If there is anything that India fears, the top slot on that listÂ must go to freedom of information. For a democratic republic, and notÂ one of those only fashionably named, such as the Democratic People’sÂ Republic of Korea, India’s surplus of laws that seek to limit theÂ dissemination of information and opinion is staggering. Though I wouldÂ love to rail about the First Amendment to the Indian Constitution, theÂ notorious Section 66A, and a plethora of other totalitarian provisionsÂ that make the framework of Indian republic; this post is about anÂ often forgotten topic that is related, but clearly not asÂ glamorous as much-to-be-criticised, Right toÂ Information Act (2005) â€“ the declassification of government documentsÂ and opening of the National Archives.
Out of all the concerns India is saddled with, why is a relativelyÂ academic issue of such importance? After all, the RTI has, howeverÂ imperfectly, given citizens the legal right to demand information thatÂ was heretofore difficult or impossible to access. Archivesâ€™ interest isÂ primarily a minuscule constituency of researchers who would largelyÂ write for peer-reviewed journals and other academics. None of this isÂ false, yet to categorise the opening of archives is an issue, only aÂ few professors might be interested in.
There are many benefits to adopting German or British archivalÂ policies. One is that, the creation and professional maintenance ofÂ millions of documents will keep not only our history alive, but alsoÂ create jobs for students not smitten by the PCM bug. A NationalÂ Records service would, in effect, create a new industry, providingÂ employment to thousands, and hopefully dissuading those of onlyÂ middling scientific talent from applying to engineering or medicalÂ colleges. India’s libraries â€“ only by the grace of semantic generosity are in utter disrepair; the National Archives are unhelpful andÂ unfriendly, and bad condition of various state archives makes one prefer Delhi.
Another immediate and obvious advantage of a clear process ofÂ declassification of documents and archival maintenance is the creationÂ of area experts outside the government. The colonial mindset ofÂ Indian government which demands that subjects be controlled, notÂ citizens empowered, may fear this. Declassified documents will attractÂ hundreds of scholars from across not just India, but the world to studyÂ Indian policies on security, agriculture, industry, foreign affairs,Â water management, and host of other issues. This is assuming, ofÂ course, that the reports on which the government documents are basedÂ are also declassified. Indian decisions of the past will receive aÂ thorough scrutiny.
Declassification also helps in making existing “think tanks”Â meaningful entities. Presently, researchers use their exclusive orÂ privileged access to people in the corridors of power to analyse Indian policy. This is an unhealthy relationship, as the scope ofÂ research and intensity of critique can be set by the establishment.
Such power disequilibrium leads to either marginalization, orÂ co-optation of a scholar by the state machinery â€“ in exchange forÂ functioning within a permitted range, analysts will be given access,Â and some even made into court historians. The lack of independentlyÂ verifiable sources that is freely available lowers the value of output ofÂ Indian think tanks, and the paucity of sources and information meanÂ that the entire sector sounds like a gaggle of geese, repeating theÂ few crumbs of information thrown to them by self-important babusÂ and/or politicians.
Beyond the pitiable condition of India’s libraries and archives, is theÂ general disregard for them. For example, the Lok Sabha library carriesÂ 1.27 million books, periodicals, gazettes, and reports for use byÂ India’s elected officials. The National Library in Calcutta (theÂ largest in India) holds 2.2 million tomes. In contrast, the US LibraryÂ of Congress (LoC) contains nearly 34 million books, the Boston PublicÂ Library 23.6 million, and Harvard University over 16 million books.
Similarly, the British Library holds over 14 million books. TheseÂ massive libraries are open to the public as well as researchers,Â though the LoC does not keep its stacks open. Â In contrast to this, is the experience of researchers in otherÂ countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, or Germany.Â Clear procedures for declassification exist as do avenues forÂ requesting that classified information be considered forÂ declassification (Freedom of Information Act). The National ArchivesÂ in London have their catalogue online for patrons to see if there isÂ relevant information on their topic before planning a trip to Kew. InÂ Germany, the Bundesarchiv and the Politisches Archiv of theÂ AuswÃ¤rtiges Amt show similar friendly cooperation. When I visited inÂ 2009, they had run multiple searches for me and pulled all theÂ necessary files, microfilms, and microfiches and had them ready at aÂ desk reserved for me. Archives and major libraries thatÂ serve as state depositories are all staffed by qualified personnel inÂ various fields of the humanities, or information management to assistÂ researchers. It is also easier to interview politicians andÂ bureaucrats in these countries than it is in India, for mystique seemsÂ to be a key ingredient of worth in the subcontinent.
In India, the blanket reason of national security is often cited. ThisÂ is, in a word â€“ hogwash. These reasons exist in all countries, butÂ advanced democracies have learned that an open approach to informationÂ is far more beneficial to the health of their republics, than a quasiÂ police state that suppresses free expression and information. India’sÂ experience with secrecy has clearly shown that it is an unhealthyÂ practice; the country severely lacks experts on a host of issues, andÂ it shows in the country’s comical daily administration. It is not anÂ impossible task to appoint committees of experts and securityÂ professionals who have been through a thorough background check on aÂ two-year basis to review documents for declassification. VariousÂ systems already exist around the world that can be studied andÂ implemented in India.
Given the costs of setting up a national system of recordsÂ maintenance, some will undoubtedly attack it as an elitist project,Â since its most immediate beneficiaries are few compared to other itemsÂ on the development agenda, such as public transportation or education.Â If numbers of beneficiaries were the only criteria for implementing aÂ project, however, one might question the astronomical costs of Â providing security to some of India’s elected officials, as well as theÂ travel habits of token heads of state. A national records service mayÂ not be cheap, but the cost of not having one is significantly higher.
The problems of creating an open society are not insurmountable,Â though India’s leaders seem to lack the desire to solve them. BetweenÂ the infamous First Amendment and Section 66A, if anything India seemsÂ to suffer from, is a severe case of alloxodoxaphobia â€“ a fear of opinions.Â Yet, it is time to develop a thicker skin and get over infantileÂ sentiments; as India’s shadow grows in international affairs, it willÂ need better informed ministers and scholars. No amount of economicÂ growth, infrastructural development, or military strength can courseÂ correct for ignorance and stupidity. By the way, perhaps as a nonÂ sequitur, I am also fully aware that if such a declassificationÂ project were to be undertaken, it will continually demolish the shibbolethsÂ of Nehruvian socialism until 2028.