The Culture Vultures
The National Museum, the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training and the National Archives has not had a professional head for years. The Sangeet Natak Akademi has not had a secretary for months. Many institutions across the country too are in a similar state. The Bhartendu Natya Academy in Lucknow, for instance, has been headless for years. In Kolkata, the iconic Victoria Memorial hadn’t had a secretary and curator since 2012 till Prof Jayant Sengupta was appointed in 2013. He is also the acting director of Indian Museum
A change in power at Delhi has always been followed by a shifting of interests and ideas governing the cultural institutions funded or managed by the government. Ever since the NDA has come to power, the BJP and the RSS are holding fast to a Hindutva ideology amid a chorus among the rest of the national political parties, who are espousing a non-religious-cultural Indian nationalism. The battles lines are drawn in the various cultural institutions comprising of museums, academies, agencies and libraries.
In the nearly 18 months that it has been in government, the Modi government has been trying to control, change and revamp the working of the 42 odd autonomous bodies under the Ministry of Culture. These include the Archaeological Survey of India, the National School of Drama, National Museum, Kalakshetra, Indian Museum, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Anthropological Survey of India and the National Archives. The culture ministry also presides over the Sahitya, Lalit Kala and Sangeet Natak Akademis and their branches. The Minister has gone on record saying: “We will cleanse every area of public discourse that has been westernised and where Indian culture and civilization need to be restored– be it the history we read or our cultural heritage or our institutes that have been polluted over years. We have not been up to the mark in presenting our Indian cultural heritage in a right way. We will totally revamp all these institutions after a detailed roadmap is prepared.”
In spite of such strong talk, little headway has been made. Many of the bodies operating under the culture ministry are headless and have been so for years. Several of these cultural and heritage institutions, considered vital to promoting India’s history, have been without technically-qualified heads for years. The Archaeological Survey of India was without a qualified professional for years. Dr Rakesh Tiwari was appointed the DG in 2014, but his appointment is marred in controversy after Delhi High Court ruling. The National Museum, the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training and the National Archives has not had a professional head for years. The Sangeet Natak Akademi has not had a secretary for months.
Many institutions across the country too are in a similar state. The Bhartendu Natya Academy in Lucknow, for instance, has been headless for years. In Kolkata, the iconic Victoria Memorial hadn’t had a secretary and curator since 2012 till Prof Jayant Sengupta was appointed in 2013. He is also the acting director of Indian Museum.
India may be trying hard to sell its soft power to the world, but the country’s top cultural bodies are in disarray. In the absence of full-time heads, bureaucrats from the culture ministry run the show. There is a race among the Joint Secretaries of the Ministry of Culture to capture the top posts lying vacant in the various departments under it. The appointments are purportedly to provide efficient administration, but with little knowledge about artefacts, antiques and heritage and statutory heritage laws, these bureaucrats bring total chaos instead. For most of these bureaucrats, the additional charge is an icing on the cake, they get an additional salary hike of thirty per cent as per the DOPT guidelines. The additional perks of official cars and the add -on staff are the cherry on the cake. There are many instances when these babus continued to retain the add-on staff even after demitting the office. All this, for just attending the cursory affairs a couple of days in the week.
The posts of the Director Generals and Secretaries of these vital institutions were earlier filled up by the UPSC, but the Ministry of Culture. However, since 2008, the Ministry has taken upon itself the job of recruitment under the guise of avoiding delay.
National archives of India
As a repository of the largest collection of books, records, documents, manuscripts and maps, the National Archives of India (NAI) plays a pivotal role in preserving the nation’s cultural heritage and ensuring its existence for posterity. However, all has not been well in this behemoth for the last few years.
The posts of the Director General of the National Archives were published in March this year, but no appointment has been made till date. The selections criteria for the post, both for the deputation and contractual candidates, borders on the ridicule. The eligibility criteria specified are such that not a single aspirant from any museum or archive in India will have the experience, qualification and scale of pay to qualify for applying. It is an ill-intentioned move to keep academicians and professionals away, and letting the bureaucrat babus have a free run. For the contractual candidates, the age limit had been fixed at 67 years. While the post of the DG is in the rank of Additional Secretary, a Joint Secretary is given full power of DG to run the show. Since the Joint Secretary is a subordinate post, they should have limited statutory power instead of full power.
