Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has approved a new policy on the archiving, declassification and journal of war/operations histories, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced on Saturday.
The policy requires MoD organisations, such as the army, navy, air force, coast guard, Integrated Defence Staff and Assam Rifles, to transfer their records — including war diaries, letters of proceedings and operational record books – to the ministry’s History Division for proper upkeep, archival and recording of history.
“The requirement of… lucid cut policy on declassification of war records used to be really useful by the Kargil Review Committee headed by K Subrahmanyam in addition to the NN Vohra Committee, with a view to analyse lessons learnt and prevent future mistakes,” said the MoD release.
War histories are henceforth to be formulated by the MoD’s History Division, in coordination with more than a few departments. A joint secretary from the MoD will head the committee, which will include military, foreign ministry and home ministry representatives and prominent military historians.
“The above-mentioned committee will have to be formed inside two years of completion of war/operations. Thereafter, collection of records and compilation will have to be completed in three years and disseminated to all concerned,” says the policy.
Military historians are welcoming the move towards greater openness. The MoD’s Historical Division painstakingly compiled histories of the 1947-48 Jammu & Kashmir war, the 1962 Sino-India war and the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistan wars. Yet it took, decades for the MoD to allow the journal of three of these histories. Meantime, the history of the 1962 war remains classified, as does the history of the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) that fought in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990.
Along with war histories, other important studies remain classified more than half a century after they were completed. In 1962, after the Indian army’s defeat by the People’s Liberation Army of China, a high-powered committee, led by Lieutenant General TB Henderson Brooks, comprehensively investigated the debacle. The so-called Henderson Brooks Outline remains “Top Secret” till today.
In the National Archives in New Delhi, lots of the post-1914 correspondence on the subject of the border between China and India remains classified and inaccessible even to accredited scholars.
The responsibility for declassification of records is specified in the Public Record Act 1993 and Public Record Rules 1997. The policy mandates that records will have to ordinarily be declassified in 25 years.
“Records older than 25 years will have to be appraised by archival experts and transferred to the National Archives of India once the war/operations histories have been compiled,” said the MoD.
Anit Mukherjee of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, who is a former Indian army officer, says: “We don’t just need war histories. More importantly, we need access to the source code which informs the war histories. In other words, scholars will have to be provided access to all of the original historical documents which have been used to write up the war histories.”
“Second, it would be important to see how the military and its associated bureaucracies go around declassifying documents. In this effort they will have to entail military historians and not leave it to the uniformed fraternity to come to a decision what is touchy and what isn’t,” said Mukherjee.
“The effort will have to not be approximately writing up a ‘right version of history,’ as history is incessantly an argument forever. Instead, the policy will have to enable more people so to read up on the evidence and get a hold of their own analyses,” he said.
An Indian scholar points out that national security-related documents are incessantly intentionally over-classified with a view to hide failings and shortcomings. He points to a classic cartoon by the legendary Herbert Lawrence Block, illustrating a conversation between two Washington bureaucrats. One says: “Polite, we truly botched that job. Will have to we classify it ‘Secret’ or ‘Top Secret'”?