Thursday, August 27, 2009

Indian Rulers and History

Indian rulers do not like history. It is difficult to understand why; is it a genetic problem? While for thousands of years, the Chinese Emperors made sure that the details of their lives and times were noted for posterity, India has hardly any historical and political records of her past except for a few pillars and stone writings of Ashoka’s time. In China, the Records of the Grand Historian and the Bamboo Annals meticulously recorded the life during the Xia dynasty, 5000 years ago.
This disdain for history by Indian rulers has continued till our times. The recent controversy around a book on Mohammed Ali Jinnah is one more symptom of this deficiency. It is not my purpose here to go into the rights or wrongs of Jaswant Singh’s work (which I have not yet read), but it is sad that in the 21st century, ideology dictates what history should be.
The Buddha’s words come to my mind: “As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it (on a piece of touchstone), so are you to accept my words only after examining them and not merely out of regard for me."
What is the problem if there are 10, 20 or 50 versions of the same historical events? After scrutinizing all arguments and points of view, one can get a fairer idea of what really happened and still keep one’s beliefs. In any case, to ban a book because it does not paint the baddies black and the good guys white and therefore does not fit the Party line may be acceptable in a totalitarian country, but certainly not in the largest democracy of the world.
But there is worse. Today the Indian rulers have confiscated all recent historical records lying in the vaults of the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund Library or in South Block. The leaders in Delhi (whether they belong to the UPA or the NDA) have continued to confiscate the history of modern India on lame and fabricated excuses or because they believe that it belongs to them!
The most notorious example is the report prepared by Lt. Gen. Henderson-Brook on the October-November 1962 debacle. Forty-six years after it was presented to the Government of India, the report is still kept in a locked almirah in the North Block Office of the Defense Secretary. Very few have had the privilege to go through the pages written by the Anglo-Indian general.
A few months back, Mr. A K Antony, the Defense Minister gave a written reply to Rajeev Chandrashekhar, a Karanataka MP from the Rajya Sabha who had asked about the status of the report. The Minister made an amazing statement: “The Hunderson [sic] Brook Report on 1962 Indo-Sino war still remains classified and unreleased. Considering the sensitivity of information contained in the report and its security implications, the report has not been recommended to be declassified in the National Security interest.”
The fact that the name of the author of the Report is misspelled tends to prove that Mr. Antony has probably not read the findings of Henderson-Brook himself.
It is surprising to read about the ‘sensitivity of information and its security implications’ supposedly contained in the 1962 conflict report. Neville Maxwell, author of India's China War is one of the few persons who was given access the famous account of the War. Why? Nobody knows! But in 2001, he wrote in the Economic & Political Weekly about his theory that the war was only due to Nehru's aggressive policy and subsequently China had no other choice but to launch a 'pre-emptive attack' in the NEFA. Maxwell nevertheless admitted: "The report includes no surprises”.
On December 31, 2007, when asked to decide if a report pertaining to the INS Khukri which sank south of Diu on December 8, 1971 could be declassified, the Central Information Commission (CIC) made an interesting remark.
The CIC recommended that the Ministry should build 'a storehouse of information' for scholars or historians. “We recommend that the Indian Navy and, in fact the Indian Armed Forces build up their storehouse of information, as mandated u/s 4(1) of the RTI Act, 2005 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.”
Babus must have slept on the recommendation since then.
During the arguments, the Ministry of Defense in whose custody the files are gave a most amazing argument: “the tactical evaluation and recommendations contained therein were still the basis of Naval strategy, so that their disclosure would compromise security.”
The Indian Naval strategy has not changed for nearly 40 years!
More recently, when Anuj Dhar, a journalist asked the PMO about a file on the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent, the PMO acknowledged that they were holding one document about Shastri’s death, but they could not give it under the RTI Act because its disclosure would lead to ‘some trouble’.
When Dhar appealed, he was told by the PMO: “I appreciate the point made by you in favour of transparency. However, on perusal of document in question and after giving the matter a careful consideration I am satisfied that exemption sought under Section 8 (1)(a) has been invoked rightly.”
Today the tragedy is that the Right to Information Act protects those who do not want India’s history to be known. Article 8 (1) (a) says: that “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 offence.“ It is enough to cover for 100 years all blunders and mischief by those who have made India’s modern history, particularly the present ruling family.
This practically bars any scholar or organization from doing what is regularly done in the US: asking a court to verify if a specific classification is still justified after 30 years. A ruling of the Supreme Court will probably be necessary to clarify this point.
What are the strategic interests of the Indian State today? To protect politicians and babus?
The end result is that if you want to study the recent history of India, you have to rely on US or other Western archives.
Most foreign governments strictly declassify official documents after 20 or 30 years. Incidentally, the US Freedom of Information Act “establishes a presumption that records in the possession of agencies and departments of the executive branch of the U.S. Government are accessible to the people.” This is not the case in India.
Some may argue that the United States or France are ‘developed’ nations which can ‘afford’ the cost of sifting through historical documents and the process of declassification, but it is again a wrong argument.
While the bureaucrats do not see any utility in opening the ‘old’ files, Indian politicians see their own vested interests in the continued closure of the archives: it could make them accountable.
As things stands, politicians can undoubtedly sleep soundly. No skeleton will ever be found in their cupboards except if it comes from abroad, in which case, it can be dismissed as the work of ‘foreign hands’.
But if India wants to become a great power, why should her people not be allowed to know about her past? Is that not the hallmark of a mature nation?

No comments: