Saturday, June 8, 2019

Wanted: Historian’s office

My article Wanted: Historian’s office appeared in the Edit Page of The Pioneer.

Here is the link...

It’s high time that India re-organises its historical records. A revamp is crucial in this domain, as also others, especially if we want to become a respected world player Since the Lok Sabha results were announced, the Indian media has been speaking about rebooting, something you do when you change your..

Since the results of the Legislative Elections were announced, the Indian media have been speaking of re-booting, something you do when you change your Operating System (OS); new and high expectations about the new government probably explain the term and Modi 2.0.
Though analysts usually think is in terms of better control about internal security (with General Amit Shah in command) or improvement of defence preparedness with the trusted No 2 as Rashtra Mantri, many other fields need ‘rebooting’ too.
There is, however, one domain which is never mentioned by the commentators; it is the opening and reorganization of India’s historical records; a re-boot or revamp is absolutely crucial in this domain too, especially if India wants to become a respected world player.
Remember the standoff at the trijunction between Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan, during June-August 2017.
Day after day, Beijing used a historical argument, the 1890 Convention signed between the British and the Manchus, without reference to the main stake-holders, the Tibetans. For Beijing, it was the occasion to conveniently ‘erase’ several posterior agreements, particularly the 1914 Simla Convention, during which the northeastern border of India was defined (McMahon Line).
At that time, nobody countered China on the 1890 Convention, which spoke of an un-surveyed place called ‘Gipmochi’, but it was only in 1956 that a trijunction was demarked on a map, after a bold officer from the Indian Frontier Administrative Service, TS Murty, accompanied by staff from the Survey of India, found out that the tripoint was at Batang-la and not at all Gyemochen located a few miles south of the physical trijunction (Gipmochi was a misspelling for Gyemochen).
The Chinese could bluff the Indian media for nearly three months with their 1890 Convention. With the current re-booting, one can only hope that deep changes will soon take place in this domain.
A telling example is the Sikkim Papers.
Soon after the merger in 1975, the responsibility for the Himalayan State shifted from the Ministry of External Affairs to the Ministry of Home Affairs. An acquaintance, who as a young diplomat was posted in Gangtok in the Political Officer’s office recalled that at the end of 1975 he spent months going through all the historical records kept in Gangtok relating to the period between 1885 to 1975; it was indeed the Memory of the Himalaya.
Once his work over, the officer was told to dispatch the Papers to Delhi; four lakhs of precious files moved in six trucks to Delhi under CRPF escort.
South Block was keen to keep the Papers, but other officers, probably from the Intelligence Bureau prevailed and the corpus was taken away. Since then, these Sikkim Papers are missing in action; they would have an immense historical value today to prove that India and Tibet had a different relation than the one portrayed by China.
It is just symptomatic of a lack of interest in historical issues in India.
What can be done?
Leaving the Sikkim Papers aside for a moment, the first thing to do is to reopen the Historical Division in the Ministry of External Affairs. It existed till the 1990s when an officer decided to close it down, “we don’t need one more division”. As a result the MEA has today only a ‘Boundary Cell’ manned by a Lt Col from the Survey of India. It is insufficient when the country is facing so many boundary disputes (and will face more in the months and years to come).
The Division needs to be headed a professional historian, not a Foreign Service officer, bound by short tenures. When one reads some of the notes prepared the Historical Division available in the National Archives of India (NAI), one is surprised by the in-depth historical background material provided to the deciders to take decisions …and inform better the Indian public.
The Ministry of Defence faces a similar problem. The records of the Army for example, can’t be kept by a few officers posted for a short term, even if these officers are extremely dedicated. Only a professional from outside the Army hierarchy, can provide the professionalism and continuity required.
The same argument applies to other ministries, particularly Home Affairs.
One of the problems is that very few scholars have the necessary knowledge to go through the files to decide if there is anything which could jeopardise India’s ‘security’ or ‘national interests’. In my experience of years of working in the archives, particularly with the Nehru Papers at the Nehru Memorial Library (NMML), very few documents (perhaps one out of tens of thousands) would need to remain ‘classified’.
Of course, there are the ‘glamourous’ cases, i.e. the Henderson-Brooks-Bhagat report on 1962 or the report into the mysterious death of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966 in Tashkent.
In the later case, the Government was ordered by the Chief Information Commissioner to “consider the fundamental right to know and demand of the people, (and) to declassify (them), either through an expert committee or by any other process, to get the mystery probed and resolved”. Nothing happened.
The ‘right to know’ applies to all papers more than 25-years-old. It is not that India has no law; the Public Records Act exists, but unfortunately laws seem to have been made more for the ‘common man’, than for the Government offices. It is sad!
Apart from separate divisions in important ministries, what is today required is an Office of the Historian, directly under the Prime Minister’s Office, with a large oversight over the different historical divisions, sections or desks. It needs to be headed by a senior reputed historian, with a team of scholars who will make sure that the different divisions work properly and follow the laws about declassification. This would of course have to be closely coordinated with the National Archives of India and other State Archives.
The Historian or whatever name is given to the officer, should be of Secretary to the Government rank and able to coordinate with other ministries and supervise digitalization of records, joint indexing and timely transfer to the NAI.
The Historian should be supported by an advisory board of senior historians, diplomats, bureaucrats, army generals who could help him to decide for difficult cases.
Would this happen, it would be great re-booting; it would show that India has become a mature Republic and the ‘right to know’ is respected.

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