A chronicle of Nehru, his missteps, and Modi’s magic: The new Nehru museum

Here’s exactly what’s changed in the revamped complex.

WrittenBy:Shivnarayan Rajpurohit
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With the Rashtrapati Bhavan to their south, and the Nehru memorial to the north, the three statues at Delhi’s Teen Murti Circle have long stood witness to India’s tryst with destiny: from a brutal repression of the freedom struggle to the fall of the British Empire, and Independence.

But now, the statues – which were built in 1922 to mark the sacrifice of the Jodhpur, Mysore and Hyderabad princes in the First World War – are seeing another battle play out in their vicinity. It’s now between the Congress and BJP, on the land housing the Nehru memorial, to capture space within a building, and minds outside.

Until last year, the complex was known as the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, which included a library, museum and planetarium. But now it has been renamed as the Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya, with a new building, or Block 2, themed around the Ashok Chakra, added to the others in April last year. This Block 2 features galleries on 12 former prime ministers, from Gulzarilal Nanda to Manmohan Singh; and in a few days, Narendra Modi’s achievements will make a blockbuster dash to the pantheon.

While the library and planetarium have remained largely untouched during this revamp, the Nehru museum in Block 1 has seen several changes in content besides the analogue-to-digital transition. 

The architectural marvel – with its louvered windows, arched doors, sturdy columns – was built in 1930 and served as the official residence of the British commanders-in-chief until Independence. It was then known as Flagstaff House. It was later the official residence of first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru from 1948 till his death in 1964. Upon his death, the house was turned into a museum. 

And now, with the revamp, a stone tablet outside, quoting PM Modi, reads: “The museum traces the fascinating journey through our history and offers a panoramic view of the new directions and new forms that India’s development is taking, turning the dream of a new India into reality.”

The entrance to the Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya.
A render of Block 2.
A model of the Nehru memorial.

Nehru, 1962 Chinese strike, and Uri in Block 1

Before the rechristening last year, the ground and top floors charted the most significant events in the freedom movement, through moldered newspaper tear-ups, fraying manuscripts and photos, and mock-ups. An old brochure lists these events: the 1857 revolt, origin of the Congress, Home Rule Movement, emergence of Mahatma Gandhi, Non-Cooperation Movement, Civil Disobedience Movement, the Second World War, demand for Pakistan, Cripps Mission, Quit India Movement, formation of the Indian National Army, the Cabinet Mission, the interim government and freedom. 

That’s not all.

A recreation of Nehru’s first Independence speech in Parliament, gifts received by Nehru, his sartorial peculiarities, family photos, and other memorabilia occupied some space. But the star attraction remained – or still remains – his study, living and bed rooms.

However, there have now been some rearrangements. Except for a gallery on the economic and human cost of the British plunder of India, the ground floor now informs visitors, with several interactive screens, about the various stages of the framing of the Constitution and India’s emergence as a Republic. A life-size figure of first president Dr Rajendra Prasad, backgrounded by his photo, is in the midst of signing a note to implement the Constitution. 

Nehru appears seldomly – in a short movie on the first Republic Day celebration and as a key member among the makers of the Constitution.

But on the first floor, the first prime minister gets more space, with his huge photo welcoming visitors in one of the rooms. A flip book has his family photographs; the last three pages repeating the pictures. 

Text panels share a biographical account of his personal and political trajectory, including his imprisonment and stint as a Congress president. One of them reads: “During the Independence movement, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was imprisoned nine times for a total of 3,259 days. The patriot spent about nine precious years of his life behind the bars.” 

In other rooms are Nehru’s cricket bat, walking stick and a sword, and his sartorial memorabilia has been reduced to a topi and a jacket. Before the revamp, his pajamas, achkan and other clothing items were also on display. 

