Pradhan Mantri Sangrahalaya is a rich trove of the country’s political history as seen through its 14 past prime ministers
The Pradhan Mantri Sangrahalaya at Teen Murti estate in New Delhi (Photos: Ashish Sharma)
WHEN A HISTORIAN delved into the archives of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), he found among the Indira Gandhi papers a handwritten letter by a Class 4 student from Ludhiana. Dated December 1983, it sought advice on how to become a prime minister. “I shall feel highly obliged if you kindly tell me in which school you studied in Switzerland because I have a wish to be the prime minister of India one day. I listen to your speeches on television and I am very much impressed,” wrote Deepkiran. Gandhi wrote a reply by hand, though the one sent to Deepkiran a fortnight later was typewritten— “To get to the top of any ladder, you have to climb rung by rung. This means sincerity, hard work and service. Personally, I would say that it is important not to ask for things for yourself, but to think what you can do for others and for your country. I hope you like your school.”
These letters are among several others to and from various prime ministers that are part of the exhibits at the Pradhan Mantri Sangrahalaya (Prime Ministers’ Museum). The museum, located at Teen Murti complex in the heart of New Delhi, showcases the early life, political journey and tenure of all of India’s 14 former prime ministers. It was Jawaharlal Nehru who had said “you don’t change the course of history by turning the faces of portraits to the wall.” His is the first portrait on the wall among all the prime ministers. Sculptures line the corridor on the first floor of the Nehru Memorial in the old building at the complex. This was his residence for 16 years, from 1947 till his death in May 1964. It leads to the ballroom, earlier used for temporary exhibitions, where speeches, letters, policies, movies and touch panels trace the journey, beyond the portraits, of India’s first prime minister.
There are Nehru’s letters to US President John F Kennedy and Pakistan President Ayub Khan in 1962 reflecting his concerns about the Chinese threat disturbing “stability and peace” in the subcontinent.
Another one from President Rajendra Prasad to Nehru in 1949 indicates the unease in their relations, their differences over faith in astrology. Prasad wrote that he was enclosing a copy of a letter he had received from somebody interested in astrology, who considered January 26 as an “unauspicious” day for inaugurating the new Constitution. Nehru did not believe in going by astrology. Other rooms display Nehru’s personal possessions, including his walking sticks and cricket bats, one of which he used as captain of the Prime Minister’s Eleven in a match held in New Delhi. There is also the Toshakhana (treasure house), exhibiting souvenirs he and other prime ministers received from various countries. The room, where he breathed his last, his study and collection of books have been retained in the original state.
The new museum, built facing the old Nehru Memorial, started amidst a controversy. Congress argued that a memorial for all prime ministers at the Teen Murti estate would dilute the legacy of Nehru. In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the complex should be left undisturbed out of respect for history and heritage. The plea was rejected with the then NMML director Shakti Sinha responding that the ambit of the memorial had been increased to make it a centre for information and research on prime ministers. “It is not clear how exhibiting photos, speeches of other prime ministers would harm Nehru’s legacy,” Sinha wrote back to Singh.
Spread over 10,491 square metres, the ₹ 306 crore museum traces independent India’s history through the journey of its prime ministers, exhibiting the past using cutting-edge technology. There are documents, objects, information, audio-visual displays, films and letters, some known and some dug out from archives or acquired from families. Each letter, handwritten or typed, unfolds an aspect about a leader, as a commentary plays in the backdrop, in English and Hindi.
The Teen Murti estate spans 26.9 acres of land. It was inaugurated in 1930 as the winter headquarters and residence of the commander-in-chief of forces in India who maintained unified command of the colonial Indian army, British army and princely states’ forces. Post-Independence, it became the official residence of the prime minister and Nehru moved in, leaving his Lutyens’ bungalow. After his death, the next Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri decided against living there, converting it into a memorial. Shastri’s white ambassador car is at display right outside the Nehru Memorial. After the museum, the library came up and then the planetarium, all of which were controlled by the NMML Society. With the incumbent prime minister being the president of the NMML Society, Narendra Modi reconstituted the body and removed Congress members from it. Union Minister Rajnath Singh became the vice president of the society. In January 2020, the Centre appointed Nripendra Misra, former principal secretary to the prime minister, as chairperson of the Executive Council (EC) of the NMML, and A Surya Prakash, chairperson of Prasar Bharati, as its vice-chairperson. Among the members of the Executive Council appointed are Rajya Sabha members Vinay Sahasrabuddhe and Swapan Dasgupta, besides academician Kapil Kapoor. Rajya Sabha member MJ Akbar, who has written Nehru’s biography Nehru: The Making of India, and Prasoon Joshi were made members of the content review committee. The move to reconstitute the body drew criticism from Congress. Karan Singh, one of the founder members of the NMML, has been quoted as saying it was ironic that those opposed to Nehru’s ideology had been included in the board while he and other Congress members were removed.
