Saturday, December 4, 2010

Wikileaks and Indian Secrets



Ratan Tata recently stated that abroad India could soon be considered as a banana republic. Well, there is one domain where the Government is not really far from this definition: it is the declassification of historical documents. The Indian government does not seem to have realized that we are living in the era of Wikileaks.
During the coming weeks, the now-famous site will post more diplomatic cables. Though a large percentage are not interesting for the large public looking more for the juicy, gossipy type (such as the life style of Col Kaddafi and his nurses), several cables of the US Embassies abroad or the State Department have a historical interest and give a fascinating picture of world diplomacy.
Why should ‘common men’ not be informed of what his/her government decides for him or her and how? In a democracy should the government not work for the welfare of its citizens who are entitled to know what their ‘elected’ government does or decides in their name?
Unfortunately in India, all diplomatic and historical documents remain ‘classified’; in other words out of sight of ‘common men’ and even of ‘common’ scholars or historians.
Of course, if you can find a good sponsor, you can always go spend a couple of months in UK to consult the India Office Records, you will get a fairly good idea how (and who) created the Kashmir issue. But the same files (1947-1952) remain secret in India. I remember personally finding hundreds of such files on Kashmir in the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris, while one can only draw a blank in Delhi.
Take another well-known case: the Henderson Brooks Report of the 1962 fiasco. The Government has broken its own laws to keep it under wraps. Why? Even if the founder of the post-independence dynasty, Jawaharlal Nehru may have emerged in a bad light, why put a blanket on the entire corpus of diplomatic reports, letters, correspondences, etc. I have often been told: it is the way the babus function. But are we living in a modern democracy?
While Wikileaks daily provides us with fascinating details of the present Af-Pak policy of the US and other Western nations, the Government in Delhi is stuck on its antediluvian position; India is today one of the few nations which refuses to declassify archival material and this despite the fact that in 2005, the Right to Information Act was passed with fanfare by the Indian Parliament. In fact the law seems to have indirectly helped those who do not want India’s history to be known. Article 8 (1) (a) says: “There shall be no obligation to give any citizen,– (a) information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offense.”
This paragraph, interpreted by babus and politicians, is enough to make all the files of the Ministry of External Affairs, Defense and Home inaccessible to the public.
A recent example is found in a written reply that Defense Minister AK Antony gave to the Parliament to explain why the Henderson-Brooks could not be declassified. Antony claimed that the report, which was submitted to the Jawaharlal Nehru government in May 1963, could not be made public because an internal study by the Indian Army had established that its contents “are not only extremely sensitive but are of current operational value.” It is laughable that this 47 year-old report is still of ‘operational value’.
The officials who drafted the minister’s reply may have not even read the Official Report of the 1962 conflict prepared by the same Defense Ministry which details in 474 pages the famous ‘operations’. Amongst other things, the author rightly commented: “No major security threat other than from Pakistan was perceived. And the armed forces were regarded adequate to meet Pakistan’s threat. Hence very little effort and resources were put in for immediate strengthening of the security of the borders.” Nobody had even thought of China!
Maxwell, the South Asia correspondent for The Times in 1962 and author of India’s China War is one of the few persons to have had (unauthorised) access to the report. He commented on Antony’s statement: “Those reasons are completely untrue and quite nonsensical …there is nothing in it concerning tactics or strategy or military action that has any relevance to today’s strategic situation.”
The most surprising is not the Minister’s statement but the fact that nobody in India objected to it; no one decided to take the matter to a Court of Law.
We are living in a strange world.
Even the Secret Archives of the Vatican will open soon. Nick Squires wrote in The Telegraph: “After centuries of being kept under lock and key, the Vatican has started opening its Secret Archives to outsiders in a bid to dispel the myths and mystique created by works of fiction such as Dan Brown's Angels and Demons.”
But it is not only the Ministry of Defense which is guilty of confiscating India’s history. Recently The Times of India reported: “What steps does the government follow while deciding to declassify its old secret documents? You may never get to know since the manual that details the declassification process in the country is itself marked confidential.”
The PMO alone has admitted having 28,685 secret files, not one has been declassified in the recent years.
Even if the government officially swears by the rule to make files public after 20 or 25 years, the policy remains unimplemented.
I wonder if the babus have ever read Jawaharlal Nehru’s works. On 27 August 1957, in a Note to his Principal Private Secretary, the first Prime Minister of India commented about some persons having been refused access to the National Archives of India: “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. In fact, they should be considered, more or less, public papers.”
Ironically, the Chinese government is much more open. The Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center in the US has recently “obtained a large collection of Chinese documents detailing Beijing's foreign policy surrounding the Sino-Indian Border clashes [1962 War]”. The documents will soon be posted on the CWIHP website.
One such document is about the border talks between Zhang Wenji of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Indian ambassador G. Parthasarathy in 1961. To quote from this Chinese source: “During the 19 July conversation, Premier Zhou mentioned that following reports by officials on both sides, the Chinese side thought of three possible methods which we deemed unsuitable or impossible to adopt; R.K. Nehru mentioned that there might be a kind of fourth option – which is, both sides agreed to reconsider [the issues].” Parthasarathy replied: “The original idea was just to make use of the opportunity to exchange views on current Sino-Indian relations …the Foreign Secretary said there might be a kind of fourth method.” And he elaborated in detail.
It means that scholars will soon be able to research the 1962 conflict from a Chinese point of view, but not from the Indian.
Sometimes, I wish Wikileaks would do something about this non-sense, at least for old documents (with proper sanitization when really required). It would be a great service to India.

1 comment:

Sosha said...

It all probably boils down to the Indian penchant for being stubborn, preserving the "status quo", besides a touch of sheer laziness.