Teen Murti is an important landmark in New Delhi. Jawaharlal Nehru’s residence is now a museum drawing tourists and a library which is a repository of historical sources, books and periodicals. It is also a lively intellectual hub. Over the past several years it has suffered bouts of infamy because correct procedures were sidestepped and due to the personal likes and dislikes of a group of academics.
The public spat within the academia was the result of a campaign by the group commonly identified as being led by Ramchandra Guha against the previous director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Mridula Mukherjee.
The purpose of this post is not to take sides but to look at the implications of Friday’s judgement of the Delhi High Court striking down Mahesh Rangarajan’s appointment on grounds that the selection process was faulty and against norms.
NMML is an autonomous institution but under the Ministry of Culture. It subsists on public funds and thereby its functioning should be transparent. In matters of selection, prescribed procedure must be adhered to and if it is not done, it will invite people to read between the lines.
Surely, it is not a crime to dislike anyone. None can dispute the right of individuals or groups to level allegations against any person who is holding a public office. But, once the probe against Mridula Mukherjee exonerated her, the matter should have ended. However, the second chapter began late last year when established procedures began to be set aside for selecting a new director.
The High Court verdict implies that the procedure adopted in Rangarajan’s selection was similar to how a private group makes decisions. NMML is not a private academic institution and the director or other posts cannot be filled at will by ‘owners’. The Court says that advertisements must be issued – and in this case it was not. The people also have a right to know who selected the Search Committee and on what criteria.
This controversy draws attention to the core issue of autonomy of academic institutions. NMML is an institution of national importance and it should not be allowed to be governed by a handful of people who pay lip service to democratic practices while appreciating feudal responses from officials.
On Wednesday, the Delhi High Court will hear another case – this time the PIL filed by some of the most senior historians in the country questioning the legality of the selection process and the decision to allow non-historians to head NMML.
The continuing cockfight over managing Nehru’s legacy is not doing any good to academics. Steps must be taken to end the controversy. Can a beginning be made if Rangarajan recuses himself from further selection although his role in this cannot be faulted? After all, he did not seek the job. But these are prices that morally upright people need to pay to ensure dignity of public offices.