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Cloak of secrecy, and dagger of propaganda

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The Government’s obsession with suppressing important information in the name of national security has led to the proliferation of opacity and misinformation. The India-China border deliberation is an example of that

In 2009, The Times of India reported that the Prime Minister’s Office had admitted it had 28,685 secret files; none was declassified that year. The policy of opacity continued during the following years and probably some of these files have been lost since then, as there is no reason to believe that files in the PMO are better kept than in the Coal Ministry (a babu explained that the coal files got ‘misplaced’ because they were kept vertically instead of horizontally!).

The Government has become so opaque that it is today impossible to know which files are ‘classified’, lost or misplaced, since the manual that details the declassification process is itself marked ‘secret’. This is what Chandrachur Ghose, an RTI activist, was told by the PMO in response to a request a few years ago: “Declassification of files is done as per the manual of departmental security instructions issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Ministry has marked this manual as confidential and has declined to provide it.” The Indian Government’s arbitrariness and complete lack of transparency is shocking despite the Public Record Rules, 1997, which state that records that are 25 years or more must be preserved in the National Archives of India and that no records can be destroyed without being properly reviewed.

Of course, the Government has never read what Jawaharlal Nehru had written on the subject. In 1957, some historians asked to consult papers in the NAI to write a history of the Ghadar movement; the plea was refused as they were ‘secret papers’. When this was brought to Nehru’s attention, he said: “I am not at all satisfied with the noting on this file by Intelligence or by the Director of Archives. The papers required are very old, probably over thirty years old. No question of secrecy should apply to such papers, unless there is some very extraordinary reason in regard to a particular document… they should be considered, more or less, public papers. To say that they can only be seen by research scholars is not very helpful.”

The opacity is not restricted to ‘historical’ files; current issues such as the border dispute with China are victims of the secretive ways of the Government. Today, if the public lacks basic knowledge on the border issue, particularly the respective claims of both India and China, the blame can be squarely put on the Indian Government whose responsibility it is to inform the people about its dealings with China.

In this context, it is high time that the Government of India publishes a White Paper on its border with China, as was done in the past by the Ministry of External Affairs (between 1959 and 1965, 15 White Papers on the border issue, known as Notes, Memoranda and Letters Exchanged and Agreements signed between The Governments of India and China, were tabled in Parliament). Similarly in 1960-1961, after several rounds of talks between Indian and Chinese representatives, a detailed Report of the Officials on the Boundary Question was released.

If India has a case, and I believe that it has a strong one, it should be known and understood by the common man. The time has come for the Government to tell the people what has been going on during the several rounds of talks between the Special Representatives. Have the Chinese provided maps of their ‘perceived’ Line of Actual Control? If not, why? Has the LAC moved southwards since the 1960 talks? Are there two ‘perceived’ LACs? How many ‘perceived’ intrusions have occurred during the previous years and where?

For months, the media has mentioned intrusions across the LAC in Ladakh, whether it is near Daulat Beg Oldie, Siri Jap or Chumar, each time the Government has tried to keep a veil of secrecy as opaque as ‘coal(gate)’ on the issues: “This can’t be discussed publically; the common man can’t understand the intricacies of a situation inherited from history”, the babus will tell you.

It appears now that the Chinese have extended their ‘incursions’ to Arunachal Pradesh, particularly to the Anjaw district. Former (BJP) MP Tapir Gao claimed that early this month, the People’s Liberation Army intruded into Indian territory after over-running at least six of the nine Indian check posts. Mr Gao even affirmed that the face-off continued for some time near the McMahon Line.

Talking to The Assam Tribune, Mr Gao asserted that the incursion started around August 12. He explained that a group of BJP workers visited the area, located near Chaglagam in Anjaw district and confirmed the veracity of the information. The Indian public knows nothing about the situation in this remote part of Arunachal. Why is the Government keeping the issue under wrap?

Another case in the less-talked about Central Sector: Is India in possession of Barahoti (called Wuje by China), south of the Himalayan watershed? Is China trespassing in the area? Are the Chinese still intruding in the valley of Nilang, north of Gangotri? These are some of the questions which should be answered. Does the present Government understand that a well-informed Indian public would be a tremendous support to protect the borders of India against unwanted intrusions, incursions or transgressions?

The Fifth India-China Strategic Dialogue was held in New Delhi last week. While some progress is said to have been made in narrowing the ever-growing trade (im)balance in favour of China, Beijing remained stuck on its position on the border issue. The new Foreign Secretary, Ms Sujatha Singh, and her Chinese counterpart, Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin (who served many years as Director-General, Department of Treaty and Law in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) wanted to finalise a fresh Border Defence Cooperation Agreement. With China constantly creating trouble on the LAC, will a new agreement be more efficient than the previous ones of 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2012. Why a new BDCA? It seems just a pretext for the Prime Minister to visit Beijing.

On the subject of opacity; I want to make a prophesy: We shall never know what has happened to submarine INS Sidhurakshak. A few years ago, when Sandeep Unnithan of India Today magazine sought some information on the sinking of INS Khukri in December 1971, the Central Information Commission recommend that the Indian Navy (and the Indian Armed Forces) “build up their storehouse of information for disclosure at the appropriate time for the benefit of the students of India’s defence and to enhance the people’s trust in the armed forces’ undoubted capacity to ensure national security.” The requested files on INS Khurkri, however, remained ‘secret’ and South Block ignored the CIC’s recommendations. It is a great pity. A nation can and should learn from history.

 
 
 
 
 
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