In the “Interim Government” section, a screen runs a video of the transfer of power to the interim government led by Nehru. There are photos of him with his cabinet colleagues; three wall-mounted glass boxes are empty. In the “Partition section”, a video praises Mahatma Gandhi’s firefighting against communal frenzy. 

In the “Nehru gallery” earlier called the ballroom, a LED screen plays his famous “tryst with destiny” speech in Parliament. A copy of his handwritten speech also finds space. It sits along with a letter to Sardar Patel in which Nehru expresses his concern on destruction of mosques in Delhi. The PM cites one important mosque that has been converted into a temple and tells Patel that the “government must undertake to rebuild it”.

In another section titled “1947-48 War” between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, a screen informs visitors of how an embattled Hari Singh sought help from India against Pakistan and how the Indian Army successfully protected Kashmir from militants and the Pakistan Army. The story does not stop here. It moves to terrorism in Kashmir in the ’80s, blasts in the ’90s and the next decade, and the attacks on Parliament and in Mumbai.

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Scenes from the museum.
The 1947-48 war exhibit.

The extradition of Indian Mujahideen terrorist Abdul Wahid Siddibapa from the UAE in 2016 finds a mention too. The voiceover artist moves to the 2016 Uri terror attack in which 18 soldiers were killed. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi took an unprecedented decision in the honour of Indian forces and ordered a surgical strike to hit terror launch pads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir...India will no longer be a spectator and respond punitively.” 

It also talks about the Indian air strikes in Pakistan in the wake of killing of 40 CRPF soldiers by a JeM car bomber. Newspaper clippings flash on the screen. One of them reads: “Today, everybody’s chest measures 56 inches.” The video ends with Modi’s UN speech in 2014 in which he blames Pakistan for terrorism. Before this, the video lists terrorist attacks in London, Nairobi, Peshawar, Bangkok, Ankara, Beirut, Paris, Nice, Westminster and Manchester. 

In the gallery, touch tables and LED panels list Nehru’s achievements as a Prime Minister: building dams, IITs and IIMs, the formation of the now-dissolved Planning Commission, his role in the state reorganisation, and the origin of the Central Statistical Organisation and the Goa Liberation War. 

The “political development” section reveals the differences between Patel and Nehru over the pick for the president’s post. Nehru favoured C Rajagopalachari while Patel backed Dr Rajendra Prasad. Another event tells visitors about the circumstances under which Nehru dismissed the Communist-led Kerala government in 1959.   

A room has been dedicated to the 1962 India-China war and Nehru’s personal equation with Chinese premiers, including Mao Zedong and Chou Enlai. This is the new addition to the gallery. 

An LED screen flashes visuals of the war. “The Chinese offensive has been in the making for years. Despite the increasing number of skirmishes and warning by Army officers, Prime Minister Jawaharlal and his defence minister VK Menon continued to nourish the image that China would never resort to a full-scale war. Nehru believed that his investment in diplomacy and friendship was enough to ensure security. Therefore, defence preparedness was fully neglected,” the voice underlines. 

Under criticism due to recent India-China army clashes at the Line of Actual Control and illegal occupation of Indian land, the BJP-led Central government has faulted Nehru’s mistakes for today’s troubles. Another room features visuals and photos of Nehru’s final journey attended by disconsolate on-lookers.

The next gallery features gifts received by former and current prime ministers. The first room alone displays 28 glittering gifts of Modi. “This shows Modiji does not keep anything to himself. He is a large-hearted person,” a group of visitors is heard saying.

The other three rooms are divided among other PMs. Among them, Nehru’s Bharat Ratna jostles for space – easy to miss and hard to notice.

Space allocated to past prime ministers on the ground floor of Block 2.
Space allocated to past prime ministers on the first floor of Block 2.

The new building in Block 2 and another demonetisation

In the backyard of the Nehru building, another museum came up in 2021 at a cost of Rs 271 crore, to celebrate the contribution of each prime minister. This one has more advanced digital interventions such as virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D, holograms, kinetic, immersive and interactive technologies. This is in continuation of the Nehru museum and begins with the term of Gulzarilal Nanda. 

