Saturday, January 29, 2000
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Centre of controversy
By Shubhabrata Bhattacharya

The functioning of IGNCA to be reviewed’

IF the release of three militants to facilitate the return of the IC-814 hostages from Kandahar is seen by a section of the people, even within the Sangh Parivar, as a blot on the image of the Bharatiya Janata Party government, the current imbroglio engulfing the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) may well damage the reputation of the Congress which is seen as a party capable of providing seasoned governance. Perceptions about 45 years of Congress rule may differ, but the IGNCA controversy does not only put a question mark on the party’s ability to govern but also raises a question about the performance of a former Minister whom the media had hyped as "Mr Efficient". Madhavrao Scindia’s, decision of 1995 has now been reversed by the Union Cabinet after the Attorney-General advised the government about the inherent weaknesses of the IGNCA trust deed.

  The National Democratic Alliance government’s decision to remove Sonia Gandhi from "life trusteeship" and the presidentship of the IGNCA, and the removal of trustees K. Natwar Singh, Ram Niwas Mirdha, Kapila Vatsyayan and H.Y. Sharada Prasad has been called into question in a petition filed by Mirdha before the Delhi High Court.

The IGNCA was set up as an autonomous public trust in March 1987 by the government to promote the preservation of Indian art and for integrated development of all the arts.

Over 23 acres of prime land in New Delhi’s Central Vista (located to the right of the India Gate, with the current estimated real estate value of is Rs 5,000 crore) were allotted for this prestigious project. A resolution of the Union Cabinet granted Rs 50 crore from the Consolidated Fund of India as a corpus to aid this Centre named after India’s former Prime Minister. Another Rs 84 crore was sanctioned for the construction of buildings to house the Centre . A public trust was set up in the memory of the former Prime Minister whom London’s The Economist had described as "Empress of India" after the 1971 war, and the present Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, then in the Oppo-sition, had paid a tribute by calling her "Durga". Without any doubt, the funds allotted were government funds. The land allotted was government land. The trust was set up under the presidentship of the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. There were six other trustees.

The original trust deed stipulated a 10-year term for the trustees, with one-third of them retiring in 1997, and the government filling the vacancies. The President of India, as Visitor, could appoint a review committee to scrutinise the Centre’s functions and the recommendations of this panel were to be binding, as per the original stipulation of the Union Cabinet in 1987. In view of the fact that public money, drawn from the Consolidated Fund of India, had been given as corpus, the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India was empowered to oversee its spending and audit the Centre’s accounts.

Though Rajiv Gandhi became IGNCA’s president in his capacity as the Prime Minister, his electoral defeat in 1989 did not alter his status. He held this position at the time of his assassination in 1991. (The National Front government of V.P. Singh and its successor, the Chandra Shekhar regime, did not disturb the set-up). Sonia Gandhi was appointed its president in 1991 during the rule of the P.V. Narasimha Rao-led government of the Congress.

On May 18, 1995, a meeting of the trust was held and the supremacy of Sonia Gandhi was established. Dr Kapila Vatsayayan, a former Secretary- level officer of the Human Resource Development Ministry, who was the Director of the Centre, wrote in the agenda papers that "the minutes of this meeting have been approved by Sonia Gandhi, president of the IGNCA Trust".

At this meeting, it was decided in effect to convert the trust from a public to a private body. It did away with all control of the government over its activities. The rights of the President of India as Visitor to review the functioning of the Centre were abrogated. Sonia Gandhi was made the life- president. The entire original trust deed was subjected to fundamental alterations and as the trustees felt that the government had no locus standi any more, the mandatory approval of the government to these changes was never sought. It was decided to have six life-trustees, including P.V. Narasimha Rao, R. Venkataraman (who recently resigned when the centre came in the eye of the storm) and, of course, Sonia Gandhi. There were to be six ex-officio trustees in addition to the life-trustees,including the Minister for Human Resource Development, the Chairman of the University Grants Commission. There was to be another category of trustees to be selected by the life-trustees for a period of five years from the following categories: the Minister for External Affairs or the Union Minister for Urban Affairs and Employment; Chairperson of Lalit Kala Akademi or Sangeet Natak Akademi; and Vice-Chancellor of either Delhi University, Jamia Milia or Jawaharlal Nehru University.

On May 30, 1995, Sonia Gandhi wrote to the then Minister for Human Resources Development, Madhavrao Scindia, and informed him about the approval given by the trustees to the alterations in the trust deed. On June 2, 1995, Scindia replied to her: "I have great pleasure in communicating to you the Government of India’s approval to the alterations".

Experts point out that such sanctions of the government are governed by Rule 4 of the Government of India (Transaction of Business) Rules, 1961, which stipulate that when a subject concerns more than one department, "no order be issued until all such departments have concurred, or failing such concurrence a decision thereon has been taken by or under the authority of the Cabinet". There is nothing on record to show that Scindia had consulted other ministries (in this case, Urban Affairs, Law and Finance) or sought the approval of the Union Cabinet.

