Thursday, October 23, 2014

Reforms in academic research, scholarship

Nehru visiting the Library in Yatung, Tibet (1958)
My article Reforms in academic research, scholarship appeared in the Edit Page of The Pioneer today.

Here is the link...

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 also what went wrong) in Modern India

As India prepares to celebrate the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru, the incumbent Prime Minister of India, Mr Narendra Modi, announced that he will head the national committee to commemorate the occasion. A Prime Minister’s Office release said the first meeting of the committee will be held “soon after Deepawali”.
The media was surprised as no one from the Nehru-Gandhi family was included in the committee which has six Cabinet Ministers; however senior congress leaders such as Mr Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mr Mallikarjun Kharge and Mr Karan Singh have been called upon to participate.
A host of other eminent academics, scholars, retired bureaucrats and Army officers will take part in the deliberations of the committee, which will also have the Director General  of National Archives of India as a member.
It is an interesting inclusion, though the fact that there is no permanent DG since professor Mushirul Hassan left in May 2013, shows the lack of interest of the previous Government for scholarly work and research. Hopefully, this will change under the new dispensation.
The Nehru celebrations would be the ideal occasion to open up to research, what is 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 come the correspondence, notes, speeches of the first Prime Minister of India are considered ‘private’ and why should it be kept under the custody of one ‘private’ person (Ms Sonia Gandhi)? The state’s papers should never be privatised.
Apparently, Nehru had willed all his papers to an organisation to be created after his death (the 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 this odd rule that they 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 states that records that are 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 to always complicate the researcher's life?
I have always wondered if those who have practically closed the Nehru Papers to the public of India, have ever read what Nehru wrote about the secrecy? On August 27, 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 the 125th anniversary of Nehru will put this issue first on its agenda and as an offering to the memoirs 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 publications 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 Nehru's interlocutor full questions/queries helps to better understand Nehru’s answer. The newly-appointed committee would do India a great favour in opening the entire collection to the public.
Recently speaking at the 42nd annual convocation of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences , 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 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 should be supported, but in the historical one too. Young (and older) Indians should be encouraged 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 to 20 years. Every two years, I have to re-apply 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’m 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 a nonsense!
If the Prime Minister wants to build a nation of researchers, there are many rules to drop and many vaults to open. Today, a string of antiquated rules and regulations, red-tapism and an obscurantist mind-set not worthy of a dynamic country like India, remains 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.
Please, Mr Prime Minister, encourage historical research too.

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