The faux pas was created during the early days of the new NDA regime, when more than 1.50 lakh files were indiscriminately destroyed on the pretext of a massive clean up which could have been easily avoided had a professional been in charges. This weeding out of vital files was a gross violation of Section 4 & 8 (1) of the Public Records Act 1993, and in fact is a punishable offence. The deplorable state of many collections in the NAI is an open secret amongst scholars but, due to fears of institutional retribution, many refuse to publicly draw attention to the destruction being committed.
The National Archives is on the lowest priority for the government. Many of the State Archives are housed in substandard structures. Historical documents are exposed to humidity and hot temperatures.Termites and bookworms have destroyed many documents. In 2010, several scholars were startled to find a monkey wandering through the research room of the National Archives.
The damage has been significant. At the National Archives, letters penned by Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, Gokhale, and other eminent Indian nationalists have suffered from exposure to humid weather, staff negligence and mishandling, and improper preservation methods. Many government records of the 19th and 20th centuries are untraceable.
When Mushirul Hassan took charge of the NAI in May 2010, he was the first scholar in 30 years to oversee the rudderless institution. The job of director general had been vacant for several years, and past directors had been bureaucrats.
Decades of neglect, underfunding, and bad preservation techniques had wrought considerable damage to the documents. The terrible irony was that the National Archives had all the proper equipment for preserving those documents but most of it was gathering dust. He revamped the system and also expanded the collections. Many government ministries had stopped sending the old files to the archives, it was he who cajoled them and got nearly 6 lakh documents during his three year stint. India is the only country which openly flouts the rules on transferring the files to the National Archives. One can find documents of the Mughal era, and British period, but not of Independent India.
The National Archives cannot function effectively as an institution beholden to bureaucratic culture, public sector working habits, and a custodial mentality that hinders research instead of facilitating it.
Mushirul Hassan had rightly said, “If we invest some money into preserving our history and heritage, we will be doing no one a favor but ourselves. The sad thing is that poorer nations spend more on their archives than we do.”
Museums: A monumental mess
Government museums make up 90 per cent of the roughly 1,000 museums in India. They are not allowed to get sponsorships or tie-ups with private individuals or organisations and are solely dependent on funding from the Central government. None of the Indian museums feature in the global top 100 list. Museums of countries like France, USA, Russia, Britain, Germany and China, even smaller nations like Taiwan, South Korea, Spain, Mexico and Israel find themselves permanently in the list of the most-visited museums in the world. What can be more depressing for a nation like ours, which claims cultural heritage forms a part of its fundamental identity, than to have crumbling museums and vanishing monuments?
The Indian Museum in Kolkata, the oldest in Asia, makes news for all the wrong reasons. In 2004, a 5th Century AD Buddha bust was stolen from the museum. Two invaluable artefacts, a 2nd Century BC Yakshi statue and a 3rd Century BC Mauryan Lion had been irreversibly damaged. The ASI reported that the damage was caused by careless handling. In July 2009, rainwater had seeped through the roof of the 140-year-old building and flooded the galleries on the ground floor. Seepage had ruined four 19th century masks on the third floor. In December 2013, the priceless 2,200-year-old Rampurva Lion Capital broke while it was being shifted from its gallery. All this, at India’s oldest museum, which completed two centuries of its existence in 2014.
Other smaller Indian museums are as bad or worse. In 2011, UNESCO gave a report on eight large Indian museums in which it had pointed out a long list of deficiencies, among them poor lighting and maintenance, incorrect signages and lax security. The 2012 Parliamentary Committee Report was equallyscathing, “Our museums are in a bad shape. Only 10 per cent of the acquisitions are put on display and those are not even rotated regularly. Museum stores and galleries are in poor condition,” the report said.
The dismal state of museums, especially government ones, is no secret. The UNESCO report and a 14-point museum reforms agenda put together by the Ministry of Culture in 2010-11 served as a wake-up call. Only a few of them got their act together and started brushing off years of political and ideological neglect.
The National Museum at Delhi has over 2 lakh artifacts, including antiquities, stone and bronze sculptures, pieces from the Indus Valley Civilisation, mural paintings and jewellery. It has one of the largest and richest collections in the country. However, space crunch prevents the museum from displaying many of its rare pieces. A major portion of its land at 1, Janpath is being used by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as its headquarters.
