Confronting the past, honestly
The ministry of defence (MoD) has come up with a new framework for the archiving, declassification and publication of war history. This entails all services under MoD to transfer their records, including war diaries, letters of proceedings, operational record books, to the ministry’s history division, which, in turn, is to coordinate with all departments to compile, seek approval and publish history of wars and operations. The framework also envisages the constitution of an inter-ministerial committee led by an MoD joint secretary, with the participation of military historians, but only if required, for the task. The committee has to be set up within two years of the completion of a war or operation, and within three years, it has to collect records, compile and disseminate the material. All of this, the ministry said in a statement on Friday, is in line with the recommendations of a range of expert committees and ministerial groups which have called for the timely compilation of authoritative war histories.
All nations must confront their past — and it is only by chronicling both achievements and lapses that institutions can learn and progress. This is particularly true for security and defence. While the instinctive response of the State is to bury secrets in the name of national security, precisely because the stakes are so high, the response has to be more openness. And it is only by knowing the truth of how India succeeded — and the Indian armed forces have an outstanding record across geographies — and how India faltered — for there have been either strategic or tactical errors which have cost lives — that both the State and citizens can evolve new approaches. The new framework is positive for it imbibes this principle, and states that records should “ordinarily” be declassified in 25 years.
But this is not sufficient. The inclusion of military historians in a bureaucrat-led committee must not be optional but compulsory. Their expertise is invaluable. There must also be prompt declassification of files as early as possible. For instance, it does India little good to withhold the publication of the Henderson Brooks report on the 1962 debacle. Those who have served must be allowed, even encouraged, to speak and write about their experiences (a separate, unrelated gag order on retired security officials appears to be a case of two arms of the government acting on distinct principles). MoD has done well, it must now let the principle of truth, openness and transparency guide the implementation of the policy.