A levitating Ashok Stambh and 1,200 synchronised LED lights forming the Tricolour welcome visitors. 

After listing milestones of the Lal Bahadur Shastri-led government, it moves to Indira Gandhi’s term. The 1971 India-Pakistan war is prominently described on a big LED screen. India’s first successful nuclear test, and the abolition of privy purses also find a mention. A sub-section is devoted to the Emergency – a radio, a shutter TV and newspaper clippings headlined ‘censorship’ depicts repression of the press. A mock-up jail has the names of political prisoners, including LK Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The jail diaries of Jayaprakash Narayan, one of the tallest opposition leaders at that time, admonish Indira Gandhi. Indira had to face other challenges too: the influx of Bangladeshi migrants after the 1971 war and Punjab militancy, show displays.

Fourth PM Morarji Desai’s tulsi maala, pen, Bhagawad Gita and his photo with leaders of his time, greet this gallery. Visitors also learn about Desai’s decision to demonetise high value banknotes against the “menace of black money”. The current Modi government undertook a similar exercise in 2016. The gallery also talks about Desai’s suggestions that yoga classes be introduced in all schools and that India “should never abandon indigenous systems of medicine”. 

A wall panel with the pictures of Desai and foreign minister Vajpayee throws light on a shift in foreign policy. “In 1977, Israel foreign minister General Moshe Dayan came to India on a secret visit. Though India recognised Israel in 1950, it did not establish full diplomatic relations with Israel as Nehru did not want to anger the Arab countries.”

In the gallery devoted to Rajiv Gandhi, tragedies, controversies and scams find ample space, as do his five principles, the telecom revolution, computers, resolution of the Assam crisis, efforts against Punjab militancy, and decisions on defections, Ganga Action Plan, etc. “A political decision” against the Supreme Court decision in the Shah Bano case “cast an indelible shadow over Shri Rajiv Gandhi’s image”, reads a panel. Another screen says that Rajiv “was absolved of all blame or guilt by the legal process” in the Bofors case. 

VP Singh, who had resigned from the Congress over the Bofors case, became PM in 1989. An LED display notes that the government dismissed the J&K government after intensified attacks on Kashmiri Pandits. After noting the government’s achievements in the gallery, a “fall of the government” segment talks about LK Advani’s Rath Yatra, and the BJP’s withdrawal of support following his arrest in Bihar.

A second mention of the Babri Masjid is in PV Narshima Rao’s gallery. The display recognizes kar sevaks as “activists” who destroyed “the abandoned structure”, referring to the mosque. “On the morning of 6 December, 1992, activists suddenly entered the then disputed site of Lord Ram’s birth place in Ayodhya and destroyed.” 

Rao’s early life, political career, his astute foreign policy and the opening up of the economy triggered by the forex reserve crisis feature prominently.

The Vajpayee gallery is slightly more elaborate than Rajiv’s or Indira’s. A curved LED screen briefs on his education, RSS links and political career. It plays his famed speech during the no trust vote that he will not compromise with principles for power. A mock-up, multi-display room with controllers is reconstructed to relive the moment of the Pokhran-2 nuclear tests. After the countdown, the reconstructed room shivers, hinting at the nuclear test. Another curved LED screen recounts the Kargil war. Vajpayee’s visit to Pakistan to improve India-Pak relations, his other foreign policy measures, UN speech, telecom revolution and school education initiatives are highlighted. 

Unlike Nehru’s Bharat Ratna, Vajpayee’s is displayed prominently.

Vajpayee’s Bharat Ratna.
A panel on Ayodhya.

During Dr Manmohan Singh’s term, a panel recalls the Indo-US nuclear deal, and another chronicles his school and academic life. A screen shows visuals of the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. The fight against terrorism, promotion of industries, right to information and education, and National Food Security Act find a mention.

