Throwing me a piece of news about Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose is like serving Morarji Desai a glass of single malt whisky: it doesn’t terribly excite me. Whether like Elvis, the Great Bengali is still undead — clocking his 101st year ten days ago — is not something I think about even while passing the slightly cretinous Forward Bloc office building in Calcutta every year. But when I read a small story tucked away in the inside pages of this paper last week on how, responding to an RTI petition regarding providing public access to a “descriptive list” of ‘classified’ records related to Netaji, the PMO stated that it can’t make the list public, I coughed and sat up saying “Dilli abhi bhi dur hain!” The PMO pointed out that revealing even a list, never mind the contents, of classified material was not permissible as the information will “prejudicially affect India’s relation with a foreign State”.
Um, which country? Japan, where Bose’s plane was flying to before it crashed in Taiwan on August 18, 1945? Germany, whose führer, Bose’s pal, had just copped it some three months before? Or is it Russia, where Comrade Stalin, so goes the conspiracy theory, packed him off to a Siberian gulag? Um, we don’t know. But clearly somebody in the PMO believes that the disclosure of a ‘descriptive list’ of the classified ‘Netaji Papers’ will make Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda or Chancellor Angela Merkel or President Vladimir Putin pick up the phone and tell our PM, “What is this, Mr Prime Minister? I thought our countries were friends! Now look what your people have got us into.”
The same ‘Eeeks! Don’t let anyone see it if you want India not to crumble’ mentality goes beyond historical documents related to the Great Undead Bengali. A.G. Noorani, constitutional expert, HT columnist and my coffee friend, did his bit to pry open the hinges of the gigantic box marked ‘classified archives. The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) houses three batches of documents that belonged to Indira Gandhi’s secretary P.N. Haksar. When Noorani approached the NMML to have a look at the ‘Haksar Papers’ for research, he was told to bugger off. These were ‘Top Secret’ and ‘NGO’ (Not to Go Out) papers. The Official Secrets Act 1923 — a British law exported to India when Subhas Bose was 26 years old — overides the citizen’s right to information, the Right To Information Act be damned. ‘Balderash!’ said Noorani, adding there were double standards in who gets to see ‘classified’ documents and who doesn’t. Friends of government, foreign historians have a better chance, than you and I. Noorani finally got to see the Haksar Papers, hurrah!
The ‘Nehru Papers’ have also come under the category of things better left in the attic lest.... While a select few, like political historian Francine Frankel and historian Sunil Khilnani, are allowed to dip into them, Sonia Gandhi, as Nehru’s grand-daughter-in-law, protects the Nehru Papers’ from prying eyes lest we discover a terrible, horrible thing about our first PM. (“Dear Edwina...” being top on the list of classified documents that will push India to total anarchy.) The hilarious bit is that we sometimes find the same archival material that is classified in neurotic India in the British Museum or the National Security Archives in Washington or somewhere else for happy public consumption. And then we whine about firang historians writing our history!
Why this Oedipal desire to keep as much of archival material behind the hedges locked in a greenhouse? US-India relations haven’t crumbled since US foreign policy documents from the Nixon era were declassified in 2005 revealing Nixon calling Indira Gandhi an “old witch” and Henry Kissinger going one step further by calling her “a bitch” and Indians “bastards”. Hell, I saw Kissinger looking quite chummy at the Oberoi in Delhi not so long ago. Even a country like Israel living in a noisy neighbourhood maintains the 30-year declassification rule practised by proper democracies. What are we so terribly afraid of? That Netaji is not really sitting in a room and chuckling about the making of the McMahon Line while hearing about the PM calling Arunachal Pradesh “our land of the rising sun”? Boo!