'I call them the 'Secret Seven' - because the first letter was anonymous'

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By Bishakha De Sarkar meets Mridula Mukherjee, director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in Delhi, who has been embroiled in a controversy over her continuation as the head of the prestigious institution
  • Published 23.08.09
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Rajnath Singh can afford to smile. The daggers in the quarrelsome Bharatiya Janata Party are nowhere as sharp as the weapons — mainly words and views — that are being employed in the war of all wars. If the BJP chief thinks he’s had a bad week, he should chat up historian Mridula Mukherjee: she’s had a bad year.

But the director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) can now sit back and talk about it — and even laugh an occasional hollow laugh. Her term as the head of an institute that is to the academic world what the Kodak Theatre is to Hollywood has just been extended. The conflict, however, is not yet over. She has won the battle, but the war rages on.

“The drama started soon after I was named director in July 2005. Do you know, I joined 13 months after I was appointed? It’s a record. Prevarication and manipulation sought to delay my appointment and if possible prevent it at the level of the bureaucracy,” she says.

But for that, we need to delve into the past a bit. For those who came in late, the NMML, set up in 1964 to honour India’s first Prime Minister, started functioning in 1966 as a society. Exactly 40 years later, Mukherjee left Jawaharlal Nehru University, where she had been teaching since 1972, to join the NMML on deputation.

The elegant stone and stucco structure, commonly referred to as Teen Murti, stands imperially at one end of Lutyens’s Delhi. The old colonial building — now the museum — is where Nehru lived, and before him, the commander-in-chief of the British army. The 25-acre complex with lush green lawns and tiny fountains reflects all that is well with the world.

What it hides is the skullduggery that has been echoing in the solemn corridors of the library for over a year now. Mukherjee believes that the 13-month-long delay in her taking over as director because of bureaucratic glitches is linked to the ongoing campaign against her. “I didn’t know it then. I know now,” she says.

The first salvo was fired in February 2008. The then headmaster of Doon School, Kanti Bajpai — one of Mukherjee’s old colleagues from JNU — was merely the missile launcher. He sent a note to NMML’s Exective Council (EC) chairman Karan Singh, saying that he had received a letter expressing concern over the happenings in the library from someone he “respect(s) and trust(s) who wishes to remain anonymous, and that he was forwarding it to him. One month later, he followed it up with another letter to Singh, saying that he was now dispatching a “signed letter” to him. The second letter was initialled by seven respected academics — including Sumit Sarkar and Ramachandra Guha.

“I call them the ‘Secret Seven’ — because the first letter was anonymous,” laughs Mukherjee.

In little more than a year, the seven had multiplied to 57. In June 2009, a letter was sent to the Prime Minister — who also heads the culture ministry which is the administrative head of the NMML. The signatories included Raj Mohan Gandhi (University of Illinois), Sunil Khilnani (Johns Hopkins University), Partha Chatterjee (Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta), Sanjay Subrahmanyam (University of California) and Mushirul Hasan (Jamia Millia Islamia vice-chancellor). It was a veritable list of the Who’s Who of academia, and included the original seven signatories.

The letter regretted that the NMML had “rapidly deteriorated in its functioning” in the last few years. The list of complaints was a long one. Since 2006, it had not issued a single publication and had discontinued the “excellent” journal Contemporary India; it had stopped acquiring manuscripts and microfilming newspapers in Indian languages; the morale of the staff was low; and pluralism was being denied. “Whereas once the academic culture of the NMML represented the diversity of scholarly thought and practice across India, now it is hostage to a particular faction of a particular department of a particular university in New Delhi,” it said.

Fortunately, the Prime Minister’s eldest daughter is a historian — and she would have been able to explain to him, if he’d asked, that the reference was to what is informally called the Bipan Chandra faction in JNU. Historian Chandra, Mukherjee’s mentor in JNU, is seen in many circles as the leader of the Congress school of history.

The letter, Mukherjee believes, was aimed at blocking her extension as NMML director though it had been decided before she joined that she would, if she wished to, stay on till she was 65.

“I am only emphasising this because in recent months, to my utter surprise, an attempt has been made to spread disinformation that the retirement age of the NMML director is 60 years — and therefore I could not have got an extension because I will be 60 next year. Every possible trick in the trade was used.”

The letter to the Prime Minister did bring up the issue of the end of her term. “Once the present director’s term ends in August, her successor must be chosen through an open, transparent process… Once a new director takes office, he or she must be encouraged by the reconstituted EC to reach out once more to the scholarly community as a whole, thus to restore the NMML’s non-partisan and plural character.”

The EC, however, decided to disregard the petitions against Mukherjee, and earlier this month extended her term by another two years.

Mukherjee believes that at the root of the campaign against her is an enquiry by the petitions committee of Parliament.

“A year before I joined, between February and May 2005, a whole process of selecting fellows had been gone through. Something that happened during that period became the subject of a complaint by a professor who felt he had been wronged by the selections committee.” The NMML was pulled up by the Parliamentary committee, and asked to hold its own enquiry and take action against the officials responsible.

An enquiry was ordered. “The then director is no longer under our purview. So what NMML did was suspend the deputy director. The enquiry began. And that’s when the storm broke,” she says.

The signatories to the campaign, she believes, may not know the whole truth. “It’s like I am your friend — and you say, ‘You don’t know what that woman is doing in Nehru memorial. She is making a complete mess.’ And I say, ‘Oh really?’ and you say ‘Really, I go there every time.’ And I trust you, and sign up.”

But Mukherjee has her share of supporters too. Historian Irfan Habib is with her, and D.N. Jha, also a historian, has sent a letter to the Prime Minister signed by over 100 academics, all reposing their faith in her as the NMML director. Among her other surprising backers are former Election Commissioner James Lyngdoh, conservationist Pradip Krishen and activists Aruna Roy and Medha Patkar. In a detailed letter to the Prime Minister, feminist Madhu Kishwar, a fellow of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, has expressed her “deep concern and anguish at the totally unmerited, mala fide unsubstantiated personal attacks against Professor Mridula Mukherjee.”

The director — who did her PhD from JNU after studying in Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi — stresses that the allegations had no substance in them. Instead of publishing books, the NMML would rather have professional publishers do the job for it. “I suspended the publication of the journal Contemporary India because it was not first rate — it was of very uneven quality. It had been in place for about five years, and its circulation was down to 20 copies. There were no takers for it.”

Contrary to what the petitioners claim, she stresses that she has not been sitting idly either. She has completed a 10-volume publication of the selected works of Jayaprakash Narayan, initiated a digitisation project and a children’s resource centre at the NMML, along with library redesign and refurbishment and museum renovation.

Mukherjee, who otherwise speaks almost without breathing as she lists all that she has done for the library, pauses for a moment when asked to comment on allegations that she had opened the NMML doors to the Youth Congress, a body not quite known for its intellectual content.

“Everybody enjoys this political linkages thing,” she says. “But I have not done a single programme in collaboration with the Congress, or any organisation associated with the Congress. We have done collaborative programmes with many other organisations close to other political parties, but with the Congress we haven’t. I am not saying if we had it would be a crime. I am merely stating it as a fact. The Youth Congress is not a banned organisation. If they want to book our hall to hold a meeting, and not a rally, they can.”

She points out that the NMML has been hired by embassies. Arun Shourie of the BJP and ex-Congressman Natwar Singh made use of the library in recent times. Earlier this week, Jaswant Singh’s book on M.A. Jinnah was released at the NMML by its publishers who hired one of its halls. In less than two days, of course, Jaswant Singh had been expelled from the BJP. Whoever said the NMML was inactive?