By Toral Varia Deshpande
Home Minister Rajnath Singh has clarified that his ministry has not destroyed lakhs of government files, only thousands. Till recently Arun Jaitley wanted to declassify a controversial Indo-China war report, but as defense minister he’s changed his mind. In an age of increasing scrutiny, our writer examines how the Ministry of External Affairs has been quietly opening its secretive archive to the public this year. At last count, this remarkable effort has declassified almost 70,000 documents.
Our government’s file-keeping systems and their role in our public life have been making a lot of news lately.
Defence Minister Arun Jaitley did a volte-face recently, declaring that his government could not possibly release the controversial Henderson Brooks report on the 1962 Indo-China war, which apparently shows how India bungled the war. This despite his own blog post earlier this year where he had reportedly written that "to keep these documents 'top secret' indefinitely may not be in larger public interest. Any Nation is entitled to learn from the mistakes of the past. The security relevance of a document loses its relevance in the long term future... I am of the opinion that the report's contents could have been made public some decades ago."
This accompanied other reports wondering why the Home Ministry has apparently destroyed 1.5 lakh files, including speculation that these included records about Mahatma Gandhi's assassination. Home Minister Rajnath Singh subsequently noted in the Rajya Sabha that documents pertaining to Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Louis Mountbatten and others are still safe, and clarified that only 11,100 files had been destroyed.
All of this culling was apparently due to an order from Narendra Modi’s new PMO to clear old and unwanted files in a bid for more efficiency.
“It was only through the RTI that I found out that the Ministry of Women and Child Development had weeded out 1,000-odd files, out of which eight were more than 25 years old,” says Venkatesh Nayak, program coordinator at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. “Those files could have been easily declassified. But now we don’t even know if they were worth any information because the ministry did not follow the norm of getting a representative from the national archives to scrutinize it.”
All of this has renewed the debate on how India classifies, preserves and destroys its historical record and how this inflects our public life. Be it the demand to declassify documents pertaining to the 1962 Indo-China War, the mysterious death of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose or Gandhi’s assassination – successive governments have stayed away from any official disclosures.
Let’s get something out of the way: as things stand today, we can neither really understand what is the Indian government’s process by which a document is graded as ‘classified’ nor know how it is ‘declassified’, since we have only the government’s word that these actions are justified.
The reason for this is that the rulebook known as the Manual of Departmental Security Instructions – notified by the Union ministry of Home Affairs in 1966 and followed by government departments for these decisions – is a confidential document that remains mysteriously inaccessible to the public. We first need to declassify the very process by which our government classifies and declassifies the nation’s historical record.
“As a result, the government can indefinitely apply the label of ‘Classified’ to things as innocuous as a leave application to balance sheets or minutes of meetings to Cabinet notes etc, citing reasons such as ‘extremely sensitive’ or ‘of current operational value’,” says Venkatesh Nayak.
Most RTI queries pertaining to classified information are usually met with standard replies such as: “The files/information in question are classified and disclosure of the documents contained in them would prejudicially affect relations with foreign countries. As such these files are exempt from disclosure under section 8(1)(a) read with 8(2) of the Right to Information Act, 2005.”
According to the Departmental Security Instructions laid down by the Office Manual for functioning of governmental department, there are four types of security classifications: Top Secret, Secret, Confidential and Personal (not for publication).
The ‘Top Secret’ grading is reserved for papers that include references to current or future military operations, intending movements or disposition of armed forces, shaping of secret methods of wars, matters of high international and internal political policy or reports derived from secret sources of intelligence.
The ‘Secret’ grade is given to documents that can potentially cause administrative embarrassment or injure the interest and prestige of the government, or prove to be an advantage to a foreign country or an enemy.
Documents are marked as ‘Confidential’ when they contain information that may not be harmful to national security but their disclosure may be deemed as prejudicial to the interests of the nation.
‘Personal’ documents are those that are meant for public information but not publication.
Classified documents are supposed to be kept in files or in a bound book with security markings as per the designated grade. For example, all the pages of a Top Secret document are marked with a ‘TOP SECRET’ sign on the top and bottom of each sheet.
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In an environment where no clear answers on the process are offered, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has undertaken an innovative exercise to declassify some of its massive archive of documents. The MEA’s Archives and Records Management Division, which possesses foreign policy records from 1934 onwards, has undertaken this declassifying exercise with the help of retired diplomats.
According to India’s Public Records Act 1993, all government files older than 25 years should be reviewed, declassified and made available to the public, researchers and academicians. The MEA, which is perpetually short-staffed, decided to approach the Association of Indian Diplomats – a large pool of former diplomats with an average experience of 30-40 years in various missions or high commissions.
Since January, a group of 20-25 retired foreign diplomats – former heads of missions or ambassadors – have gathered two or three times a week for about five hours per day, to examine thousands of pages of documents relating to India’s foreign policy. Most of these documents are over 25 years old, some dating back to as early as 1934. These include former ambassadors such as Nalin Surie, R Rajagopalan, Leena Ponappa and Preet Mallik.
Dr Neena Malhotra, joint secretary of Archives and Management, says, “We have some really priceless and rare files. There are about 2 lakh documents here that have been digitized and indexed and uploaded on a central server. They can be accessed at the division’s browser room but only by serving and select personnel.”
The archives section comprises eight record rooms, a browser room, a server room and a separate room where appraisal of ‘Top Secret’ foreign policy documents takes place. Some of these records include rare files pertaining to British India’s relations with Persia, the Gangtok-Nepal boundary issue, India’s Tibet policy, India’s role in the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, letters exchanged between the Indian prime minister and Burma in 1957, and so on.
