Nehru’s Name Erased but Legacy Still Challenges Anti-Dissent Regime
Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Image Courtesy: PTI
Renaming the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library to Prime Ministers’ Museum and Library speaks volumes about the intellectual poverty of a regime driven by hatred for the first prime minister, which vainly tries to erase him from history. The NMML upholds the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, whom no prime minister has approached in terms of scholarship and erudition. He was a freedom fighter, brilliant writer and sensitive scholar with a nuanced understanding of history, society and politics.
The NMML represented Nehru’s belief that a library can shape not just minds but history itself. In Glimpses of World History, he wrote about Alexandria gaining fame in the ancient world after the glories of Athens faded. The city in ancient Egypt gradually replaced Athens as the cultural and civilisational hub. Alexandria’s “great library and museum,” Nehru wrote, “attracted large numbers of students from far countries, who discussed philosophy and mathematics and religion and other problems that filled the minds of the ancient world.”
His words gained relevance in the context of the NMML, which, over the years, attracted serious academics, scholars, students and those tuned to the world of ideas. NMML, as an institution, provided space to reflect on the challenges contemporary India faces today and through its history.
NMML Represented Idea of India
The NMML provides an academic ambience to conduct research in tune with Nehru’s vision of India. To be sure, its collections embrace not only the Congress party or its leaders’ views but their bitter critics with ideas diametrically opposed to theirs. Nehru’s first cabinet had space for leaders from diverse political persuasions, from Syama Prasad Mookerji as minister of heavy industries and BR Ambedkar as law minister. That made the idea of India unique and inclusive, and the NMML’s rich repositories of books, periodicals, and the personal papers of generations of leaders who shaped India’s destiny testify to that idea. No doubt, Nehru, the first cabinet of independent India, and the NMML negate the majoritarianism so recklessly followed today. The bitter outcome of today’s politics manifests in the change of name of institutions and locations rooted in the values of the freedom struggle.
Deletions of Names Offend History
Renaming NMML is an attempt to enshrine the pettiness of the leadership which now operates the State apparatus of India. While in jail, Nehru wrote his monumental book, The Discovery of India, which remains an extraordinary work that reveals his profound understanding of history and India’s emergence on the world stage. The present regime, incapable of creating history, only engages in mindlessly deleting chapters from textbooks meant for school children! Its rationale for such changes is so specious that celebrated scholars have appealed to the NCERT to remove their names from the texts. Their views were never even sought while making changes in those texts. The Modi regime is offending history by showing utter gracelessness towards Nehru, whom we remember as the architect of independent India.
India’s freedom from colonial rule triggered and accelerated the process of decolonisation in Asia and Africa. With newfound freedom, India dedicated itself, in the words of Dr S Radhakrishnan, India’s second President, to “viswa kalyan”, the welfare of the world. Contrast “viswa kalyan” with “Viswaguru”, an idea employed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party leaders in a highly patronising way domestically and internationally. It represents a condescending attitude, which manifests in the decision to obliterate Nehru’s name from a memorial and museum named after him.
It is childish of any regime to remove names from institutions. Ambedkar once wrote that the purpose of life is to cultivate the mind. And to Nehru, a university stood “for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and the search for truth”. This is equally applicable to a library in which scholars undertake an “adventure of ideas” and a “search for truth”, creating avenues to inculcate the crucial culture of dissent and the critical approach society needs to progress. Minds cannot be cultivated in a society that gives no space to tolerance, reason and humanism.
Inclusive India Being Replaced by Majoritarianism
The removal of Nehru’s name certainly does not represent tolerance and reason. It affirms a pathological pursuit of vengeance—towards Nehru, his ideas, and all India represents. Remember, Nehru’s ideas and worldview are not being contested with a more powerful idea but with a retaliatory approach. Such an approach is not marked by debate or dissent, or even discussion. It only testifies to the scornful attitude of the Modi regime towards a legacy that has been integral to our national ethos and idea of India.
In The Discovery of India, Nehru described India as an “ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously”. But with the Prime Minister celebrating the deletion of Nehru’s name from NMML, it creates a layer of history that seeks to erase what existed. Even the new Parliament building was inaugurated in such a way that it appeared to reflected the desire to create a new layer of history just to erase the past—the Prime Minister inaugurated it despite Opposition parties repeatedly saying that the President of India should have had that honour. Modi’s name is being engraved on every layer of the so-called “new” India that has emerged after 2014. Even COVID-19 vaccination certificates carry his photograph. But the India of Nehru was characterised by the inclusion of illustrious personalities, including Mookerji and Ambedkar—they were the layers characteristic of a palimpsest.
Nehru’s Legacy Will Endure
In this age of India’s tryst with majoritarianism, only layers cleansed of Nehru’s name matter to the ruling regime. Nothing else is considered sacrosanct. Therefore, striking off Nehru’s name amounts to deepening majoritarianism and polarisation. Such decisions flow from actions that distort history, which itself is a by-product of the powerful sowing communitarian bitterness across the country.
However, Nehru will continue to exist in the hearts and minds of people. His legacy lives on, too precious to be trifled with by removing his name from a library or textbooks. Such disparaging actions only strengthen the resolve of those committed to defending the idea of India. They will vigorously remain tuned to Nehru’s vision and values.
The author was Officer on Special Duty to President of India K R Narayanan. The views are personal.
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