The National Museum has been a hostage to the Department of Culture after the retirement of L.P. Sihare, its last professional director-general. Lorded over by a string of IAS officers for over a decade, the museum has been deprived of a professional art historian or museologist at its head for reasons that make sense only to the Ministry of Culture. According to the audit report of the Comptroller Auditor General (CAG) in 2013, less than five per cent of the museum’s total collection was put on display for the public.“ More than 95 per cent of the objects in the museum are lying in reserve and have never been put on display,” the CAG said in its report. It also said museums have not evolved a rotation policy for displaying the artefacts in their galleries
In contrast, Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly Prince of Wales Museum, is a success story. An autonomous institute created in the early 1900s by a handful of influential Mumbaites under a Board of Trustees, CSMVS is run without government support.
Conditions at Hyderabad’s famous Salar Jung Museum are no better than those in Mumbai and Chennai. Sometimes derisively called the Salar Junk Museum (because of its whimsically collected exhibits and cluttered display), it is nevertheless a big draw, attracting about 3,000 visitors a day.
The Government should immediately take the help of professionals and private companies to rebuild our museums and monuments. The recommendations by the B.N. Goswamy Committeeon improving museum infrastructure and administration ought to be implemented without delay. Capacity-building should be radically stepped up and India’s flagship museums placed in the hands of trained professionals selected from among the best in the world rather than babus and bureaucrats.
The ASI : buried in the sands of time
A 2014 report by the Comptroller and Auditor-General has exposed the Archaeological Survey of India as an unprofessional body that is utterly incapable of protecting the country’s museums and monuments.
When asked to give details of past excavations, the ASI could not give any details about any of the 458 excavations that had been approved in the past five years. The CAG also found out that out of the sample of 1,655 ASI protected monuments it investigated, 92 were absolutely untraceable. They have just disappeared without any trace. And the ASI was supposed to be the agency at the forefront of protecting and maintaining these monuments. In its inspection of 1,655 of centrally protected monuments, the CAG found encroachments in around 546 monuments as against 249 intimated by the ASI.
Such is the pathetic condition of the ASI protected monuments that a tourist rarely would like to spend time and money visiting any but a handful. Only 116 monuments out of 3,500 monuments have ticket counters; and these have generated only a measly Rs125 crores in the last five years, averaging around Rs25 crore per year. Out of this amount, three crore rupees is contributed by Taj Mahal alone, followed by Agra Fort that contributes one crore rupees annually.
In October 2013, the ASI became the laughing stock of the academic world when it undertook excavation in Daudia Khera village at Unnao in Uttar Pradesh in search of gold worth Rs30,000 crore, all based on a dream of a sadhu. While other agencies undertake excavations only after research and geographical surveys, India’s premier archaeological agency, relied on the dreams of a charlatan.
In June this year, The Aga Khan Foundation had envisaged interest in handling the maintainence of the Taj Mahal. It has done good work in the conservation of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi and the Tomb of Quli Qutub Shah in Hyderabad. Earlier, a US University’s study report had already termed the ASI’s conservation techniques as outdated and insufficient for the protection of the monument.If the ASI does not improve the quality of conservation of Taj Mahal, the monument’s maintenance could be handed over to the Aga Khan Foundation.
The ASI has been an utter failure in protecting the Buddhist monuments of Odisha. It has many half excavated sites in the Ratnagiri-Lalitagiri-Udayagiri belt. The state of affairs at the Sun Temple of Konark too are dismal.
The rot runs deep
The Indian History Congress in its 74th session had expressed its deep concern over the deterioration of efficiency, professionalism and work culture in these institutions under bureaucrat raj. In a resolution moved by Prof Irfan Habib and unanimously passed by the members, it had asked the Ministry of Culture to desist from such steps and appoint only professionals as the heads of these institutions, the Ministry has cared tuppence to this suggestion. A few glaring examples of the ill that plagues the Ministry are given below.
Though all these posts are in the rank of Additional Secretaries the Joint Secretaries, who are one rank below enjoy full statutory power to administer them. In such cases as acting Directors, they are expected to exercise the power with restraint. But some of them don’t hesitate to abuse this power by intimidating the staff and threaten them in many ways like transfer. Even the Group A officers are also not spared. As they are appointed by the Ministry, their transfer should be endorsed by the Secretary. But the Joint Secretaries enjoy unlimited power to transfer them for which they hardly follow any guideline prepared by the Department.