The MEA began this exercise by conducting a pilot project for a few days in January this year with a group of 15 volunteer former-diplomats. Under the pilot exercise alone, nearly 10,000 files were reviewed by the veterans and nearly 8,000 were recommended for declassification. The exercise has now become a regular MEA project; currently, a group of 25 former diplomats is assisting the archives on this project.
Former ambassador R Rajagopalan says that they try to maintain an 85 percent recommendation rate for declassification. “Our experience of what can constitute ‘national interest’ is important. Essentially, we try to find whether declassifying a certain paper is against national interest or not. The phrase ‘national interest’ can mean national security or otherwise. And we are seeing that most of these documents are rich in information for the public, especially researchers and academicians.”
The MEA has two goals for this project. One is to declassify material that is no longer sensitive but has historical and academic value. The other is to destroy files that have neither historical nor academic value but which take a lot of space. According to Naline Surie, former Indian High Commissioner to the UK, “Our effort is to use our experience to recommend either destruction or declassification or retention or transfer to the National Archives. I personally believe that a lot of this material should now be in the public domain. It is very interesting for academics and as international relations becomes a subject that is increasingly studied in India, they have a right to have access to the material in our files.”
According to MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin, each volunteering diplomat scrutinizes files related to his or her area of expertise – normally in sync with areas that s/he served in during hi/her tenure with the MEA. After carefully going through each page, paragraph or point, the retired diplomat writes down his recommendations and its reasons. Then follows an informal ‘peer discussion’ among all the participating veterans. After arriving at a consensus, the reviewed files are forwarded to the office of a corresponding Joint Secretary. On receiving the files, the Joint Secretary reviews the recommendations and then grants or denies the final clearance for declassification.
Next, in cases where declassification clearance is granted, a team of four members of the National Archives of India reviews the papers for their archival value before physically transporting them to the archives and making them available to the public.
So far this year, the MEA has declassified and transferred over 68,000 documents to the National Archives. A majority of these belong to the period between 1937-1971, ranging from communications between State heads, annual reports from Indian missions around the world and other confidential reports.
Over the last few days, Claude Arpi, an Indo-China and Indo-Tibet research scholar, has been studying these recently declassified files at the National Archives of India. He says he has so far examined files up to the 1950s. "There are so many new things,” he says. “So far all the books written on Tibet have been from the accounts of foreign officials or China. This will be the first time that an Indian version has been officially put into the public domain.”
He gives an example of a recently declassified document by the Indian Trade Agent in Yatung (Tibet). The document describes how the Chinese authorities would harass the local Tibetans there in the late 1950s. According to the Indian Trade Agent, the Chinese told the locals that they "should offer scarves to the photograph of Mao Tse-tung which will be displayed in the bazaar. It is no use to worship images in the monasteries which are of no use. Some images from the local monastery were thrown into the latrine or trampled down under their feet in the presence of the gathering." They were also ordered that "from now onwards, nobody should utter any Hindi word and they should not speak of [to the] India Office [Trade Agency] in any matter. They should address Indian merchants here as 'dogs'.”
Another document that caught Arpi’s attention was a demi official letter from PN Kaul, the Consul General in Lhasa between 1959-1961. The letter is addressed to his successor Arvind Deo and describes the life in general for an Indian official in Lhasa.
“As a researcher I feel that these recently released documents will be of immense value to my work,” says Avinash Godbole, an Indo-China expert at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in Delhi. “I am particularly interested in communications between two countries. Till now I had to rely on open source information but now these declassified files will help me verify the actual information and get wholesome truth.”
Professor Chintamani Mahapatra of JNU’s School of International Studies adds, “Declassified documents are the only way to know [our] real history. These are priceless source of information especially for international relations students because it is only after studying these documents that we can understand what was the thought process at that time behind a certain decision or a certain policy.”
The biggest casualty of this continued tension between classification and declassification is our public record and, subsequently, the quality of our public discourse. In more than one case, the information about a crucial event in India’s history has come from a declassified piece of paper – by a foreign government or national. Till now, most of the research of scholars like Arpi was either based on spoken accounts or declassified documents from foreign countries. This is set to change now.
For example, veteran journalist Kuldip Nayyar has long been making the case to declassify the1962 Indo-china war’s Henderson Brooks Report, but his 2005 RTI application stands rejected. However, thanks to another veteran journalist – an Australian called Neville Maxwell – at least parts of this ‘Top Secret’ report are now in the public domain. After having kept the classified documents for nearly 50 years, Maxwell lost faith that the Indian government would eventually release them after a ‘decent’ interval and decided to release the report partially on his blog.
Similarly, former US president Richard Nixon and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger’s hatred for Indira Gandhi and the US’s plan to attack the Indian Army during the 1971 war came to light only after the US declassified documents pertaining to that time.
Earlier this year, the United Kingdom government declassified documents related to its role in Operation Blue Star. Among those made public was a February 1984 letter from the Principal Private Secretary of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to the Foreign and Commonwealth office, mentioning their plans for removing Sikh dissidents from the Golden Temple.
Meanwhile, there are also some efforts to not just rely on the government’s largesse and preserve a part of this shared history beyond the incumbency of classification and declassification.
In 2010, former ambassador Ishrat Aziz initiated an Oral History Project at the Indian Council for World Affairs, where a former ambassador conducts a radio interview with another retired diplomat. “The whole idea is to preserve history to understand how certain policy decisions were taken – why were they taken, what were the mistakes and so on. How else will the new set of policy makers understand a whole picture?” says Aziz. He says he is yet to record his own oral history.
Toral Varia Deshpande is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. Follow her on Twitter@toralvaria.