Legacies of leaders belong to the cultures that shaped them and the nations they ruled or shed their blood for. Buildings, like human bodies, are just shells in the Vedic sense; where nostalgia lingers and the phantom footfalls of their bygone occupants remind visitors of another age. Jawaharlal Nehru lived in Teen Murti Bhavan as the prime minister of India between 1948 and 1964. After that it was turned into a museum to honour his life and memory. The Narendra Modi government has decided to transform the building into a memorial for all Indian prime ministers.One of them, Manmohan Singh, has written to his successor, asking him not to do so.
But why not?
Teen Murti Bhavan is not a symbol of independent India but represented Britain’s imperial rule in Delhi. Called ‘Flagstaff House’ from 1930 to 1947, it started life as the winter headquarters and home of the Commander-in-Chief of Forces in India—the last one being Field Marshal Auchinleck. He led the combined colonial armies of India, Britain and the princely states. And ‘teen murti’, representing the three statues of Indian soldiers, was not created by a native artist.
It was by British sculptor Leonard Jennings built to honour the memory of warriors who fell serving the Raj against the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Haifa. So, a building that was the command centre of British forces ruling India and a memorial to Britain’s victory over another empire are not the spoils of war for a single prime minister, but for Indian democracy in toto—though Nehru did say he was an Indian by birth but an Englishman at heart. Hence, Dr Singh should not perhaps see it as a BJP plot, because it will be housing the legacies of Congress prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi too; both with bloodlines to Nehru.
The residences of rulers are rarely preserved to advertise their personal glory. All American presidents have lived in the White House since John Adams in 1800; it was the first president George Washington who chose its location and approved its design before he died in 1799. From 1742, 10 Downing Street has been the home of the British prime minister ever since King George II offered the buildings as a personal gift to Sir Robert Walpole, often referred to as Britain’s first Prime Minister. He asked that it be given instead to the Office of First Lord of the Treasury. The Kremlin complex is where Russia’s rulers have lived since the Tsars.
Indian prime ministers have kept shifting house, until Rajiv decided to settle down in Race Course Road. Teen Murti being the home of India’s first PM belongs to the nation. As do all its prime ministers. It is not the palatine of a clan but the seat of the supplanting of colonial rule by Indian freedom power.