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Should India's history remain secret?

June 17, 2010

The Secret Archives of the Vatican will open soon.
Posted by Claude Arpi
Claude Arpi Blog
June 9, 2010

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this outdated policy is the Henderson Brookes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 endthesecrecy.com, 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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