In India, A Battle Brews Over A Museum Honoring A Revered Leader : Parallels Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to update the Nehru Memorial Museum, honoring India's first prime minister, to include his own achievements. Critics say it's an effort to undermine Nehru's legacy.
NPR logo

In India, A Battle Brews Over A Museum Honoring A Revered Leader

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In India, A Battle Brews Over A Museum Honoring A Revered Leader

In India, A Battle Brews Over A Museum Honoring A Revered Leader

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


People in India are debating the future of a museum. The question here is whether a museum showcasing the past should include a little more about the present. And it's controversial because of the political content. To imagine the significance, consider this possibility - imagine that, here in the United States, George Washington's home at Mount Vernon was updated to include a little more material about more recent presidents, including the current president. That is the kind of discussion people are having in India about a former prime minister's house. From New Delhi, NPR's Julie McCarthy has our story.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Jawaharlal Nehru towered over his time - thinker, freedom fighter, heir to Mahatma Gandhi. Nehru oversaw India's transition from a British colony to a democracy and announced the birth, in 1947, of a free India.


JAWAHARIAL NEHRU: At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.

MCCARTHY: Paying tribute, each year, 1.5 million schoolchildren parade through Dehli's Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, his old home. They learn how Nehru famously penned a history of the world from prison, how he became India's first prime minister and continually held power from '47 right up to his death in 1964.

ANANYA VAJPEYI: And that's kind of a very heady era.

MCCARTHY: Historian and former fellow at the Nehru Library, Ananya Vajpeyi.

VAJPEYI: A lot happened by way of government because the new state was just beginning to sort of form itself and settle in.

MCCARTHY: That history is documented in this grand, if faded, residence, captured in black-and-white images, many of Nehru, from a dark-eyed young teen to a dashing leader in a Nehru jacket.

There's a homespun quality to this museum. The plaques and pictures are set against, in many cases, badly lit burlap. This is a museum in need of an upgrade. Of that, there seems to be little question. The issue that is stirring here is whether that modernization will include a repurposing of the museum.

The chairman of the museum's executive council is quoted saying it should be a museum of governance, showcasing contemporary India, including Prime Minister Modi's work on such things as smart cities.

MAHESH SHARMA: Yes, he has rightly said, no, no, nothing wrong about that.

MCCARTHY: That's Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma, who says there's no reason not to expand years covered, up to 2015, and flips through the original rules of the museum to make his case.

MAHESH SHARMA: All those eminent Indians.

MCCARTHY: But Sharma sidesteps the many references to Nehru and the Freedom Movement and insists that the criteria of what belongs in the museum is elastic.

MAHESH SHARMA: History means what? From which date to which date do we count as history? We, the government, and our prime minister has got no vision to undermine any great personality's vision, his remembrances, his contribution. But we want to add to it.

MCCARTHY: Manish Tewari is the spokesman of the Congress party that Nehru once led and that Modi now battles. Modi feuds, too, with the Gandhi family, the patriarch of whom was Nehru - father of Indira Gandhi, grandfather-in-law of the current Congress party leader, Sonia Gandhi. Manish Tewari says conflating Nehru's legacy with the current administration would be like combining the libraries that enshrine the lives of the various presidents of the United States.

MANISH TEWARI: For example, if you were to try and interpolate into President Kennedy's library the papers of President Nixon, it would not only be an oxymoron, but it would be a monumental stupidity. So that's the kind of stupidity which the government is doing.

MCCARTHY: Historian Romila Thapar says the Modi administration is Hindu nationalist at its core and that appropriating space devoted to Nehru is a way to eclipse the Nehruvian vision of India as a secular and pluralistic state.

ROMILA THAPAR: It's part of the decision. You dismantle institutions, you convert them into something that they are not, and then you have full control of what you're doing. And then you rebuild a new ideology on the full control that you have. That's unpleasant, to put it mildly.

MCCARTHY: Schoolgirls at the Nehru Museum spill out into the sweeping gardens. Their young teacher, Chitra Sharma, says she wants them to know what sacrifices were made so that they could be free. Any modern repurpose of this place, she says, could never match the original purpose - honoring the patriots who won India's freedom.

CHITRA SHARMA: It's the heritage, actually. Incredible India is because of these people, not because of the current so-called politicians.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.