of the first Prime Minister, will make his fabulous collection of historic documents available to each and every one in India (and abroad), wanting to study Nehru’s works.
It can be argued that the Nehru Papers have been partially declassified through the publication of more than 55 volumes of the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru (1947-1960), but for a researcher this selection cannot replace the ‘real thing’. Further, though the policy has been changed for the most recent volumes, the editor used to resume with a few words the letter/event/note which had triggered the Prime Minister’s answer; to read the interlocutor’s full questions/queries helps to better understand Nehru’s answer.
The committee would do India a great favour by opening the entire collection to the public. Speaking recently at the 42nd annual convocation of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), the Prime Minister said: “While Indian doctors have made a name for themselves across the world, the country needs to step up medical research, to keep pace with a fast-changing world. We should focus on research, particularly on case history. This can be a big contribution to humankind”.
It is not only in the medical field that research and scientific temper should be promoted, but in the historical field too, it should be encouraged. Young (and less young) Indians should be persuaded to research and dig in the past (the glories as well as the goof-ups) in order to better face today’s reality.
Let me tell you my personal experience in the National Archives of India which I have been frequenting for the past 15/20 years. Every two years, I have to reapply from scratch and prove again that I am still a ‘scholar’. Being born in France, I have to bring a certificate from the French authorities ‘proving’ that I am still a ‘researcher’. Though the French Embassy has always readily obliged, why can’t I be a ‘scholar’ for life?
When I ask the NAI staff, I am invariably told: “No Sir, this is the rule in India, you can be a scholar for two years only.” What nonsense!
If the Prime Minister wants to build a nation of researchers ‘with scientific temper’ there are many rules to drop and many vaults to open. Today, a string of antiquated rules and regulations, red-tapism and an obscurantist mindset not worthy of a dynamic country like India, remain in place. As a result, Indian history continues to be buried. Is it the hallmark of a mature nation?
The opening of the Nehru Papers would be the greatest homage to Nehru and an exceptional opportunity for scores of young scholars to see what went right (and what went wrong) in Modern India.
When a couple of weeks back, Narendra Modi flagged off the ‘Run for Unity’ from Rajpath to commemorate Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s 139th birth anniversary, the Prime Minister affirmed: “Sardar Patel’s life is a journey of deep-rooted courage, dedication and service to the Motherland. The country which forgets history can never create history and go forward, so for a country filled with aspirations, a country whose youth has dream, we should not forget our personalities of history.”
As India should not forget Patel, it should also not forget Nehru. For this, the Nehru Papers should become ‘public papers’; why should they forever remain ‘private’? That would be a national tragedy.