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A nation that swallows its history

February 14, 2008
12 February , 2008,

Claude Arpi is an expert on the history of Tibet, China and the subcontinent. He was born in Angoulême, France. After graduating from Bordeaux University in 1974, he decided to live in India and settled in the South where he is still staying with his Indian wife and young daughter. He is the author of numerous English and French books including 'The Fate of Tibet,' 'La Politique Française de Nehru: 1947-1954,' 'Born in Sin: the Panchsheel Agreement' and 'India and Her Neighbourhood.' He writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. In this exclusive column, he says India continues to bury history by refusing to declassify historic documents.

At least for one thing, I love the United States: they meticulously and regularly declassify historic documents pertaining to their foreign policy.

Is it not legitimate to know what our leaders have thought, done or written 30 years after the events? In the United States, people are entitled to have this information. But it is not so in India.

Volumes called 'The Foreign Relations of the United States' are regularly made available to the general public, and can be downloaded off the Internet. According to the Office of the Historian who edits the series, "it presents the official documentary historical record of major foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity of the United States Government."

It was in March 1925 that Secretary of State Frank B Kellogg first promulgated official regulations codifying specific standards for the selection and editing of documents for the series. These regulations which became a public law in 1991 (the Foreign Relations Authorization Act) "require that the Foreign Relations series be a thorough, accurate, and reliable record of major United States foreign policy decisions and significant United States diplomatic activity."

The series of volumes include "all records needed to provide comprehensive documentation of major foreign policy decisions and actions of the United States Government."

Kellogg had defined the principles of historical objectivity and accuracy: "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 (Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976) have been declassified and published.

By the same author: Why France matters | As Dalai Lama gains, Tibetans lose cry | Burma's freedom cry | India-China: Imperfect harmony

Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971 is of particular importance to us in India.

The content is confined to the crisis in South Asia; it starts in March 1971 when Pakistan starts suppressing Bengali aspirations and ends with the Indo-Pakistan war and the declaration of independence of Bangladesh.

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; as put by Henry Kissinger, the President's Assistant for National Security Affairs: "When the Nixon administration took office, our policy objective on the subcontinent was, quite simply, to avoid adding another complication to our agenda."

The Agenda was clearly a rapprochement with Mao and his comrades in Beijing.

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 is the external manifestation of this 'tilt.'

The Editor says: "Nixon's response to the crisis in Pakistan was conditioned in part by the concern that he and Kissinger had to protect the emerging opening to China, which had been facilitated by Pakistani president Yahya Khan."

Of course, this is history viewed from Washington; my point is, why can't we also get South Block's perspective?

No, say the politicians and babus, it would be harmful to India's 'national interests' (or security). The recent history of the nation has, therefore, been confiscated under the Public Records Act. These rules vaguely state that "unclassified public records more than 30 years old should be made available to any bona fide research scholar, but subject to such exceptions and restrictions as may be prescribed."

One of the most glaring (and foolish) examples of this outdated policy is the Henderson Brookes Report. Because of the last part of the sentence, the people of India (why is it restricted to bona fide scholars only?) are unable to know what really happened in October 1962.

A few weeks after the debacle of October-November 1962, Lieutenant General J N Chaudhuri constituted a committee to study the causes of the 'Himalayan blunder.' An Anglo-Indian general called Henderson Brooks was requested to go through the official records and prepare a report on the war. Sometime in 1963, the general presented his study to Nehru. The report was immediately classified 'Top Secret.'

One can understand that at that time the prime minister did not want the report made to be 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 45 years after the event, the Government of India still gives a free hand to the Chinese to propagate their version of history by keeping locked (in the Defence Secretary's safe) what would be an insignificant report, except for the fact that it indicts Nehru?

Personally, I faced a similar problem when I tried to research my two pet subjects: Tibet and Kashmir. Going through the painful exercise of trying to access some documents of the Chinese invasion of Tibet (1950) was a nightmare.

At the National Archives of India, I was told that all documents for the North East Frontier Area (which included Tibet and Bhutan) were 'classified' after 1913 and nobody could access them. For 'Gilgit area' [read Kashmir], the date is 1923.

This colonial terminology is a clear indication of the backwardness of historical studies in India. Did the British not leave India 60 years ago?

India is undoubtedly an incredible land with a great future. The nation has matured during the last decades, but unfortunately not in all areas. The babus still run one of the largest bureaucracies in the world, and their mindset has not changed.

A string of antiquated rules and regulations, red-tapism and obscurantism, not worthy of a proud, dynamic modern nation is still in place.

A senior bureaucrat friend of mine told me the story of his minister who would tell his officials: "If I want to know the rules, I can ask any chaprasi, he will tell me, he knows. I expect you IAS guys to tell me how to circumvent the rules and get things done, you are paid for that, not to tell me the rules." This minister must have been quite unique.

India has recently armed itself with a new legislation, the Right to Information Act, 2005. Unfortunately the new law only continues 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 offence."

This paragraph is enough to cover all the files of the Ministry of External Affairs, Defence and Home. Does it mean that the people of India will never have the right to know their own history?

While the bureaucrats do not see any meaning in opening the 'old' files, Indian politicians see their own interests in the closure of the archives: it would make them accountable.

As a result, if you ask for any files related to Kashmir, Russia or China in the National Archives of India, your request will be marked "NT", meaning "not transferred'.

I was told that once former prime minister I K Gujral had shown some interest in the matter. Unfortunately, he did not remain at the helm long enough. Since then, who cares?

I believe that the study of the history of the sub-continent could be one of the keys to disentangle difficult problems such as the Kashmir issue.

Unfortunately nobody can today access the primary sources: they are locked in the vaults of the Nehru Memorial Library in Teen Murti Bhavan or in the almirahs of South Block (I am told they are very dusty!).

Even the ultra secretive CIA has now established a 'reading room' on its site to provide the public an access to previously released documents, though the agency apologises that everything could not be declassified "because of CIA's need to comply with the national security laws of the United States…".

Whether one should believe the CIA or not is another matter, but the fact that site exists is promising for historians and ordinary folks (it even indicates to the researcher 'his rights' and the various methods of obtaining information).

Meanwhile in India, history continues to be buried. Is it the hallmark of a mature nation?

The only advantage is that it allows politicians to sleep soundly. No skeleton will ever be found in the cupboards, unless it comes from abroad, in which case it can easily be dismissed as the work of 'foreign hands.'
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