Not just Modi’s museum for PMs, Indian MPs need archives and oral histories too

Beyond leaders’ speeches, there’s not much of parliamentary history. For instance, what was the mood in Lok Sabha when Vajpayee lost confidence motion by one vote?

Nearly 500 Members of Parliament have passed away in the last fifteen years, 25 of them belonged to India’s first Lok Sabha. That is loss of history, not just human lives. An old African saying goes: When an old person dies, a whole library burns too. Members of Parliament negotiate, debate and decide on issues that shape our country and are an invaluable part of India’s legislative and deliberative history. With each death, Indians lose valuable institutional history of Parliament and personal memories of their leaders.

There is now a pressing need to preserve Indian political and parliamentary history. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced a museum dedicated to all former prime ministers. As per media reports, the deadline to complete the ‘Museum on Prime Ministers of India’ is March 2020. The concept is similar to the United States’ Presidential Libraries and Museums. The Bill Clinton and George Bush libraries, for instance, have recently put together papers, records, photographs, and other historical material related to the two presidents. The Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois, uses cutting-edge technology to make him accessible to school children, foreign tourists, and scholars alike.

The proposed Museum on Prime Ministers of India will capture an important but limited aspect of our parliamentary history.

But beyond the prime ministers, what we also need is the personal memories of our MPs chronicling key events in our political history, with oral history-driven anecdotes and artefacts. Indian democracy is vibrant and constantly evolving. But beyond classroom textbooks and speeches of leaders, there is very little about it in a 3-dimensional, accessible, storytelling space that not only brings it alive but is also instructive and has long-term academic value.

 

How Parliament remembers

On 13 August 2018, former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, the first chairman of the parliamentary committee on information technology who had moved the first motion in Parliament for the removal of a high court judge, passed away. Three days later, on 16 August, we lost former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had served Parliament, both in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, 12 times.

This year saw the demise of several Indian political stalwarts. George Fernandes, the defence minister during the Kargil War who won parliamentary elections nine times, passed away in January. Last week, Ram Chandra Paswan and Sheila Dikshit passed away. Paswan was serving his fourth term in the Lok Sabha; Dikshit, besides being the longest-serving chief minister of Delhi, had been the minister of state for parliamentary affairs in the 8th Lok Sabha (1984 to 1989). Both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Somnath Chatterjee were MPs during this period, and this was also when Parliament had passed the anti-defection law, lowered the voting age to 18 years, overturned the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Shah Bano case, and enacted a law to protect the rights of consumers. Most of these issues come up in parliamentary debates and in public discourse even today and often become reminders of an MP’s contribution or work done in his or her political life.

Parliament too remembers their contributions and pays respect to the deceased members in three broad ways.

First, Parliament adjourns all businesses for the day when a sitting MP dies while the house is in session. The presiding officers (the speaker and the deputy speaker for the Lok Sabha, and Vice President of India for the Rajya Sabha) read out an obituary statement highlighting the MP’s contribution. The symbolic adjournment of the house is not mentioned in the rules of the Lok Sabha. It is a convention that continues to evolve with time.

Second, if the person deceased is a former member, besides reading out the obituary, Parliament may also commemorate the MP by installing his/her statue, bust and portrait on its premises. A 12-member committee comprising members from both the houses decides on the names of MPs whose portraits and busts will be installed in Parliament.

Third, the basements of Parliament’s library houses the Parliamentary Museum and Archives. It acquires, stores and preserves “precious records, historic documents, photographs and rare objects and articles connected with the origin, growth and functioning of Parliament and parliamentary institutions in the country.” The archive also regularly sends out requests to MPs to deposit their private correspondence, notes, memoirs, and diaries that contain references to their political career and parliamentary tenure. Until 2014, a total of 84 eminent parliamentarians and freedom fighters have deposited their diaries and private correspondence with the archive. The archive has 19,000 digitised photographs of MPs from the first to the 15th Lok Sabha. Parliament also maintains a comprehensive digitised record of all its debates since 1858.

Our Parliament currently captures the deliberations of its formal proceedings and correspondence of MPs. However, more needs to be done. The idea should also be to capture the personal accounts of MPs to note down how key events unfolded during their parliamentary tenure.

For example, what was the mood in the Lok Sabha when Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost the confidence motion by one vote in 1996; or the discussions in the Central Hall when the Indo-US nuclear deal came up for debate during the first term of Manmohan Singh. It would also be instructive to understand from MPs the negotiations that took place between the treasury and opposition to build consensus on key legislations like the right to education, land acquisition, GST, and insolvency and bankruptcy laws. Some of these might come about to be captured in a personal memoir of a parliamentarian, but then not all parliamentarians write a memoir.

The US Congress and the British Parliament have tried to address this by instituting mechanisms for capturing the oral history of their institutions. In the United States, for instance, the Center for Legislative Archives conducts oral interviews with former legislators and staff to “add to our understanding of patterns and traditions in Congress and to our familiarity with Congressional heroes, triumphs, and failures.” The Oral History Project, supported by Britain’s Parliament, is creating a sound archive of British politics since 1945. So far, the project has interviewed 160 former British MPs.

Similar attempts need to be done in India too. Such an exercise will provide valuable insights into the thinking of our MPs beyond the written text of parliamentary debates. It will help us understand how certain conventions came about and how thinking on issues evolved over the last six decades or so. These insights into how our parliamentarians carried out their businesses and what went on when critical decisions were being taken will be useful for researchers in putting together a more complete picture of the working of our Parliament. It will be central to preserving the history of India’s highest law-making institution.

The author is the Head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative Research. Views are personal.