Tharoor on Modi’s Degrees and India’s Poor Record-Keeping History

Unlike the West, India has a poor record in preserving its rich history and traditions, writes Shashi Tharoor.

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
Recent row over degrees of PM Modi highlights the issue of abysmal state of public record-keeping. (Photo: The Quint)

The brouhaha surrounding Smriti Irani’s and Narendra Modi’s inability to produce their college certificates – and the haplessness of the educational institutions seeking in vain to find them -- is representative of a much larger problem than that of a transient political controversy. It reflects a general negligence in our society towards preserving important documents and artefacts.

History is the lifeblood of the nation, and yet we do little to maintain the key items of our culture – documents, manuscripts, monuments and art, to name a few. A society with a written tradition going back over 3,000 years has precious little to show from its distant past. The negligence of the state of our historical items does a disservice to our culture and national identity.

How many of us can find our own degree certificates easily, for that matter? Or our birth certificates? Or marriage certificates? What is it about our culture that we prize these documents for immediate instrumental purposes – to get a job or apply for a passport – and then promptly forget them “somewhere”? Why have we never learned to value, or prize, these records of fact or achievement as to preserve them for easy retrieval?

Whereas letters, manuscripts, certificates and official documentation are routinely preserved in other societies and instantly retrievable from institutional databases, our culture is a miasma of mislaid documents. We can of course plead unavailability of resources, from the space needed to store material to the technology needed to preserve them. But our failure is transcendent.

Preservation of Documents

Where is our equivalent of the Magna Carta? What’s the oldest available copy of the Bhagavad Gita? Come to more recent times: while First Folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays are lovingly preserved in a number of collections in the Western world (and I have personally experienced the magic of touching a copy with my own hands), Kalidasa’s masterpieces have been allowed to crumble into dust, so that all we have of perhaps the greatest litterateur of our civilisation is estimated to be less than a tenth of his priceless oeuvre.

The university and its library are, globally, the steward of historical documents. The largest and most valuable library collections are traditionally public libraries, like the US Library of Congress or university libraries (Harvard University houses the largest such collection, with 73 libraries and over 18 million volumes). And yet, in India, universities, much less well endowed, pale by comparison.

When I was working on my doctoral thesis, I found the University of Syracuse’s library had a better collection of original material on Indian foreign policy than any Indian university did (thanks in part to being headed by an Indian librarian, the legendary Gurnek Singh). Maintaining a large university library is resource-consuming endeavour (Harvard’s libraries have a budget of several hundred million dollars), and India’s public universities (which tend to be the pre-eminent universities in India, unlike in the US where private universities with large endowments tend to dominate) do not have the resources needed to maintain and grow such huge collections.

Abject Neglect

But the problem goes beyond the preservation of documents and manuscripts. India is home to some of history’s most prized pieces of art, the origins of which span millennia and transcend the coming-and-going of dozens of cultures and nations. Raja Ravi Varma, India’s most celebrated painter (born in Killimanoor, near my constituency of Thiruvananthapuram), produced work that was treasured not only in Kerala but across all of India and the world. He famously combined European aesthetic forms with Hindu iconography. His art was displayed in galleries from Travancore to Vienna. He married European oil painting, realism and visual culture with idealised images of Hindu gods and characters from Indian myth.

The result was a collection of masterpieces which also revolutionised India’s popular art, culture and iconography at the cusp of the last century. But what are the remnants of Varma’s legacy, enshrined by the status of his works that we inherited? The paintings are decaying in appalling conditions.

The principal gallery that houses them in Thiruvananthapuram is not even air-conditioned, and vandals have scratched and gouged several priceless originals. One might look with hope instead to the Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore, which houses a large collection of Ravi Varma’s paintings.

The beauty of the art is compromised by the sordid state of the facilities meant to protect it. The sun, dust and water have each taken their toll. Think of how much less consequential work is lovingly preserved and protected by other cultures, and it becomes truly a crying shame that India can’t do better.


Union Minister  Arun Jaitley and BJP chief Amit Shah during a press conference on  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s educational qualifications in New Delhi, on May 9, 2016. (Photo: IANS)
Union Minister Arun Jaitley and BJP chief Amit Shah during a press conference on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s educational qualifications in New Delhi, on May 9, 2016. (Photo: IANS)
Snapshot

Malaise Afflicting Public Records

  • Row over PM Modi’s degrees highlights the abysmal state of affairs when it comes to maintaining public records.
  • Unlike western countries, India is way behind in terms of resources and technology for preserving manuscripts and documents.
  • Libraries abroad play an important role in archiving, compared to abject neglect the Indian universities are subjected to.
  • Some of the famous artwork, including that of Raja Ravi Varma, is on the verge of decay in the absence of its proper retrieval.
  • Lack of transparency in keeping records encourages manipulation by politicians who take advantage of glaring loopholes.
The very nature of religion and its institutions in India did not necessarily require the careful bookkeeping of documents that was demanded of Christianity to ensure its survival and growth. (Photo: iStock)
The very nature of religion and its institutions in India did not necessarily require the careful bookkeeping of documents that was demanded of Christianity to ensure its survival and growth. (Photo: iStock)

Documenting the Past

Religious institutions are another key agent of housing historical documents. But the very nature of religion and its institutions in India did not necessarily require the careful bookkeeping of documents that was demanded of Christianity to ensure its survival and growth. India did not historically have the same obsession with evangelising Hinduism that, say, the Catholic Church did with ensuring the adoption of the faith worldwide. For the Catholic Church, the preservation of historical documents was a key papal duty of generations past; it functioned in service of the legitimacy of the church in light of its evangelising mission.

Formal scholarship was important to this end as it determined one’s status as a scholar in the clergy (which served key political, spiritual, and academic roles in society). As a result, the Vatican Library – one of the world’s oldest libraries (est. 1475) houses one of the most significant collections of texts (1.1 million printed books), encouraging such religious scholarship on Christian thought. The result is an institution of carefully catalogued and protected historical documents.

Of course, the nature of Hinduism – a decentralised (mostly un-institutionalised) religion lacking a period of direct and deliberate expansionary practices -- never needed a central library for its survival. But the story of documents from Buddhism and Jainism is not much better. Material was preserved in monasteries but had to be unearthed, often in fragments. Authentic archives? Perish the thought.

Maintaining Public Record

Even the Indian government lacks comprehensive and accountable routines for maintaining accessible public records. The wider lack of transparency across the government keeps important information outside the discriminating gaze of public scrutiny. Public records are evidence of transactions between two parties, serving a political purpose.

For instance, an MP might write to a minister advocating a favour for a constituent. The record of this action can be paraded amongst the MP’s constituents to solicit public support. But some records might be damning to a politician’s career and are thus best kept away from public attention. And thus our public officials are not incentivised to build a comprehensive system for maintaining such records. Instead, they are encouraged to release records when it is politically beneficial -- as is the case with the Netaji archives or, perhaps, if they can be found, Prime Minister Modi’s college degrees.

(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and author)

Also read:

UDF’s Impressive Record May Drive its Comeback in Kerala: Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor on Nepotism, Retail Politics and Being an MP

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