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Is India opening up? Some good signs

The writer is based in South India for the past 40 years. He writes on India, China, Tibet and Indo-French relations.
Published : Feb 16, 2018, 4:13 am IST
Updated : Feb 16, 2018, 4:13 am IST

The media has often mentioned the report prepared by Lt. Gen. Henderson-Brooks on the October-November 1962 debacle.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. (Photo: PTI)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. (Photo: PTI)

Is India changing? Political pundits will probably have diametrically opposite views on the subject.

It is a fact that India is rapidly emerging as an important economic pole; the recent visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos and the hosting of the 10 Asean Heads of State or government  for Republic Day are symbols of this new emergence.

India has reached some maturity in certain fields but not in all. One can cite the poor ranking of Indian universities on the global stage and the lack of serious R&D in the defence sector among areas that are lacking. But the fact that the government continues to confiscate the history of modern India is not only immature, but also shows lack of self-confidence.

The media has often mentioned the report prepared by Lt. Gen. Henderson-Brooks on the October-November 1962 debacle. Fifty-five years after it was presented to the Government of India, the report is still kept in a locked almirah in the defence secretary’s office with only a few having had the privilege to go through the pages written by the Anglo-Indian general. The babus running the largest bureaucracy in the world seem keen to keep history under wraps. Will their mindset ever change?

I personally believe the study of the history of the subcontinent could be one of the keys to disentangle difficult problems such as the Kashmir issue and the border row with China. Unfortunately, it is difficult to access this information.

One has to admit that things have changed in the past few months, and it is certainly a positive sign. Take the National Archives of India (NAI), for example.

I have been visiting its research room for years, and it has been nothing less than an ordeal. First, I had to re-register every two years and “prove” that I was “still” a scholar. Whenever I asked why I could not be a “scholar for life”, I was invariably told: “Sir, it is not like that in India”. This statement itself shows the mindset of those supposed to be assisting the researcher.

Then, while going through the catalogues, it took ages to search for a keyword as the software was extremely slow. That was not all: thousands of spelling mistakes were made at the time of entering the data. I remember a specific instance — the day I was searching for a file on Maj. S.L. Chhiber, who served as the Indian consul general in Lhasa (Tibet) at the end of the 1950s. I could get nothing on “Chhiber”. Fortunately, probably by the grace of the “archive” god, I chanced on a Maj. Children. It was the file!

When I wanted to photocopy some documents for my research, I was told that only 25 per cent of the document could be copied. I once had a document of nine pages, my request to copy three pages was rejected and I was allowed to have two pages only.

On another occasion, I visited the archives six weeks after my previous trip and I was told that the rule was clear; I could not take photocopies again. A delay of several months had to take place between two requests: “In any case, why do you need the photocopies so often?” When I tried to explain that I was trying to write a book based on Indian archival material, it made the person even more suspicious. This has serious implications — and scholars find it easier to write on India using foreign archives.

As the NAI was doing me a favour in letting me consult “their” material, no discussion was possible!

Many things have changed in the past one year or so.

A new web portal Abhilekh Patal was recently launched with advanced (and quick) search facilities (a new version 2.0 is even online since January 12). It has a powerful search engine, real-time filters on search results and even digitisation “on demand”. Scholars need only to login using their registered email ID and a password. This is a great achievement. And if you find a misspelling, you can even suggest changes to the webmaster.

But perhaps more than the technological “smart” aspects of the portal, it is the change in the attitude of the staff posted in the research room — they are now ready to “facilitate” your research. During my recent visit, it was a pleasant surprise to find professional staff willing to help and not just protect “their” archival material. Each scholar has a personal monitor enabling him/ her easy access to all the catalogues.

Similarly, great progress has been made in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) where the famous JN Collection (also known as the Nehru Papers) has been opened to study for researchers. Though not indexed, it is an extraordinary mine for the study of the history of post-Independence India. At both the places, the number of scholars has increased manifold. An encouraging sign indeed!

Unfortunately, while some progress is taking place at the NAI and NMML, not much is happening on the declassification front; both the ministries of external and home affairs are hard nuts to crack. Bureaucrats make sure that you don’t access the dusty files: India’s security and integrity will be endangered if these precious documents are opened to the public, they say.

Is there really a question of India’s national security interests? In fact, the opening of some archives (after a due professional declassification process is undertaken and documents are “sanitised” if necessary), would greatly enhance India’s position in most cases; but in most cases the babus themselves have not read the files — they have no time.

Two other factors come into play. First, bureaucrats always prefer to “block” everything instead of making an effort of going through the proper process; and second, the MEA and other ministries do not have knowledgeable staff to do the job.

For this, I admire the United States of America: Official documents are scrupulously made available to the public. A couple of years ago, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the US official organ, posted some 320,000 declassified cables online. The most impressive aspect is that the text of declassified diplomatic cables, superbly indexed, is retrievable from the NARA website. Even the secretive CIA has posted lakhs of documents on its electronic reading room.

Some may argue the United States or France is a “developed” nation that can “afford” the cost of sifting through historical documents and the process of declassification, but it is the  wrong argument.

While bureaucrats do not see any good reason to open up the “old” files, Indian politicians see their own interests in the continued closure of the archives. Opening them up could make them accountable.

But if India wants to become a great power, why should Indians and all others not be allowed to know about its recent past? Is that not the hallmark of a mature nation?

Tags: narendra modi, world economic forum, republic day