Public money, private fiefdom

There is a disturbing trend in recent years for state-funded institutions to become controversial on account of being controlled by politicians or bureaucrats, often both. If there was Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, there was the Indian Council of Cultural Relations in Delhi. And now, tenaciously hogging the limelight, is the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). In this case, the abuse of power by the politician-bureaucrat nexus is so gross that it merits informed debate on the extent to which the power elite should be permitted control of public institutions, and the safeguards required to prevent misuse of public funds for private advantage.

Kargil has demonstrated the strength of Indian nationalism. The spontaneous valour of tragedy-hit families through the length and breadth of the land could wring tears from stone. What the nation now needs to develop is an inflexible will to resist encroachment of national interests by privileged predators, at all levels of public life. Public disgust at the rapaciousness of privileged citizens must be met by cold-blooded determination to repel such depredation.

The IGNCA story is one of sheer abuse of power. The wealthiest cultural institution in the country, it has a 100-crore corpus, and 21 acres of prime land in New Delhi’s Central Vista worth over five thousand crores. But more important are the heritage assets of inestimable value on the international antique art bazaar, the appropriation of which is central to the struggle for control of the organization. A close look at events in the IGNCA will show how public institutions can be taken over by well-connected individuals for private ends.

IGNCA was set up as an autonomous trust in March 1987, after a cabinet decision, to promote the preservation and integrated development of all the arts. The then Prime Minister, Mr Rajiv Gandhi, became its President. Other Trustees included Mr R. Venkataraman, Mr P.V. Narasimha Rao, Ms Pupul Jayakar, Mr Brahm Dutt, Mr H.Y. Sharada Prasad, and Ms Kapila Vatsyayan (member secretary).

I list the names so readers may realize the depths to which persons at the top of the power pyramid can sink when divorced from public ethic and shielded from accountability, and the nature of vigilance required to make a democracy democratic. Mahatma Gandhi once rued ‘the spirit of man is great, how puny are his deeds.’ This, then, is a tale of puny deeds.

IGNCA’s original trust deed stipulated a 10-year term for the trustees, with one-third retiring when the terms lapsed in 1997, and the vacancies being filled by the government. The President of India, as Visitor, could appoint a Review Committee to scrutinize its functioning (its recommendations were binding), and as the government had given it a corpus of over fifty crore rupees, the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) was to audit its accounts.

When Rajiv Gandhi died in 1991, Sonia Gandhi was allowed to replace him as President of the Board of Trustees, though she had no official status or public stature. By 1995, however, the term of the trustees was coming to an end, as was the term of the Narasimha Rao government, and it did not require much prescience to foresee a Congress defeat in the forthcoming polls. A coup seemed to be in order.

So it transpired that in the midsummer of 1995, the six supremos met and effected radical changes to the Trust Deed. “Private Citizen” Sonia Gandhi became lifetime President, while the others became lifetime Trustees. The government was deprived of the right to appoint the Member-Secretary, and the Visitor’s (President of India) right to appoint a Review Committee denied. The trustees further assumed the right to appoint more “ex-officio” and “co-opted” members, while the Human Resources Development Minister was reduced from ex-officio chairman to ex-officio member, a provision resented by S.R. Bommai when he took charge in 1996. Some of the co-opted members include Dr Manmohan Singh, Mr P.N. Haksar, Mr Ram Niwas Mirdha and Dr S. Varadarajan.

These sweeping changes were in complete violation of Article 24 of the original Trust Deed, which stipulated that all amendments required the “prior written approval” of the Government. Interestingly, this stipulation itself was deleted in the amended deed. Subsequently, Ms Pupul Jayakar passed away, and Ms Vatsyayana sought to take her place as cultural czarina (some say Conquistador). Former ASI Director-General, M.C. Joshi, who suppressed the report of B.B. Lal’s excavations in Ayodhya, was made Member-Secretary.

The then HRD Minister, Madhavrao Scindia (a trusted Sonia lieutenant to this day), approved the new deed within a fortnight of the meeting, without reference to the cabinet, or even the Finance and Law Ministries. Indeed, both amendment and approval were secret, and it was only in February 1996, when IGNCA approached the centre to enhance the capital cost of the building that the amended deed was furnished along with the application.

As a bewildered government sought legal remedies, the Attorney General opined that the nature and effect of the amendments entirely transformed the basic structure of the original trust deed. As the government was the sole funding agency, any move to deprive it of the power to appoint the Member Secretary, give prior approval to intended amendments, or approve appointment of the Review Committee, was tantamount to doing away with all checks and controls. These, he opined, were essential features of the trust, and could not be abrogated by any amendments.

It follows that the amendments are invalid. Since the government had not given “prior written approval” of the changes, Scindia’s post facto approval has little value. Moreover, under the Government of India (Transaction of Business) Rules, 1961, since the original deed was approved by the cabinet, any amendments/alterations also required cabinet approval. Besides, the changes required a mandatory reference to the Law and Finance Ministries, both of which were ignored.

Legally, the alterations are nonest, and have not come into effect. Yet the conspirators remain in control. Despite the Government’s twice conveying the legal position to the trust, it has not even received a reply. It remains to be seen what is the response to the Centre’s directive to the CAG (which was not allowed to audit the accounts from 1994) to undertake an audit.

The absolute control sought by the trustees raises important questions about the ownership, management and control of the vast heritage assets collected by IGNCA over the past decade. IGNCA staff have collected and preserved over five thousand manuscripts from all over the country; which were subsequently microfilmed as well. Living local and folk traditions of puja, tantric and temple traditions, folk art traditions, were also preserved on microfilm, and form an invaluable national asset. Today, however, officials are in the dark about the condition of the manuscripts and microfilms, and the ownership status of these assets if control of the institution is not wrested back from the usurpers. Given the enormous struggle involved in retrieving the Simon Norton Trust’s Chola Natraj for Tamil Nadu and the Krishna Janma statue for Madhya Pradesh from abroad, these are not small concerns.

IGNCA is the nation’s paramount body of cultural patronage, and is already under a cloud for patronizing questionable scholars of foreign lineage. It is clearly against the public interest for the government – any government – to give up control over such a rich institution created solely out of the public coffer.  Clearly the time has come for all good Indians to be more heritage conscious.

The Pioneer, 22 June 1999

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