The museum was conceptualised by Modi some time in 2016, two years after he became prime minister. It was thrown open to the public on April 21. “This is Mr Modi’s idea. He felt we must have an institution acknowledging the work of all prime ministers. What you have here are galleries of 14 Prime Ministers, of which 13 are either from Congress or were originally in Congress. Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee is the only one who has no association with the Congress party. And, to anyone who says Nehru’s legacy has been diluted, I would say please come and see his section,” says Surya Prakash.
He says a lot of effort went into collecting facts and getting the narrative “right”, and that the museum is a reality today because of the hands-on approach of the chairperson and MJ Akbar’s “meticulousness” which made the task of the content review committee easier. Material was retrieved from the NMML archives, Films Division, Doordarshan, autobiographies and biographies. “An important aspect was to look at all PMs with a degree of detachment. At a meeting with the prime minister, I recall him saying balance must be ensured in projecting the prime ministers.” Architecturally, he says, the idea was to have something unique in line with the museum’s theme.
Spread over 10,491 square metres, the ₹ 306 crore museum traces independent India’s history through the journey of its prime ministers, exhibiting the past using cutting-edge technology. There are documents, objects, information, audio-visual displays, films and letters
THE FIRST PRIME MINISTER showcased in the newly constructed museum building is Shastri, highlighting his initiatives on the economic front, nuclear policy, language agitation and foreign policy, during his 18-month tenure. In one letter exhibited there, astrology again makes a comeback. Replying to C Rajagopalachari, popularly known as Rajaji, the last governor general, in 1964, Shastri wrote, “I do not believe in what the astrologers say in so far as political matters are concerned. I am exceedingly sorry that Delhi should attach much importance to astrology. I have never consulted any astrologer so far nor do I propose to do so in future. I said so publicly at a meeting in Nagpur. I shall try to discharge my duties to the best of my ability and gladly get out in case I cannot make good.”
In the section on Indira Gandhi, a letter to US President Richard M Nixon in 1971 expresses her disappointment over the US supplying arms to Pakistan. She also adds that in the midst of all the human tragedy, it is some relief to contemplate the voyage of the astronauts in Apollo 15. Her gallery highlights the push to the Indian space programme, besides other accomplishments like the abolition of privy purses, Pokhran-I and the nationalisation of banks. Among the various events during her tenure as prime minister is the “Punjab challenge”, and her assassination by her own Sikh guards, four months after she ordered the Indian Army to enter the Golden Temple and remove Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his supporters, in an operation codenamed Bluestar in June 1984.
A separate section on the Emergency of 1975, highlighting the dark side of Gandhi’s rule, displays a replica of a jail with the names of some leaders who went behind bars. In a jail diary, socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly known as JP, wrote “having muzzled the press and every kind of public dissent you continue with your distortions and untruths without fear of criticism or contradiction.” That Indira Gandhi and JP had differences even before Emergency is indicated in an earlier letter. While acknowledging the mutual regard between Nehru and JP in a letter in May 1974, Gandhi wrote: “even the highest personal regard and affection need not preclude an honest difference in political or philosophical outlook. You have not seen eye to eye with my father, nor now with me. We have criticised each other, but I hope we have done it without personal bitterness or questioning of each other’s motives.”
Interestingly, there is a letter from JP written in 1966 in which he suggests that Gandhi consider a ban on cow slaughter. “For myself, I cannot understand why in a Hindu majority country like India, where rightly or wrongly there is such strong feeling about cow slaughter, there cannot be a legal ban.” Next to this is Gandhi’s reply saying the government was considering this “problem in all its aspects” and she will discuss it with him when they meet.
