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To learn from history, declassify all the files
It is a fact that there is no proper declassification policy in India. The greatest tragedy is that the ‘classified’ files are lying in the almirahs of various ministries, where no scholar, researcher or history-lover has access to
During his meeting with 35 members of Subhas Chandra Bose’s family, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that his Government had decided to declassify all the files related to Netaji. Mr Modi further tweeted that he will request the foreign Governments to declassify files on the Indian National Army’s leader available with them: “Shall begin this with Russia in December.”
PTI commented, “The demands for declassification of secret files have been growing lately, especially after the Mamata Banerjee Government in West Bengal recently declassified 64 files which were in its possession.”
That is good news, but it is the tiny crest of a colossal iceberg. Netaji’s disappearance in Formosa or Lal Bahadur Shastri’s strange demise in Tashkent, are ‘scoopy’ parts of the history of modern India; however, millions of files await ‘declassification’ in different ministries and nothing is said or done about it.
Incidentally, this writer always was wondered why Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who still could shoot sharp letters till December 12-13 of 1950, suddenly passed away two days later. Has any inquiry been made into this? It was anyway heartening to read Mr Modi’s tweet: “There is no need to strangle history. Nations that forget their history lack the power to create it.”
This clearly raises the larger issue: The iceberg itself; ie, the declassification of all historical documents older than 25 years, not just the ‘famous’ cases. Today, ‘classified’ files are lying in the record rooms of the Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of Defence or Ministry of Home Affairs, where no scholar, researcher or history-lover has access. This is one of the greatest tragedies of independent India.
Why is it a tragedy for India? India is unable to properly assess its own history as long as all these files remain locked in the respective ministries’ almirahs.
Why can’t Indian (or foreign) scholars be able to write India’s history from Indian archives and not from the British, US, Soviet (or even Chinese) declassified archival material, as it is the case today. The only history of modern India has so far been written by ‘court historians’, not serving India, but their master(s).
A few days after meeting the Bose family, Mr Modi addressed the 10th annual convention of the Central Information Commission; he stated, “Secrecy could have been the norm during some old times but I don’t think there is need of such secrecy now. Transparency brings in simplicity and speed in the working of the Government.”
He was of course speaking about the Right to Information Act, but his remarks could apply to history too. After the proscribed time gap has elapsed, scholars and the public at large should be allowed not only to look into a few ‘famous’ cases, but all aspects of the nation’s history should be transparently made easily available.
The Modi sarkar has come with great hopes: Many thought that the old policy of ‘political classification’ would change; but obviously, bureaucratic resistance, the general ‘tamas’ is not that easy to overcome.
For example, soon after taking over as the new Defence Minister, Mr Arun Jaitley informed the Rajya Sabha: “The Henderson Brooks report on 1962 Indo-China war is a ‘top secret document’ and disclosure of any information about it would not be in the national interest.”
When in the Opposition, Mr Jaitley had himself vociferously been in favour of declassifying this very document. Incidentally, very few politicians noticed that the famous report written by the Anglo Indian General, had already been ‘released’ by the old Australian journalist Neville Maxwell and was online since March 2014.
One can only applaud when the Prime Minister speaks of good governance, transparency and accountability, but the fact remains, and it is quite appalling, that there is no proper professional declassification policy in India. One could argue, why is it so important for a nation to know its past? The simple answer is because a society is entitled to learn from its past mistakes …and past glory. For this, however, history has to be based on the nation’s own archival sources.
To give an example in which this writer has been personally involved: The history of modern Tibet; you can find plenty of books based on American documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, which ensures public access to all US Government records. The FOIA legally carries a presumption of disclosure; the burden is on the Government not the public to substantiate why information should not be released.
One can also visit the India Office Records near London. The British have meticulously kept the records of the Raj, which are open to the general public for consultation and research.
As a result, one gets a version of history of the Indo-Tibet or Sino-Indian relations only from the Western and the Chinese points of view, and not India’s. Isn’t it shocking? This example could be multiplied by any number of topics.
Today, the Indian version of the post-independence history of India is full of political clichés, as it has been written by ‘eminent’ historians serving one party only.
Another drawback of the non-classification is that documents get lost in the ministries; for example the Himmat Singhji Report of 1951 on the defence of the Indian borders, is, according to a Government submission to the CIC, not ‘traceable’.
The Public Record Rules, 1997, 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 recorded or reviewed. Legally, it’s mandatory for each department to prepare a half-yearly report on reviewing and weeding of records and submit it to the NAI. This is valid for all the ministries, including the Ministry of External Affairs, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Defence.
While the personnel declassifying historical documents (fully or partially) should make sure that it does not jeopardise the security of the country, at the same time this should not be a pretext to block the due process of declassification, like it is often done.
One genuine problem is the lack of ‘professionals’ to do the job. But there are certainly enough young talents in India, who can be trained and later assigned to work on declassification.
India has an open-minded Foreign Secretary, who recently introduced the concept of ‘lateral entry’ into the ministry; under this scheme or a similar one, it should not be difficult to find young scholars, who could work in a time-frame under the supervision of a senior historian.
The first thing to do is to create a historical division in each important ministry; to put the division under the care of a professional and reputed historian (with a team of concerned motivated youngsters) and give the latter full responsibility and the means to do the job. But has the bureaucracy the will to come out of the prevalent lethargy? As always, it is certainly easier to do nothing!
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