The matter figured in Parliament with two MPs — Ghuman Mal Lodha of the BJP (a retired Judge) and E. Balanandan, a Communist — raising objections. The issue came before the government during the regimes of both H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral. Understandably, the file shuttled from one floor to another in Shastri Bhavan which houses both the Law and Human Resources Development Ministries.

Soon after the NDA government came to power in 1990, apart from the BJP making an official plea in the matter, Arun Shourie, now a member of the Union Council of Ministers, in his then capacity as a columnist, questioned the IGNCA trust deed. The government asked the Comptroller and Auditor-General to conduct an audit and the report left many questions unanswered. Meanwhile, a public interest litigation was filed in September, 1999, by a social worker, Naresh Pandey, before the Delhi High Court which prayed that the alterations made to the original trust deed on May 18, 1995, be declared illegal, ultra vires and violative of both the original IGNCA trust deed as well as the Constitution of India. In an interim ruling on September 23 last year, a Bench comprising Chief Justice S.N. Variava and Justice S.K. Mahajan observed that the government should "take such action as they deem fit provided it is permissible by law" to protect the locus standi of the government vis-a-vis the Centre as vast amounts of public funds and government land were involved. On January 8, 2000, acting on the basis of this order, the Minister for Youth and Culture, Ananth Kumar, did what his predecessor HRD Minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, had stopped short of and reconstituted the IGNCA Trust. He removed Sonia Gandhi and other life- trustees and appointed new trustees, including a new member-secretary, C.N.R. Shetty, a former Vice-Chancellor of Bangalore University. While Sonia Gandhi was retained as an individual trustee along with P.V. Narasimha Rao, Abid Hussain and Prof Yash Pal, new trustees — Sonal Mansingh, Bhimsen Joshi, Vedantam Satyanaraya Sarma, K.J. Yesudas, Anjolie Ela Menon, Aparna Sen, Vidyaniwas Mishra, S.Narasimhayya, M.V. Kamath and Bhupen Hazarika — along with ex-officio Union Ministers for Culture and Urban Development were nominated.

The changes have been challenged in a petition by a dropped trustee, Ram Niwas Mirdha, who has said that the government has no locus standi in the matter. At the time of writing, the matter is pending before a Bench headed by the Chief Justice in the High Court of Delhi.

In the dust raised by the Sonia Gandhi-related imbroglio, the role of the IGNCA has come under scrutiny. It has a reputation for having a good archive of old and valuable manuscripts on different aspects of Indian culture, including some on palm leaf, which have been collected after tremendous effort from various parts of the world. It is also a repository of over a lakh manuscripts which constitute an invaluable resource for researchers. The multimedia documentation done by the IGNCA on Gitagovinda too is perhaps forgotten. The fact that the corpus fund is entirely invested in government approved securities is perhaps also buried. And also ignored is the fact that at the push of a button, the IGNCA is in a position to provide rare material to scholars from India and abroad.

The fact that the Centre has completed one-tenth of the project on micro-filming of 10 million folios on two lakh manuscripts from 80 to 90 leading libraries in the country has also brushed aside as winds of change sweep this venture.


‘The functioning of IGNCA to be reviewed’

THE functioning of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts is to be reviewed in the coming days to know whether the Centre has been functioning according to the guidelines given by the government. The review will involve the accounts of the Centre, its achievements and other aspects. This was stated by the new member- secretary of the IGNCA, N.R. Shetty, in an exclusive interview to R. Suryamurthy. Excerpts:

N. R. ShettyAs the new member-secretary, are you satisfied with the working of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA)?

The functioning of the IGNCA will be reviewed in the coming days. The financial and academic functioning of the Centre will be reviewed to find out whether it was functioning according to the prescribed guidelines.

The Comptroller and Auditor-General in its report had passed adverse remarks on the IGNCA’s handling of its finances. The CAG said the creation of a corpus fund of Rs 50 crore was in violation of financial rules, the modalities followed in awarding the contract for the IGNCA’s building were contrary to the rules and the spending of money by the centre was without proper authorisation. Your comments.

An audit of the accounts will be done to find out the truth. Apart from the financial audit, a review would be carried out on the academic side, too, as the IGNCA had been created to be a centre of national excellence.

There is a need for this kind of audit to find out whether the IGNCA had been able to achieve its goal of being a national centre of excellence. Though the Centre has some rare manuscripts and other works under its collection, it needs to be seen whether the tax payers’ money was properly utilised.

The review would be carried out by a third party to have an unbiased and correct picture of the state of affairs in the IGNCA.

The IGNCA has been controversial since its inception. The appointment of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, as the Centre’s president for life aggravated the whole issue. Given this background, what do you have to say about the recent action taken by the government?

The government has only corrected the wrong amendments made to the original trust deed.

As per the original trust deed gazetted on March 19, 1987, the IGNCA’s trustees were to have 10-year terms.

However, the original trust deed was amended in 1995 and Congress president Sonia Gandhi was appointed IGNCA president for life.

Attorney-General Soli Sorabjee has stated that the amendments to the original trust deed were illegal.

What have been the achievements of the IGNCA since its inception?

The third party review of the academic arena would state whether the IGNCA has fulfilled its given goals or not. The Centre has in its collection rare material on Indian manuscripts from within the country and abroad.