IN MY TWO PREVIOUS columns, I have offered my assessment of the transformation and metamorphosis in the last five years of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). With its impressive new Pradhanmantri Sanghralaya or Prime Ministers’ Museum, which opened last year, NMML has acquired a dual identity.
The time is ripe, as I have argued, for the makeover to be completed. From a monument to one man and perpetuation of his colossal shadow over the republic by his dynasts, we have now come to celebrate not just the role, office, or institution of the Indian prime minister, but showcase and platform Indian democracy itself.
That is why the entire organisation may be renamed Prime Ministers’ Museum and Library or PMML from Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). Without erasing the foundational, even stellar, contribution of our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, preserving his legacy in his long-term residence, the Teen Murti House, the new PMML could also serve as a unique commemoration and celebration of Indian parliamentary democracy.
This would be all the more apposite in 2023, the year of India’s presidency of the G20, when the world’s largest democracy might serve as a showcase and pushback against single-party dictatorships or autocracies the world over. The fact is that democracies, though beleaguered and divided, are not only striving to survive but flourishing, as the end of the pandemic clearly shows. The surveillance, control, and command model is not only unpopular or inhumane but also ineffective and unsuccessful. Let alone curb the disease or mitigate human suffering, it does not even manage a pandemic optimally.
Democracies enjoy the X factor of unpredictability, even chaos, which authoritarian regimes might decry as instability. But in the end, firewalling your population against the outside world, and controlling the flow of information as well as the movement of people does not quite quell discontent or disharmony. Once our basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter are met, we, as human beings, demand more. But “yeh dil mange more” refers not merely to goods, services, creature comforts, or even items of consumption—it actually refers to aspirations that transgress and transcend the merely physical or corporeal.
The unstoppable rise of democracies after World War II, especially during the era of decolonisation, signifies this much more abstract longing for freedom and self-realisation. Not just for political or social arrangements which are conducive to the choice of one’s elected representatives. The last leader of G20, Indonesia, which is also the world’s largest Muslim country, and now, India, the only large Hindu-majority nation in the world, both illustrate this in ample measure. The point is that it is the democratic impulse that we need to highlight and celebrate, not merely democracy in its modern institutional sense.
That, at any rate, is how I view Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to promote India as the “Mother of Democracy.” In his Mann Ki Baat address on January 29, Modi mentioned a book by that title released in November 2022: “The name of this book is India: The Mother of Democracy and it has many excellent essays. India is the largest democracy in the world and we Indians are also proud of the fact that our country is also the mother of democracy. Democracy is in our veins, it is in our culture—it has been an integral part of our work for centuries. By nature, we are a democratic society. Dr Ambedkar compared the Buddhist monks’ union to the Indian Parliament. He described it as an institution where there were many rules for motions, resolutions, quorum, voting, and counting of votes. Babasaheb believed that Lord Buddha must have got inspiration from the political systems of that time”.
Modi was emphasising, and rightly so, the democratic impulse or aspiration, not only democracy as a political system in the modern sense. The book in question, sponsored by the Indian Council of Historical Research and published by Kitabwale, is priced at a steep ₹5,000. It documents, among other things, the so-called republics of ancient India, dating back to the times before the Buddha, or 6th century BCE. The material is not really new, although its presence in one source is welcome.
Though Indian sources are scarce, Greek accounts mention the existence of such “democratic republics” in ancient India. Diodorus Siculus or Diodorus of Sicily, whose provenance is a couple of hundred years after Alexander’s invasion of India in 326 BCE, refers to mahajanapadas or great people’s districts or states. Volume 2 of his magisterial Bibliotheca Historica, “universal history,” an immense compendium of 40 books, of which only 15 survive, deals with Mesopotamia, India, Scythia, and Arabia. Indeed, it would seem that such council-ruled states, far from unique to Greece or even India, were ubiquitous over large swathes of the ancient world, including Phoenicia and Mesopotamia, before they were supplanted by monarchies. It is therefore inaccurate to consider Greece, especially Athens, the sole Mother of Democracy, as Europeans in the latter part of the 18th century contended.
Without erasing the foundational, even stellar, contribution of our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, preserving his legacy in his long-term residence, the Teen Murti House, the new PMML could also serve as a unique commemoration and celebration of Indian parliamentary democracy
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But the democratic state, as we know it today, with universal adult franchise, equal rights to all citizens, including women, and election through the secret ballot is, obviously, a relatively modern invention in the evolution of human societies and governmentality. It is therefore much more appropriate to highlight the continuous strand of the democratic drive and impulse in Indian society, rather than claim any special originator advantage in this regard.
If we go by Kautilya’s master text, Arthashastra, which influenced statecraft the world over although it was “rediscovered” just over a hundred years ago, even the king did not enjoy absolute or sovereign authority but was guided by a council of ministers, who, in turn, responded to the will of the people. At the village level, of course, India, through the ages, enjoyed a much greater degree of self-governance and autonomy than most parts of the world. This was well-documented by our colonial masters and became the foundation of the Gandhian mass movement for swaraj.
That is why I would call for a permanent exhibition at the Pradhanmantri Sanghralaya on “Bharat ki Swaraj Parampara” or “Bharat ka Swaraj Darshan” (India’s Tradition and Vision of Swaraj). Democracy is an imported word, going back from Latin to Greek. There is no good Indian equivalent. Loktantra or prajatantra have, it must be admitted, some resonance, as do words like jansatta or lokshashi, but few would respond or resonate with the Urdu word jamhooriyat. It has no precedence in Islamic statecraft although councils of elders, mostly male, were common throughout history in the Muslim ecumene, from pre-Islamic Arabia to present-day Afghanistan. In India, on the other hand, both the idea and the word swaraj is imbued with tremendous power. For a temporary exhibition, to coincide with India@75, I would suggest the theme “Bharat ki Matri Shakti” or “India’s Women Power”, especially in the context of the freedom struggle. Once again, the idea of the freedom struggle must be extended back in time to the fight against oppression and tyranny, whether by invading powers or rulers within India.
This does not mean that the research and archival section of PMML should be ignored. In addition to all the records of the prime ministers of India, it should actively seek and acquire the private papers of notable modern Indians. I especially mention this imperative because some of these valuable documents, such as the Radhakrishnan papers, are now being handed over to private universities and agencies because proactive efforts are lacking on the part of state agencies. Similarly, the fellowship programme and the library facilities need to be enhanced so that the PMML remains the premier institution of research in modern India, not only an event and exhibition ground to showcase the ideological priorities of governments in power.
The future of PMML, therefore, ought to ensure the continuation and augmentation of all its essential components, the museum, the library, and the planetarium. The museum would bring in thousands of visitors a day and, typical, of Modi’s monumentalism, also pay for itself in ticket sales and revenue generated. On the other hand, the archival and research function of the library would enhance research in modern and contemporary India. Nor should its third component, the Nehru Planetarium, the only one of its kind in Delhi, be neglected as a site of wonder, curiosity, and the advancement of the scientific temper.