RARE is it in a charged and fractionalised political climate that the ‘turfing out’ of the office bearers of a society and its takeover by the government evokes muted criticism, if not a sigh of relief. It is as if even those belonging to the political party to which the ousted management claimed proximity were much too embarrased by the functioning of the institution to protest against what, at least on surface, was a violation of democratic norms.
The institution in question, The Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), Sapru House to those less academically inclined, was for nearly three decades the site of crucial research and debate about the country’s foreign policy. Its first-rate library, spacious conference facilities, the neighbourly presence of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the Press Institute of India, not to mention an inexpensive canteen and welcoming lawns, ensured that the facility became a favoured stomping ground of researchers, journalists and students. Being located at the Barakhamba Road circle helped – the area was the cultural hub of the capital – what with Triveni, Kamani auditorium, Sriram Cultural Centre, Rabindra Bhawan, the Sahitya and Lalit Kala Academies, FICCI, and Bengali Market next door.
The ICWA maintained its pre-eminence till its School of International Studies was merged with and shifted to JNU. With this move, its library lost some of its sheen and utility, as many of its journal holdings and archival records were moved out. With the property value far outstripping its brand value, scholarly interest in the institution declined, making it a prime candidate for takeover.
For over two decades, the ICWA society remained under the firm grip of Harcharan Singh Josh, a questionable Congress politician more reminiscent of the shady characters surrounding the extra constitutional authority in the Congress of the early ’70s than its founding fathers. That Josh managed, repeatedly, to be re-elected president of the society remains standing testimony to public, in particular academic, unconcern about the ‘planned’ decay of our institutions. Why are we, therefore, surprised that more than being engaged in scholarly debate on foreign policy, Sapru House became associated with raunchy Punjabi plays like Chadhi Jawani Buddhe Nu.
Over the years, the once formidable library became unrecognisable – like the building and the environs it became seedy. At some stage, the IDSA too moved out. All that remained of its one time vibrancy was the Press Institute, tucked away in a dusty corner. Media reports of the goings-on in the ICWA – financial misappropriation, the conversion of one of the rooms into an entertainment chamber by Josh, and so on – are completely believable. No wonder, when Minister Jagmohan dismissed the office-bearers, took over the Institute and appointed a committee to re-furbish the place and restore it to its old glory, there was widespread acclaim for the decision. The grouse, if any, was about the delay in intervention.
This, however, is not the normal trajectory of takeovers, particularly of cultural and academic institutions. The memory of the IGNCA is still fresh. And though there was unease, albeit muted, about the way that institute was pampered and run, disbanding and re-constituting the society, in particular stacking it with individuals better known for their proximity to the ruling party than cultural, academic or organisational credentials, did cause substantial dismay. Similarly, few of us have forgotten how Bharat Bhawan in Bhopal was destroyed, first by the Congress and then the BJP.
Sapru House may well regain its old glory. So far the individuals requested to revamp the library and spruce up the property enjoy credibility. This, however, is but the initial, and easy step. Once the enquires are over, blame apportioned and the guilty (hopefully) punished, will begin the more difficult task. Should such centres be run by a society/trust? What should be the extent of public funding? Should the management be left free to rent out portions of the building on a commercial basis to raise the needed monies for maintenance and upkeep? Above all, how should one ensure the involvement of the wider academic/intellectual community in the running of a public resource? Should not ownership, responsibility and accountability go together?
These are vital questions which need to be debated, constructively, so that decisions are not taken by default by bureaucrats and politicians. Leaving such matters to the government, or excessively relying on it for patronage has resulted in our public institutions being statised. Or alternatively, as is more likely these days, handed over to a corporate house on the plea of fiscal stringency. Either way, it would be an opportunity missed.