Ignorance isn’t always bliss

Government caginess about making certain documents public belies its trust in people.

india Updated: Feb 10, 2012 21:23 IST
Hindustan Times

The Government of India is notoriously coy when it comes to bringing information that lies within its domain to public light. While most Indians have come to accept this as part of the ‘ma-baap’ State’s self-sty-led protective nature of treating information on a ‘need-to-know’ basis, it is an anachronistic trait for a modern, expressedly open democracy like India.

Responding to a Right To Information application regarding the records of correspondence between the then prime minister Indira Gandhi and president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed regarding the imposition of Emergency in 1975, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has stated that, “despite its best efforts”, these documents can’t be traced. The Central Information Commission (CIC), adjudicating on the matter, respo-nded in turn by stating that while it didn’t find fault with the PMO officials regarding the ‘missing records’, it did find the fact that these important documents could not be traced to be “somewhat surprising”. The CIC added that “competent authorities in the PMO” should look into this matter so that the records relating to the Emergency are “retrieved or traced”.

The Mrs Gandhi-Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed correspondence may indeed be buried under heaps of files by some self-important bureaucrat bent on showing his loyalty to the party that imposed the Emergency more than 35 years ago and now heads the government at the Centre. But regardless of whether the documents are ‘missing’ because of an act of omission or of commission, the incident points to GoI’s standard operating procedure of withholding information that is precious to scholars and historians. In other major democracies, official documents are regular declassified. In the US, for instance, every classified document 25 years of age or older is automatically declassified, unless the National Archives and Records Administration has already sought and received that document’s exemption. Not so in India, where under the Official Secrets Act, practically everything is kept behind the curtains.

This enforced eclipse of historical information is not just confined to the Emergency. The Henderson-Brooks Committee report on the poor performance of the Indian Army in the Sino-Indian war of 1962, the details that led to the Bangladesh War in 1971 and documents related to the Indian Peace-Keeping Force’s foray into Sri Lanka are just a few examples of gaping invisible spots in our country’s historiography. Sensitivities and national security are moot points when it comes to keeping official documents outside the public’s purview. But surely a time-bound disclosure policy should be the norm and a ‘closure’ policy the exception. And when personal memoirs and declassified documents of other countries bring such information to light, wouldn’t it be better to be able to refute or confirm these facts by having these historical official documents out in the public domain? We certainly think so.

First Published: Feb 10, 2012 21:10 IST