The Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund has been asked to leave Teen Murti Bhavan by Monday, September 24. A notice served by the Directorate of Estates of the Union Ministry of Urban Development even says the Fund is “liable to pay damage charges for illegal occupation of the premises [with effect from] 28.08.1967”.

Established in 1964, the Fund has been located at Teen Murti, once the residence of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, since 1967. Its offices are not part of the main building but occupy a set of barracks on its eastern side with a separate entry from Teen Murti Marg. The notice, addressed to the Fund’s administrative secretary, N Balakrishnan, says that this portion of the Teen Murti Estate is “being unauthorisedly used” by them. The Fund’s administrators disagree.

The body is not leaving just yet. It responded to the notice on September 20, requesting the Directorate of Estates to “withdraw the letter” asking them to vacate the property. The reply argues the Fund is “fully entitled to using this property as it has functioned in the public interest over the past half century or more in fulfillment both its own objects and those of the [Nehru Memorial Museum and Library].”

The Fund offers research fellowships to academics from across disciplines, conducts an annual lecture and organises memorial functions. In addition to these, it has also managed or funded other institutions such as the Jawahar Bal Bhavans for children and Anand Bhavan, the Nehru family’s Allahabad home, which now houses a planetarium, an exhibition and organises its own annual functions. The Fund is chaired by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi. Former member of the Rajya Sabha, Karan Singh, is its vice-chairman.

Saying that the Fund has given an “adequate reply” to the notice, Singh said: “We will do whatever we have to do to safeguard the institution.”

‘East of Teen Murti House’

At the centre of the conflict is a memorandum from January 1967, issued after India’s second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, declined to move into Teen Murti. Through the Directorate of Estates’ memorandum, the “Prime Minister’s Pool” of estates, including over half-a-dozen bungalows on Teen Murti Marg and Willingdon Crescent, were absorbed into the “General Pool” of government properties. The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library Society had been registered the previous year and came to be “in occupation and possession” of Teen Murti Estate.

The notice says that the Society’s executive committee, in its June 2018 meeting, discussed the “unauthorised occupation” of the barracks by the Fund. The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library “is found to have been struggling to accommodate more space to achieve its objects and is in dire need of space in the Teen Murti Estate,” said the notice. Apparently, the Society informed the Central Government of this discussion on June 14 and on August 23, and requested the goverment to have the space vacated.

The notice further said that while the Society had in August 1967 submitted a request for the barracks – then being used as “an enquiry office-cum-godown” by the Central Public Works Department – to be given to the Fund for use, the property continues to be “owned by the Central Government” and the Society “never sought any sanction” for changing the occupation of that area.

In its reply, the Funds administrator pointed out that same 1967 memorandum said that the properties within the boundary walls of Teen Murti house were not a part of this transfer to the “General Pool”. It said: The premises in the east of Teen Murti House and which are within the boundary wall of Teen Murti House will remain the property of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.”

In 1967, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library allotted a bungalow on the Teen Murti estate called Padma Kutir and the barracks to the Fund which took possession of both in August of that year. Padma Kutir was also the “old comptroller’s office”.

The Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund's office on Teen Murti House's Estate

The Fund’s reply cites a communication from the Directorate of Estates to the the Fund, dated July 14, 1967. “All buildings situation in the east of Teen Murti House and which are within the four walls of the building are the property of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library,” it is quoted as saying. “As the old Comptroller’s located well within the boundaries of Teen Murti House it is the property of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and may be utilized in the manner considered desirable.”

By November the same year, the Fund secured permission from the Central Public Works Department of the government to renovate the barracks at it own cost and the renovations took place in March 1968. The Fund occupied Padma Kutir till November 2017, when the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library – and not any government department – wrote to the Fund, asking them to vacate it. By November 14, the Fund handed Padma Kutir over but retained the barracks.

The Fund has argued that the barracks “are the property of NMML and the Government/ Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has no right or title therein”. The letter further says: “I hence state that the right to occupy the two buildings...has never been either challenged or questioned by either your Ministry of the NMML all along”.

Since the government notice says the request to evict the Fund’s offices came from the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, the Fund’s letter also adds: “The NMML has no right whatsoever to revoke its decision to allot these two buildings to the [Fund]. This is because of the fact that the objectives of both the NMML and the JNMF are similar and both complement each other.”

The Fund also reminds that it has “greatly assisted the NMML in fulfilling its objectives by transferring for safe custody, beginning from 1968, the massive collection of archival papers, photographs, film reels, video records, etc. of Jawaharlal Nehru, and his times besides his family members notable among them his father Motilal Nehru.”

Set up in 1964, the Fund predates the museum and library, established in 1966, and this transfer of documents took place from 1968 to 1980s.

The Fund’s response also points out that it set up the son-et-lumiere (sound and light) show as well as the planetarium, ultimately donating both to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Libary.

“Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund’s occupation of the office buildings in the Teen Murti Estate is totally legal and duly authorised and has been recognised, accepted and duly permitted all through last several years since 1967 by your ministry as well as NMML,” says the letter.

The ‘larger perspective’

Political scientist and a trustee of the Fund, Zoya Hasan, however, sees the eviction notice as “part of the [Centre’s] whole attempt to diminish Jawaharlal Nehru and dilute his legacy”.

There has been growing rift within the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library Society itself, especially since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government came to power at the Centre. The Society’s president is the prime minister, now Narendra Modi. And the vice-president is the home minister, Rajnath Singh. The institutions based in Teen Murti estate have all been focussed on Nehru. The museum preserves Nehru’s personal papers and other documents related to the freedom movement. After the government changed, however, one section of members has insisted on making attempts to include tributes to other prime ministers and politicians as well – proposals that have not gone down well with several other members of the Society.

Interestingly, the eviction notice suggests that the Fund’s occupation of the barracks was “examined in the present context” of this change. The Fund, the notice argues, was getting in the way of the Society’s “furtherance of achieveing the goal of...maintaining the legacy of Sh. Jawaharlal Nehru and Sh. Lal Bahadur Shastri...and the legacy of other former Hon’ble Prime Ministers of India.”

In 2017, some of its members, including the historian Nayanjot Lahiri, objected to the Centre’s plans to set up another museum, dedicated to the “Prime Ministers of India”, in the Teen Murti Bhavan premises. The members objected again at a meeting in July. In August, a number of members from the Congress expressed their reservations about having a new museum featuring others, and met Rajnath Singh, home minister and vice-president of the Society. The president of the Society is Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

At each point, the BJP government has been accused of attempting to dilute Nehru’s legacy. While larger projects such as the proposed new museum have caused a furore, there have been several smaller changes and erasures as well. For instance, Nehru’s portrait which would hang behind the speaker in the seminar zone was removed and replaced with that of Hindutva ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhayay, said Hasan. “This matter has been raised by various people, Rajnath Singh has assured it would be restored,” she said. “I do not know if they have done it but it had not been till three weeks go.”

Hasan added: “It is part of the attempt to question Nehru’s extraordinary contribution to Modern India and the establishment of Indian democracy. Indian democracy is successful because very strong foundations were laid [after Independence]. By denying or diminishing Nehru’s contribution, we diminish ourselves.”

This story was updated at 3.45 pm, September 24, to incorporate fresh details on the notice and the letter.