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