THE GALLERY OF the next Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi showcases the strides made in the technology mission, Panchayati Raj, computers, and bringing in telephone booths, besides the anti-defection law and sending the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka. In the midst of these is the face of Shah Bano, a septuagenarian Muslim woman who had approached the courts seeking maintenance from her husband, staring up from a touch panel. The Rajiv Gandhi government brought in the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, diluting the Supreme Court ruling that Shah Bano be given maintenance money. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) used it as an example of Muslim appeasement. The Bofors scandal, which cast a cloud on Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure, also finds a place on the wall. It concludes that though VP Singh’s campaign accusing Gandhi of corruption demolished Congress in the 1989 General Election, he was “absolved of all blame or guilt by the legal process while the Bofors gun proved its capability in the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan.”
In the section on Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the only BJP prime minister exhibited at the museum, a model of the control room for the Pokhran blasts has been recreated with sound effects and metal flooring that shakes as it did in May 1998, when the nuclear tests were carried out. This section also highlights the Kargil war of 1999, besides his initiatives— telecom revolution, disinvestment, arterial highways, the Lahore bus journey and the Jammu and Kashmir initiative. Controversial issues like the Kandahar hijacking, when the Vajpayee government decided to release three terrorists to free 160 passengers on board an Indian Airlines flight, and the demolition of the Babri Masjid during Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s tenure have also been included in their respective galleries.
Rao’s term has been acknowledged for economic liberalisation, India’s missile programme, banking reforms and trade. The exhibits also put on record issues that have left a taint on various regimes— whether it is the Harshad Mehta stock exchange scam of 1991-92 on the Rao government or the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 during Manmohan Singh’s tenure. Singh’s gallery highlights the Indo-US nuclear deal, which he pursued despite stiff opposition from his Left allies, satellite programme, his foreign policies, expansion of airports, introduction of the unique identification scheme for families living below poverty line and the reorganisation of Andhra Pradesh.
That each prime minister inevitably leaves a milestone reflects in the galleries dedicated to them—VP Singh implementing recommendations of the Mandal Commission to ensure reservations for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs); IK Gujral’s Gujral doctrine, a five-point charter to improve relations with neighbouring countries; Morarji Desai ending media censorship post-Emergency and demonetising high currency notes; Chandrasekhar’s connecting with people through his countrywide padyatra and HD Deve Gowda’s bringing in the Representation Of The People (Amendment) Act, 1996 that made it illegal to insult the national flag and the Constitution.
According to historian Ravi K Mishra, deputy director, NMML, each exhibit was discussed in the content review committee before being included in the museum. “The tone was balanced and any denigration or eulogisation was avoided. Controversial issues were included depending on historical significance, but in a fact-based manner, without any value judgement.” Mishra, along with his team from the manuscripts section, spent two months sifting through archives at the NMML, which has the largest collection of 1,200 private papers of personalities and organisations.
Prakash says they wanted to make the museum attractive to all age groups, particularly the youth. “The entire place is on the museum management software, which can be controlled from a tablet. The sound, images, films can all be controlled from this,” says Saurav Bhaik, founder and CEO of Tagbin, the tech consultant, designer and project manager. An audio guide detects the exhibit and automatically syncs with the video in the language of choice, either English or Hindi. In the experience zone, called ‘Anubhuti’, one can get a letter from any prime minister through robotic handwriting. The gallery on Modi is yet to be executed given his incumbency, but he is among the prime ministers with whom visitors can take a selfie or go for a walk through augmented reality.
When Shastri’s son Anil Shastri saw his father delivering a speech, he asked Bhaik where they got the clip from. “We created it from an image. It is technology similar to the one used in [the movie] Furious 7, after [its actor] Paul Walker died.” There is a segment dedicated to the future—a 7D virtual helicopter ride that takes one through future projects, and an opportunity for visitors to write their vision for India in 2047, a century after 1947.
On the ground floor of the old Nehru Memorial is the replica of the Constitution, which can be read in 28 languages with just a touch. “There have been more additions than deletions at the Nehru Memorial. Earlier, the exhibits on Nehru were mostly up to 1947. The focus has been shifted to his tenure as prime minister and the institutions he built,” says assistant curator Satish Kumar, who has been with the NMML for 32 years. As one leaves, Vajpayee’s words ring in the ears—“Satta ka to khel chalega. Sarkaren ayengi, jayengi. Partiyan banegi, bigdegi, magar ye desh rehna chahiye. Is desh ka loktantra amar rehna chahiye/the game of power will go on. Governments will come and go. Parties will be formed and dismantled. But this country should remain; this country’s democracy should always remain.”