Open Up the National Archives | Jaideep A Prabhu

Open Up the National Archives

Mushirul Hasan is the Director-General of National Archives of India.

Mushirul Hasan is the Director-General of National Archives of India.

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) – 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’ 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 – 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 – 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 AuswÀrtiges 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 – 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 – 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.

(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)

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