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End the secrecy: why India's interest lies in unwrapping the 1962 war report

The highly classified Henderson Brooks Report commissioned by the Govt of India after the 1962 Sino-Indian war looked into the reasons for India's rout to China. And it is important, at least for transparency sake, to declassify the document.

india Updated: Jul 09, 2014 14:17 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times
Henderson Brooks Report,Indo-China War 1962,classified documents

In the middle of March, Neville Maxwell — an Australian journalist and author of a seminal, albeit controversial, account called India's China War — released partial contents of the Henderson Brooks Report on his website. This report, commissioned by the Government of India after the 1962 defeat, looked into the reasons for the rout and future lessons, and is understood to have indirectly blamed the political leadership as well as the military for their unsound advice.

It has been treated as a highly classified document, with successive governments claiming it was not in "national interest" to make it public. In fact, the previous defence minister, AK Antony, even said the report had current operational value, a claim that drew suppressed smirks in knowledgeable circles as the facts on the ground had changed considerably.

It was against this backdrop that former Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley's statement in March for making the report public was heartening.

It seemed to indicate that the BJP would be willing to confront the nation's past including some of its dark moments. It seemed to indicate that if elected to power, the BJP would institute a culture of transparency with regard to national security.

In statecraft, in international relations, in intelligence operations and in military planning, one understands that not all facts can be put out in the public domain. These are sensitive matters, where a state often has to keep its capabilities and intentions under wraps.

But for a moment, after Jaitley's public statement, it appeared that there were some in India's political class who would distinguish between what needed to be secret and what could be made public for the sake of history a more healthy and informed public discourse. It seemed for a moment that the Indian state would trust its citizens and their maturity to deal with uncomfortable truths.

Alas, that was not to be. For, in a written reply in the Rajya Sabha, Jaitley — in his capacity as defence minister — has now said that the report cannot be made public, as it would not be in national interest to do so.

He has chosen not to spell out the specific reasons why this is the case. To give the government benefit of doubt — these are early days — the new regime may not want to kick off a controversy at a time when it has other priorities including the budget.

But none of this can serve as a justification, because it shows that despite the overwhelming mandate for change, what marks the state's approach to security and strategic matters is continuity.

This was the moment for the political leadership to stand up to the national security apparatus, which is wired to reveal facts only on a need to know basis, and which instinctively steers away from a culture of transparency.

Releasing the report is a first step to making India's archaic rules on declassifying documents and public records modern. It is also the moment to unleash a conversation about the relationship between the political leadership and the army as well as the political leadership and its intelligence arms in a modern democracy.

If the BJP wants to be seen as truly different, it would do well to revise its view and not get bullied by babus, commanders and operatives whose job it is to keep secrets from citizens?

First Published: Jul 09, 2014 12:01 IST