Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Should India’s history remain secret?

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… The archives [were], until now jealously guarded from prying eyes.”
This is not the case in India which is one of the few nations which refuses to declassify archival material (with North Korea probably) and this despite the fact that in 2005, the Right to Information Act was passed with fanfare by the Indian Parliament.
Unfortunately the new law seems to help 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 makes all the files of the Ministry of External Affairs, Defence and Home inaccessible to the public.
One of the most glaring (and foolish) examples of this outdated policy is the Henderson Brookes Report. Hiding behind this clause, the Government forbids the people of India to know what really happened in October 1962.
A few weeks after the debacle of October-November 1962, General J.N. Chaudhuri constituted a committee to study the causes of the 'Himalayan Blunder’. An Anglo-Indian general named Henderson Brooks (along with Brigadier P.S. Bhagat) was requested to go through the official records and prepare a report on the war. Sometime in 1963, the general presented his findings to Nehru. The report was immediately classified as 'Top Secret.'
One can understand that at the time the Prime Minister did not want the report to be made public, as he might have had to take responsibility for the unpreparedness of the army.
The tragedy is that this report, classified ‘Top Secret’ in 1963, continues to remain so today. Is it not distressing that 48 years after the event, the Government of India still gives a free hand to the Chinese to propagate their version of history?
Perhaps in the most bizarre statement ever made in Parliament, Defence Minister A.K. Antony told the MPs that the Henderson Brooks report “which was the result of an operational investigation into the failures of the Indian Army during the 1962 conflict with China” should remain a top secret document.
Why? The Minister explained: “Based on an internal study by the Indian Army, the contents (of the report) are not only extremely sensitive, but are of current operational value.''
Can you believe it? A report of the 1962 rout is still of current operational value!
Neville Maxwell, a foreign correspondent then based in India, who was unauthorisedly given a copy of the report (to write his book India’s China War) said: “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 statement itself but the fact that nobody in India objected to it; no one decided to take the matter to a Court of Law.
But it is not only the Ministry of Defence 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. Meanwhile, the PMO has admitted it has 28,685 secret files but has not declassified any this year.”
Even if the government officially swears by the rule to make files public after 20 or 25 years, the policy remains unimplemented.
In response to an RTI query filed by Anuj Dhar and Chandrachur Ghose who campaign for transparency in administration and run the website, the PMO admitted that it had declassified 37 files in 2007, 25 files in 2008 and none in 2009. Anuj Dhar rightly said: “Proper and time-bound declassification is in national interest”.
‘National interest’ is the core issue. The babus argue that they are holding on to the files to protect ‘national interests’, but is this tenable?
These babus (and the politicians) have obviously never 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: “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. In fact, they should be considered, more or less, public papers. …Also the fact that a Communist wants to see them is irrelevant. I do not particularly fancy this hush hush policy about old public documents. Nor do I understand how our relations with the British Government might be affected… As I said previously I could understand some particular paper being kept secret.”
Is the present Government ready to listen to Nehru? No.
Ironically, the Chinese government is much more open. The Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) 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 [read 1962 War]”. The documents will soon be posted in the ‘virtual archives’ of the CWIHP website.
It means that scholars will be able to research the 1962 conflict from a Western or Chinese point of view, but still not from the Indian.
Is this really in national interest? Scholars face a similar problem if they want to find out about the border issue with China or the relations with Pakistan over Kashmir; in fact the list is endless.
Sixty-three years of history of Independent India is today classified.
At least for one thing, one can respect the United States: its successive Administrations meticulously and regularly declassify historic documents pertaining to US foreign policy.
A series called ‘The Foreign Relations of the United States’ regularly make available to the general public “official documentary historical record of major foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity of the United States Government.” It can even be downloaded off the Internet.
The series include “all records needed to provide comprehensive documentation of major foreign policy decisions and actions of the United States Government.” 
The principles of historical objectivity and accuracy are clearly defined: “Records should not be altered or deletions made without indicating in the published text that a deletion has been made; the published record should omit no facts that were of major importance in reaching a decision; and nothing should be omitted for the purposes of concealing a defect in policy. And the Foreign Relations series should be published not more than 30 years after the events recorded.”
If they are not, anybody can take the government to court and win!
Over the past couple of years, the Nixon Administration documents have been declassified and published. Volume XI pertaining to the ‘South Asia Crisis, 1971’ has been posted online.
The editor notes the evolution of the Nixon Administration. His impartiality is demonstrated through the inclusion of various letters, cables, memos or classified documents. He initially points out the President’s reluctance to become involved in South Asia; as Henry Kissinger said: “When the Nixon administration took office, our policy objective on the subcontinent was, quite simply, to avoid adding another complication to our agenda.”
Nixon’s agenda was then a rapprochement with Communist China and a visit to Beijing to meet the Great Helmsman. The volume ends with what the Editor calls the ‘tilt toward Pakistan’; the dispatch of the aircraft carrier Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal to ‘restrain’ India was the external manifestation of this ‘tilt.’
Of course, this is history viewed from Washington; the question today is: why can’t we also have South Block’s perspective?
But there is worse. We are now told that several files pertaining to the Mukti Bahini operations during the Bangladesh Liberation War have been destroyed.
This was discovered after the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) Wajahat Habibullah had asked the Indian Government to declassify documents related to the 1971 war records in Army Eastern Command.
For the CIC, the law is clear: all records "older than 20 years must be disclosed, except under specific circumstances".
The CIC further clarified that government servants can be prosecuted for unauthorized destruction of government official records.
But as usual nothing will happen. Babus will hide behind another Act, the Official Secrets Act.
B. Raman, the security expert believes that this “has resulted in a situation in which no authentic account of national security management is available. Whatever studies have been done in public were based on open source information and leaks, which are often incomplete and unauthenticated.”
Today, a string of antiquated rules and regulations, red-tapism and an obscurantist mind-set not worthy of a dynamic country like India, remains in place. As a result, Indian history continues to be buried. Is it the hallmark of a mature nation?
It probably has an advantage: it allows politicians to sleep soundly. No skeleton can ever be found in the cupboards of South or North Block, unless it comes from abroad, in which case it can easily be dismissed as the work of ‘foreign hands’.

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