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Why does the state keep secrets?

Published Sep 3, 2015, 6:55 am IST
Updated Mar 27, 2019, 11:35 pm IST
Death of freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose and former PM Lal Bahadur Shashtri are still a mystery
 Death of freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose and former PM Lal Bahadur Shashtri are still a mystery

Now that defence minister Manohar Parrikar has complained that a murder story is getting more coverage than the 50th anniversary of the 1965 “victory” against Pakistan, in coming weeks, the Indian press may carry more analyses about what happened during the war. One issue is bound to come out again. What happened in Tashkent to Lal Bahadur Shastri, the Indian Prime Minister? Was he poisoned as many suspected? Why does the PMO stubbornly refuse to declassify its files?
But like it often happens in India, the “celebrations” will pass and Shastri will be buried once again. This has happened many times to Subhash Chandra Bose despite promises.

It, however, raises a larger issue: the principle of declassification of historical documents, and I am not just speaking of “famous” cases. Lakhs of “classified” files are lying in the record rooms of the ministry of external affairs or home affairs and no researcher can access them. This is a tragedy for India. The Modi sarkar had come with great hopes; many thought that the old policy of blind “classification” would change and India would not remain a “banana republic” as far as historical research is concerned.


Disillusionment was not long in coming. Soon after taking over as the new defence minister, Arun Jaitley informed the Rajya Sabha: “The Henderson Brooks Report on 1962 Indo-China war is a ‘top-secret document’ and disclosure of any information about it would not be in national interest.” Mr Jaitley had been vociferous, when in the Opposition, for “declassification” of this very document.

Incidentally, very few politicians and babus noticed that the famous report written by the Anglo-Indian general had in fact already been “released” by the old Australian journalist Neville Maxwell and was online since March 2014. When he was in the Opposition, Mr Jaitley had blogged that it was not in public interest to keep documents “top-secret” indefinitely.


It is important for a nation to know its past. The Henderson-Brooks report, the death of Shastri or Bose’s disappearance, are only the tip of a huge iceberg. To give an example in which I have been personally involved: the history of modern Tibet. You can find plenty of books based on American documents released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which ensures public access to all US government records. The FOIA legally carries a presumption of disclosure; the burden is on the government — not the public — to substantiate why information should not be released.


After receiving a written demand, any US agency is required to disclose records, unless they can be withheld from disclosure under one of nine specific exemptions in the FOIA. If not satisfied, an appellant is entitled to appeal to a federal court. One can also visit the India Office Records near London. The British have kept the records of the Raj, which are open to the public. The Chinese version of this period is also available through the memoirs of the main actors who served in Lhasa  and some foreigners have been given access to the Communist Party’s archives.


The tragedy is that we don’t have an Indian version of the same historical facts because files remain sealed in the ministries of external and home affairs. As a result, one gets a version of history of Indo-Tibet relations only from the Western and the Chinese points of view, and not India’s. It is not that there is no rule, but the babus and politicians often show no interest in implementing the law.

The Public Records Rules, 1997, state that records that are 25 years or more must be preserved in the National Archives of India and that no records can be destroyed without being recorded. Legally, it’s mandatory for each department to prepare a half-yearly report on reviewing and weeding of records and submit it to the NAI. The rules also stipulate that no public records, which are more than 25 years old, can be destroyed by any agency unless it is appraised.


While personnel declassifying historical documents should make sure that it does not jeopardise the security of the country, this should not be a pretext to block declassification. The Prime Minister can speak of good governance, but the fact remains that there is no proper declassification policy in India. One genuine problem is the lack of “professionals” to do the job. But there may be hope. India has an intelligent foreign secretary who recently introduced the concept of “lateral entry” into the ministry; under this scheme or a similar one, it should not be difficult to find and train young talent. But is there the will to come out of the prevalent lethargy?

Claude Arpi writes on India, China, Tibet and Indo-French relations.