Among other former PMs who had shorter terms, Chaudhary Charan Singh’s warning to Pakistan, Chandra Shekhar’s initial challenge of arresting the economic crisis and his Bharat Yatra, the rollback of President’s Rule in J&K during HD Deve Gowda’s term and IK Gujral’s five doctrines also find space.

Outside the galleries, visitors can get a photo clicked with any of the 14 PMs, take a walk with them, or ride a virtual helicopter for “glimpses into India’s future” – Modi is the most popular among visitors.  

‘How can Congress’s role in freedom struggle be removed?’

In a separate gallery on “freedom and unity”, three short videos on Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and Subhas Chandra Bose inform visitors about their stellar contribution in the freedom struggle. Earlier, the Nehru memorial had depicted India’s freedom movement since 1857, but the role of the Congress in the freedom movement has been done away with. In the Patel video towards the end, the voice-over artist poses a question: “What would have been the history of 1947 if Sardar Patel had become the first PM of Independent India, as was the wish of the Congress party?”

Mridula Mukherjee, historian and former director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, says that the freedom movement was earlier covered through old photos or paper clippings. “This included the revolutionaries and the moderates. There were sections on the Home Rule League and Khilafat Movement. How would we tell the story of the freedom movement as there is no dedicated space to showcase this...And how can the Congress’s role in the freedom struggle be removed?” she asks.

However, chief curator Gauri Krishnan argues that both museums “are about prime ministers and not so much about freedom struggle”. “It was always meant to be the museum of prime ministers. But you can’t talk about the present without talking about what happened before 1947. The British legacy gallery (in Block 1) and ‘the freedom and unity’ (Block 2) gallery talk about the freedom movement.” 

“Earlier, the focus was solely on Nehru the freedom fighter. Now it also showcases the contributions by Nehru the Prime Minister. That way it has become a more updated museum,” says curator Vintee Sain, adding that his initiatives ‘temples of modern India’ as river valley projects and dams, IIMs and IITs set up were not part of the earlier story telling.

NMML deputy director Ravi Mishra and MJ Akbar, who spearheaded the revamp, are yet to respond to messages or calls for comment.

A Surya Kumar, vice-chairman of executive council of NMML, has not responded to a request for comment. NMML director Nripendra Mishra’s staff referred this correspondent to Ravi Mishra, who did not respond to calls or messages. In an interview on Doordarshan, Kumar had said that “the idea was to put together a journey from Independence onwards, and, of course, a bit of that story leading up to Independence”. 

On an average, around 1,500 people visit the museums on weekdays and up to 2,000 on weekends. The online ticket is priced at Rs 90 and other add-ons – such as audio guides, virtual helicopter ride, walk with PM, photo with PM and a signed letter by PM – cost Rs 400 more. Before the revamp, it was free and around 5,000 would visit daily.

Visitors Newslaundry spoke to marvel at restored buildings with tech-enabled story-telling. 

Delhi businessman Amit Agarwal, who has toured the museum with his family, says the aim was to show his children the personal rooms of Nehru. “They kept asking me to show them Chacha Nehru’s rooms. That’s why I am here.” He is surprised that Modi, despite being from the BJP, “has given equal space to all prime ministers without any discrimination”. 

Pune-based consultant Abhishek, who had visited the museum five years ago, seconds Agarwal. “I think every prime minister is represented here.” Recalling what it was like five years ago, he says: “The old building was shabbily maintained. Now it has been transformed and the artefacts received by Nehru are well-maintained.”

“We came to see the Modi gallery. But he is not here. This is a glaring miss. It was pleasant to see Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s gallery. And Nehruji! He is everywhere! Why? Please rectify this,” says another visitor.

Research assistance by Aanchal Poddar and Reet Kaur Sahni.

Update at 5.30 pm, January 9: This report has been updated with details of people contacted by Newslaundry for comment.

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