Take the case of the National Museum; the Ministry did not call many competent persons for its DG’s interview in 2013. One among them was Prof K K Basa, who besides an excellent academician has two years’ experience as Director, Indian Museum and four and a half years experiences as Director at the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalay, Bhopal. Not finding any one suitable for the post, they regularised V. Venu, the Joint Secretary who in no way fulfilled the prescribed qualification and experiences for the post of Director General of Museum advertised earlier. But after one year he was transferred to another Ministry by the Cabinet Committee on Appointment about which Culture Ministry was in complete dark. This is how these babus remains immune from all norms and rules if it suits their own interest.
In none of these institutions the regular DGs appointed earlier by the Ministry seem to have worked comfortably under the bureaucrats. Prof G. Sengupta, who successfully completed his tenure as DG, Archaeological Survey of India in 2013, did not seek any extension and preferred to come back to his parent Department as Director, Archaeology, West Bengal.
Only Prof Mushir-ul Hasan, the historian who successfully completed his tenure in 2013 sought re-extension before he left the Department. But in spite of his excellent track records the Ministry was obviously not interested to retain him for the reasons best known to them. It is said about him that Prof Hasan was the only Director General who successfully defied all diktats of the Ministry for which the entire bureaucracy went against him.
The recruitment rule is such that no one from the cadre will be eligible to apply. The maximum grade pay for DG’s post in all these departments is Rs 10,000. But in this pay scale there are no professional archaeologists, archivists, anthropologists or librarians anywhere in India. So by framing such rules the babus effectively prevent specialised professionals to contest for the posts. Whoever comes from outside will take at least two years to understand the department. But his tenure is just for three years. Again the maximum age limit for this post is 67 years which is ridiculous.
If the Ministry seriously wants to resolve this problem they should suitably amend the recruitment rules to facilitate the entry of cadre based staff. The recruitment process should be entrusted to UPSC. Will the cadre staff get any motivation to work if the avenues for his vertical rise aresuppressed? Till the appointment of a new DG, the senior most officer of the departments should be asked to head it who can run it much better than any IAS officer, said few staff of some of these institutions .
It is time for the Modi government to intervene in this matter and cleanse these institutions from the control of the babus.
Most of these babus run these institutions as their personal fiefdoms. They threaten the staff with dire consequences like implicating them in false cases for transferring them. They hardly visit the departments and call for the files to the Ministry. Only the routine affairs are taken care of, the actual functions of the institutions concerned are ignored. These institutions, which require a regular churning to keep abreast with the times, suffer from a policy paralysis and stifled growth. Many of these officiating heads take nonsensical decisions.
The National Archives is headed by a Joint Secretary in the culture ministry, the National Museum, which did not have a director general in five years, was being run by culture ministry joint secretary Venu Vasudevan who was shunted out recently. Keeping such key posts vacant for a long time shows lack of seriousness in preserving and promoting our culture and heritage. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Culture had suggested a separate cadre of museum staff and recommended inter-museum transfers.
The Modi government has plans to ‘cleanse’ India of western culturein history, school curricula, art and cinema, science and technology and libraries. Historian Lokesh Chandra, was appointed head of Indian Council for Cultural Relations. He has gone on record saying that Modi was greater than Gandhi and an “incarnation of God”. The ICCR has asked universities to create chairs in cultural studies named after Swami Vivekananda and Deen Dayal Upadhyay, both of whoare Modi’s role models.
Students of the Film and Television Institute of India protested for six months against the appointment of small-time actor Gajendra Chauhan as its chairman. Chauhan, whose only claim to fame is his portrayal of Yudhishtir in the TV series Mahabharata, has said he was the BJP’s national convener for culture. The Modi government seems to be in a rush to rejig political icons by appropriating those who are not traditionally linked to it, by bringing some of its own into the mainstream and by sending others, like the Nehru-Gandhis, into oblivion.
The government is aggressively highlighting its own icons such as V.D. Savarkar, Deen Dayal Upadhyay and Shyama Prasad Mookerji. After snatching Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel from the Congress, it has gone on to appropriate the legacy of Subhas Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh, and, to a certain extent, even Lal Bahadur Shastri.
All these may be fine. But what about managing and strengthening the organisations that, in the end, will keep the legacies of our national heroes and maintaining our cultural treasure for? Here, the government’s report card is disappointing.
Readers may judge by looking at the state of affairs in the organisations described in the following pages.
By Deepak Kumar Rath