Access to information is one of the keys to democracy. Allowing citizens to seek and receive public documents adds to this democratic heft.
So, when the Modi government decided to declassify the files relating to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and make them accessible to the public in 2015, it was regarded as a great step forward. The National Archives of India (NAI) subsequently released digital copies of 75 declassified files relating to Netaji in the public domain.
But this declassification, as it turned out, was a bit selective. If remarks made by the National Archives' top boss this week are anything to go by, then it becomes clear that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Astonishing as it may appear, the National Archives, the central repository of the government’s non-classified historical records, does not have records of India's three wars -- 1962, 1965 and 1971. These three are considered milestones in India's post-1947 modern history. It also has no record of the transformational Green Revolution, which triggered seismic changes in the country’s agriculture landscape.
While these four were mentioned by the Director General (DG) of the National Archives to underline a problem that should, logically, not act as a roadblock in disseminating information in a democratic system, the malaise apparently runs deeper.
DG Chandan Sinha said of the 151 ministries and departments, the NAI has records of only 64 agencies, including 36 ministries and departments! No records have been received from at least nine departments besides commissions, institutions and allied bodies. These include agriculture, IT and electronics, social justice, panchayat, rural development, women and child welfare and good and consumer affairs departments.
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Clearly then, an appraisal of records and reviewing and identifying them for transfer to the NAI should be considered a significant aspect of governance. It needs to be added that the Modi government's push towards archiving history has injected some urgency in a system, long regarded as one belonging to the domain of scholars or the odd bureaucrat trying to write a book.
In reality, it is the foreign scholars and researchers, who have gained enormously from the NAI, set up in March 1891 at Calcutta (Kolkata) as the Imperial Record Department -- by a long distance, the biggest and most comprehensive archival repository in South Asia.
That such voluminous documentation, which no doubt contains a significant part of Indian history, should be starved of crucial evidence regarding post-Independence developments -- many among them sterling achievements -- itself raises questions about the country's famed indifference to all things historical. It is understandable if there is some reticence about providing details of the 1962 China war, but what about the Bangladesh operations, the country's finest military hour in 1971?
It is not as if central governments have been unaware about the rules when it comes to de-classification. The Public Records Rules of 1997 state that records that are 25 years or more must be preserved in the National Archives of India.
It further clarifies that no records can be destroyed without being recorded or reviewed, a point that has been repeatedly stressed. In addition, each department, which has classified files, is expected to prepare a half-yearly report on reviewing of records and submit it to the NAI. While there is a 25-year-old rule on de-classification, the rider is that such documents can be kept classified in the interest of the security of the nation. The de-classification is meant to be done as per the manual of department of security instructions issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Researchers have long cited this as the rider that governments deploy when they do not want files out in the public domain. They also argue that rules regarding de-classification exist mainly on paper. Several of them have been campaigning that files need to be declassified automatically after 25 years.
How do some of the democracies compare with India?
In the USA, under the order of the White House, all secret records dating back 25 years are automatically de-classified on December 31 every year -- with a few notable exceptions.
In the UK, 30-year-old records are transferred to the Public Record Office and made public after another 20 years.
In Australia, the National Archives allow citizens to access all records that are 30 years old. In South Africa, records of 20 years are transferred to the archives.
It is clear that in most liberal democracies, the files are automatically de-classified. It is a process as per the rules, and there are no questions asked.
Given the official penchant for secrecy in India, it came as something of a surprise last year when defence minister Rajnath Singh ordered his ministry to declassify and transfer all pertinent war records older than 25 years, to the Archives. The announcement, however, had an important caveat - operational details of some military operations would be subject to careful internal vetting before being given to the NAI. It could well be extended to other domains and it partially explains the NAI chief’s agony.
For instance, the government is not likely to release the much-sought-after Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report on the performance of the Indian Army during the military debacle of 1962. This despite the fact that Neville Maxwell, a one-time correspondent for the Times of London and the author of 'India’s China War', had revealed part of its content on the internet in 2014, through access provided to him in the mid-sixties by Indian authorities.
It is time for India to be a little less reliant on the 1923 Official Secrets Act, to keep out information it deems sensitive from the public. This dreadful piece of colonial legislation is contrary in both the spirit and form to the Right to Information Act 2005, which was meant to give citizens the ability to access government information, even when it relates to foreign policy or national security.
(Ranjit Bhushan is a senior journalist. These are the writer's views.)