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Controversy In Nehru's Home

Controversy In Nehru's Home

Author: Rohini Mohan
Publication: Tehelka
Date: February 21, 2009
URL: http://www.tehelka.com/story_main41.asp?filename=Ne210209controversy_in.asp

A Parliamentary Committee slams the Nehru Memorial for giving its prestigious fellowship to non-applicants

In Jawaharlal Nehru's old home in Delhi resides a noble institution that, for 45 years, has supported scholars and historians across the country. Through its fellowship programme, the prestigious Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) has funded some of India's best academics such as historian Ramachandra Guha and Chief Information Commissioner OP Kejriwal in their pursuit of the highest standards of research. Today, serious allegations have cast a shameful miasma over the majestic Teen Murti Bhavan, in whose grounds the NMML stands.

As a new list of candidates is due to be announced for the 2009 fellowships, the NMML faces accusations of nepotism and irregularity. Three months ago, a Lok Sabha enquiry found that in 2005, the NMML inexplicably dropped 37 applicants who were selected and called for interviews. It later awarded fellowships to rejected applicants, late applicants, and even non-applicants. The report of the Lok Sabha Committee of Petitions states that "the whole exercise of selection of candidates for grant of NMML fellowships was not transparent nor did it have the sanctity of law."

In September 2003, NMML invited applications for the then three-year fellowship (it is now two years) through advertisements in newspapers. Soon after its deadline of October 23, 2003 expired, the Executive Council of the NMML under Director-in-Charge K Jayakumar formed a Selection Committee headed by SR Mehrotra from the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. By June 5, 2004, applicants were shortlisted and interview letters sent to 18 Junior Fellowship candidates and 26 Fellowship candidates. Eleven candidates for Senior Fellowships were, by procedure, not to be interviewed. The interview date was July 10, 2004. From this point onwards, all actions of the NMML directly violated selection rules.

In mid-June 2004, the Minister for Culture - who heads the ministry that governs the NMML - received an anonymous petition by fax which asked for the postponement of the fellowship interviews in view of the UPA regime coming to power. The fax was sent by 20 'signatories', but did not contain even one signature. TEHELKA is in possession of this letter, which was faxed by an unknown person from the Indian Newspaper Society building in New Delhi. The petition claimed that the interviews "are being held in haste and without the presence of a full time director." Since the Prime Minister is the ex-officio Chairman of the NMML, the petition asked for a new director, Executive Council, and Selection Committee to be appointed by the UPA. Startlingly, the unsigned, anonymous letter was processed by the Prime Minister's Office and just three days before the given interview date, on July 7, 2004, the candidates were informed of a postponement "due to unavoidable circumstances". The Lok Sabha enquiry report observes that an "unsigned and anonymous letter in the normal course should have been ignored".

Soon, on November 4, 2004, a new Executive Council for the NMML was formed with members including Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Union Minister for Culture Jaipal Reddy. They disbanded the old Selection Committee, and formed a new one with Arjun Sengupta, Neera Chandhoke and Ramachandra Guha. In its first meeting on March 4, 2005, it annulled the earlier shortlist of candidates without recording any reasons, and restarted the selection process from scratch. When contacted, both Chandhoke and Guha refused to comment.

The candidates whose interviews were postponed were to never be called back by the NMML. This was when one of them, Dr SP Singh, filed an RTI application. He discovered that among the new final list were scholars who had submitted applications a year-and-half after the October 23, 2004 deadline and some who had not even applied officially. The Lok Sabha report says this was done "to favour certain individuals of (the NMML's) choice." One such person, Neerja Jayal of JNU, had written to Deputy Director N Balakrishnan on March 24, 2005, asking to be considered for the fellowship. This unofficial letter was processed as a valid application, 18 months after the deadline. She was even awarded the fellowship over several scholars who had applied on time. Justifying this, the NMML cited a precedent: in 2001, they had awarded a fellowship to Mrinal Miri, a non-applicant. Similarly, Dilip Simeon, Director of the NGO Aman Trust, was also given a fellowship, despite his having applied on May 9, 2005, 19 months after the deadline. Brinda Bose, too, was granted a fellowship in absentia, without a personal interview.

THE 2003 ADVERTISEMENT had contained no mention that applicants who missed the deadline by almost two years, or, worse, scholars who did not even apply as required, would be considered. "What is the meaning of a deadline if one can apply 19 months after it and still win a fellowship?" asks Singh. In response to the Lok Sabha report on the "non-transparent and arbitrary selection procedure", the NMML has stated that it was simply following past practices. L Rynjah, Joint Secretary, Ministry for Culture, says that the laws allow the NMML to "accept the applications of even those who have not applied". He says this is done to ensure that the best candidate is chosen and "does not lose out to a mere technicality of application." The 20 Fellows selected in this questionable manner have almost finished their term, and the screening process for the new set of Fellows for 2009-11 has also been completed. Singh asks for a review of this selection procedure too.

The Lok Sabha Committee of Petitions recommends immediate measures to rid the selection procedure of any ambiguity but Mridula Mukherjee, the current Director of NMML, insists, "We have already incorporated changes in the selection method, and taken steps to ensure that there is no further complaint from any scholar." The NMML has of late been suffering from political interference with its celebrated founding goal of promoting historical research. Today, as a Central Vigilance Committee enquiry into its affairs is imminent, the eroding reputation of the NMML is in desperate need of restoration.

- rohini@tehelka.com

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