Not another memorial to yet another minister
I was surprised to discover that India does not have a law to prevent squatting, unlike some other countries, even though the problem is acute here. For example, some of India’s poorest State Governments have given accommodation for life to former Chief Ministers and other high political leaders. The Union Government also has a long record in this matter. On several occasions, it has converted the state-owned bungalows where former Prime Ministers lived, into memorials for them. In some cases, even their cremation places have been turned into monuments.
It does not matter if these decisions were taken keeping in mind certain criteria. The fact of the matter is that they were mostly courtesies that had been extended by the state to the members of Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, the first family of the Congress which had been in power for over six decades. Apart from the memorials, over 450 government schemes also bear the names of the Nehru-Gandhis.
In India, such courtesies are extended even to political leaders with poor track records. Upon their demise, their relatives want to convert their big, state-owned bungalows into memorials. The right place for building any memorial should be either in the constituency of the deceased or his birth-place – not in a Government bungalow in the national capital where he lived.
Reportedly, these memorials have become nothing more than a gallery of photographs of the deceased leader. Sometimes there is a statue. Often, the rooms in the memorial bungalows are not cleaned for days. In some cases, the general public is not even allowed inside. Only people from the foundation or the trust that maintains the memorial visit.
Previous Union Governments have been guilty of flouting their own norms by converting Government bungalows in New Delhi into memorials, either directly or indirectly by leasing them out to such foundations and trusts.
In some instances, the previous Governments authenticated unlawful activities of encroachers and trespassers who had forcefully converted Government bungalows. For example, the bungalow unit at 6 Krishna Menon Marg, New Delhi, and the composite unit of bungalow numbers 12, 14 and 16 at Gurudwara Rakabganj Road, New Delhi, had been unlawfully converted in memorials for Jagjivan Ram and Kanshi Ram respectively. But the government legitimised them by officially giving control of the bungalows to the Babu Jagjivan Ram National Foundation and the Bahujan Prerna Trust respectively.
This sets a problematic precedent. First, it encourages such squatting. Second, it sets a difficult threshold for setting up memorials. Rank-wise, Jagjivan Ram was just a Union Minister and Kanshi Ram a party founder and MP. If this norm is followed, then other former Ministers’ relatives would be within their rights to claim that they too be allowed to build such memorials.
Records of the Union Ministry of Urban Development reveals that the UPA Government did not act on representations for taking criminal action against those guilty of encroachment, trespass and illegal constructions. This was in complete violation of the norms set for Government bungalows at Lutyens’ Delhi. Instead, those involved in such crimes were rewarded, as the Government succumbed to their demands of converting state owned-bungalows into memorials.
Such unlawful activities cannot be allowed to continue. Recently, the Union Government confessed in a Right to Information response that its officers, checking illegal constructions, were not allowed to enter composite Government bungalow unit at 12-14-16 Gurudwara Rakabganj Road in New Delhi.
In 2001, the BJP-led NDA Government had laid down that no Government bungalows would be converted into memorials. Its decision was endorsed by the Supreme Court in July 2013. The present government should take a bold decision and remove all such trusts, memorials and foundations from government bungalows. Such a decision will receive massive public support.
If such idealistic steps are taken, then Teen Murti Bhavan, Jawaharlal Nehru’s prime ministerial residence, can be converted into a permanent office-cum-residence for the Vice President of India. The Prime Minister’s official residence at 7 Race Course Road need not be shifted since much money has already been spent to make it suitable for the head of government.
The Union Government should also issue a Press release about the number of visitors coming to government bungalows converted into memorials. The Lal Bahadur Shastri memorial curator said that around 150-200 people visit on holidays. “On other days, there are very few visitors”, he added.
A small suggestion for the Government: Allow as many memorials as the politicians want, but charge double the market rent as well as additional fees for maintenance. Also, the outfit that runs the memorial should also foot the bills for electricity and water supply, pay for repairs and expect no tax concessions. There is no reason for taxpayers’ money to be spent on any memorial. However, just because the memorial owners are paying their own bills must not become an excuse for them to take up residence in the memorial bungalow. Only two exceptions can be made, one for the Father of the Nation and another for the country’s first Prime Minister, wherein the government can pay for the upkeep of their memorials.
I was in London sometime back for a lecture at the House of Lords. While walking through the main hall, I was struck by small bronze plaques on the floor, mentioning important events in British history. One plaque said that Queen Elizabeth I, standing at that very spot, gave a charter to Columbus to explore India and the world. Another marked the spot where the first Governor General of Bengal, Warren Hastings, stood on trial for corruption charges. Yet another noted the spot where the body of Winston Churchill lay in state for two weeks before he was buried.
In Saudi Arabia, there have been instances of kings being killed by their family members and then being buried in a common burial ground. No state holiday is declared in their honour. Their death is mourned by other kings and heads of state who offer their prayers. But after the king is buried, there is no plaque even to
commemorate him. Vice President Hamid Ansari explains that this is because the Wahhabi sect of Islam believes that life and death is the hands of Allah, and weeping at someone’s death is akin to protesting against the Lord.