It is fitting that public intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s decision to resign from the Executive Council of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library to protest the marginalisation of academic credentials in the selection process of its director came on the eve of Independence Day 2016.

Mehta was protesting former bureaucrat Shakti Sinha’s candidature as the NMML director. Sinha, who served in the Prime Minister’s Office during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure, was until a few days ago, a director in India Foundation, a think tank aligned to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Mehta was one of the six-member selection committee, two of which – Prasar Bharti Chief Executive Officer A Surya Prakash and Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar – also happened to have been on the India Foundation board, which includes as many as three other members of the Union council of ministers, including senior BJP leader Ram Madhav.

Selecting Sinha for the post would send a signal that “completely marginalises issues of academic credibility, scholarly credentials, or larger contributions to the world of ideas or thinking does not befit an institution of the stature of NMML,” Mehta noted in his resignation letter.

Established in the memory of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the NMML is an autonomous institution under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India. Mehta said that developments of the last few weeks led him to conclude that NMML was heading in a direction that made him uncomfortable.

NMML has a wide remit, much beyond its function as a memorial and library. It is central to the world of historical scholarship, and can potentially be a great contributor to the world of ideas more generally. It is important therefore that the head of the institution be someone who commands intellectual respect. I do not believe that the candidate the committee has recommended as its number one choice commands such respect amongst the academic community. I am not in a position to comment on his abilities as an administrator. But nothing in the track record of this candidate leads me to believe that he can provide the kind of exemplary intellectual leadership NMML needs at this point in its history.

Ever since the Narendra Modi government came into power in May 2014, the NMML has been in its crosshairs, with talk of converting it into a “museum of governance”.

The country’s premier institution for research on modern Indian history has been headless since the resignation of its previous director Mahesh Rangarajan in September 2015, barely a week after Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma had called his appointment by the United Progressive Alliance government as “unethical and illegal”.

After the departure of Rangarajan, it was feared that the government would attempt to bring a Sangh loyalist as its director. History is an obsession with the RSS, which has unfortunately not yet developed the skill and art to practice this discipline. The selection kept getting delayed as the problem, once articulated by the culture minister himself, was that the government had a very narrow pool of intellectual resources to choose from.

Meanwhile, the appointments at the Indian Council for Historical Research and Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts earned ridicule from the academic and intellectual world. Mehta said he was disappointed by the overall pool of applications which, he pointed out, was not worthy of an institution of such importance.

That may have partly been the result of the process: a very tight deadline was given to applicants; the committee was given no time to do any outreach to potential candidates after the advertisement appeared. But I also suspect the reason the application pool was disappointing was this. There is an impression that good academics will find it very difficult to function in the institutional set up we have created, with its multiple political and administrative pressures. We can debate how this impression has been created. But we have to come to terms with the fact that we are doing everything to exacerbate the impression that leading institutions are hostile to academics of genuine accomplishment and promise. We are not even seeking them out, or persuading them to provide intellectual leadership to major institutions. This appointment will, I am afraid, exacerbate that impression.

Devaluing institutions

A quick survey of the heads of our institutions validates Mehta’s views.

The problem, as Mehta correctly pointed out, was one of professional credentials and credibility, which was the reason why students of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune protested the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as its chairman and some other non-professionals as members of its governing body.

The government has so far sought to discredit all protests from the intellectual world by branding them a conspiracy of disgruntled left intellectuals who, it alleged, were upset because with a right wing nationalist party in power, they were being deprived of the patronage they had been enjoying for the last six decades.

But it would be difficult for the government and the rest of the executive council to ignore Mehta’s protest. For he is neither left nor right, and has credentials and the credibility – he had also resigned, again on a matter of principles, from the National Knowledge Commission under the UPA government.

It would not be so easy for the government to dismiss the concerns raised by Mehta. Mehta, an eminent political scientist, who heads the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, is also a consulting editor with the Indian Express. Known for his independence of mind, and very often disparaged by the left for being a mere “liberal”, Mehta by his resignation letter has brought the focus back to where it should be: not political ideology but competence and credibility.

Unfortunately, very few in similar positions of responsibility have the courage or inclination to resist the pressure from ruling governments. Seldom is the option of registering dissent applied. Members of such committees often express their indignation privately but rarely do they insist on recording their dissent or stepping down from such selection or search panels. Silent approval of a bad decision which ultimately weaken the institution concerned are rationalised away with lamentations that individual protests would not have mattered.

A democracy is sustained through its institutions. By weakening them we ensure the destruction of democracy. Those who are in some way responsible for governance of these institutions have a duty to perform.

President Pranab Mukherjee, in his Independence Day message, recalled former President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s words that our democratic Constitution helps us maintain our individuality in the face of mounting pressures for standardised thinking and acting.

Mehta did just that.