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Declassification Of War History: A Dubious Necessity Vis-a-Vis The Public Records Act, 1993

History does not offer a blueprint for the future, but it is certainly instructive in building on successes and not repeating the follies of the past.[i] -Air Vice-Marshal (Dr.) Arjun Subramaniam (retd.)

Context
On 12th June 2021, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh gave his approval to a policy[ii] that aims to deal with the declassification and compilation of the war records of our country that may be published in public records, depending on the sensitivity of the information. This creates a lot of questions in the minds of the general public about the credibility, authenticity and reliability of the information as often is the case, historical facts aren't very clearly stated to the public, and only a diluted version is circulated for a very brief understanding of the matter. This article will try to address some of these questions and hopefully clarify this new piece of legislation.

What is the Declassification Policy all about?
The policy envisages dealing with all kinds of wars and operations which have either been carried out in the past or any subsequent actions that may be carried out in the future. Under this, all the organisations under the Ministry of Defence have to hand over the record books, diaries, among other things, to the History Division of the ministry for archival and compilation. Later, those compilations may be published in the form of public records or stay as digital archival proceedings.

Who will be responsible for the declassification of records, and how will it be done?
The concerned organisation (in this case, the various departments under the Ministry of Defence) will solely be responsible for the efficient declassification of the sources, and after that, it will hand over the findings to the History Division of the Defence ministry[iii]. This is also in congruence with the provisions of the Public Records Act, 1993[iv] and 1997. This is very crucial for ensuring the authenticity and reliability of the information being provided to be disbursed public. It will also ensure that the various departments have proportionate control over the message that they want to convey through the multiple challenges they've faced over the years and project the reality of wars/operations as they actually happened.

The policy also lays out a proper mechanism for the constitution of a committee under the chairmanship of the Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and will also include prominent personalities of all the departments/organisations of the MoD. Also, this has the mandate to be formed under 2yrs after the completion of any war/operation and be done with its work in another 3yrs for the purpose of the policy.

Is there a timeline specified for declassifying a particular operation/war history?
A/c to the Defence Ministry, most of the classification of any operation should be done in a span of 25yrs from when that event happened. But, in certain cases, where the timeline has already passed, the records will have to be first appraised by several archival experts, and then (assuming that they get the nod), after the declassification and compilation, they will be added to the National Archives of India.

The Public Records Act, 1993

When commenting on the statutory/legal provisions of doing the abovementioned work, the only significant piece of legislation that comes to mind is the PRA, 1993. It covers pretty much everything that is available in public records for access by everyone. A/c to a PIB notification[v] dated 12-06-2021, this would be the legislation governing the entire process that the declassification policy is aiming to implement. It was conceptualised in order to regulate and manage the records of all the government functionaries that are to be circulated in the public domain. It gives the Central Government power to control what enters the society and what has to be kept away from it in order to maintain the secrecy of State activities from other countries and alien enemies (Section 1).

This Act also gives the power to lay rules before the parliament of India, keeping in mind the foundational vision of the Act (Section 18). From giving a classified security badge to certain records (Section 10) to penalising anyone/organisation that subverts the same (Section 9), the PRA is, in its entirety, an all-encompassing act regulating the inclusion, removal, destruction and dissemination of records concerning the general public.

The Vision
The new Declassification Policy aims to rejuvenate transparency among the public. If the policy works as mentioned above, with the appropriate authority doing its job properly (ensuring that the policy rules and mechanism of the same are duly followed), it would be a great achievement for our country, considering the fact that this kind of compilation is a first for India. War history, if timely published, could significantly contribute to the growing academic research in our country and, will in general, ingrain a clearer picture of the incident in society's mind.

It will give an accurate representation of the event to the world and also help in countering any kind of rumours concerning the matter. Also, this would be a positive step in analysing past mistakes and spreading the lessons learnt from the same, which will help in preventing any future mistake. This is in line with the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee[vi] and the N N Vohra Committee[vii], both of which pushed for a requisite like the declassification policy.

Concerns With The Policy
Although the policy is being implemented keeping in mind the interest of the general public, it's fair to assume that anything that the government thinks will compromise the security and sovereignty of India wouldn't be released in the public domain, and even for the events which will be covered under public dissemination, confidential and sensitive information will be covered up, so as to protect our country from any enemy/alien threat. The main concern here is the misuse of this sovereign nature of working in order to suppress anything that may portray the ruling govt, as incompetent in handling the said matter in a conductive way.

Take, for example:
The Henderson Brooks report[viii] (commonly known as the HB report). It never became public as the government cited security issues for the country when asked for open publication, even though earlier in 2014, the Bhartiya Janata Party strongly advocated otherwise. (Note: Volume 1 of the HB report was made public by Neville Maxwell, albeit with some deductions.) It is only available for the internal functioning of the government machinery, and same will be the case for any compiled document regarding war history that does not get the approval of the expert committee.

Another example could be the release of 1948 Jammu & Kashmir operations[ix] when there are much more (1962, 65 & 71 operations) still left unpublished. The 1987-90 Operation Pawan[x] conducted by the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka is another prime example. Of course, everything pales in comparison to the (still unpublished) infamous Kargil Conflict of 1999[xi] with Pakistan.

Conclusion
The declaration of setting up intellectual infrastructure for the policy by Rajnath Singh hints at the inclination of the Ministry of Defence to, at last, come clean to the public about the happenings of the past and the intent to further speed up the process of access and availability of hitherto clandestine documents by the government. This is certainly a welcome step by the organisation as it has the potential of contributing an astonishing amount of authentic and reliable information coming straight from the department itself.

This kind of 1st party information has traditionally been confined to the access of only a few top officials and government agencies. But all that is about to change, at least if one goes by the official statement put out by the government. This could be a great opportunity for the administration to restore transparency in the system by putting out correct facts about the happenings of the past and build a great research-oriented community for further boosting our footing in the same.

Of course, this isn't an all-happy case and indeed has its own set of restrictions and concerns. For starters, the government may still continue to not publish anything and everything under the sun due to the sensitivity of the information associated with the same. And, although I agree with some of these exceptions, others are just so old at this point that their relevance is insignificant with respect to the so-called national security. Another aspect could be the implementation of the policy, which requires all the departments to share the collected works of historical events.

The expert committee will have to ensure that all the information is being shared by the departments. Also, after the compilation, the decision on whether the same will be published or not has to be taken with great caution. One mistake could put our national security in great danger. And then, there is the debate over the amount of information to be shared in public. Therefore, while it is absolutely necessary to implement this policy, there still remain certain loopholes that have to be addressed in order for it to achieve the desired goal.

Footnotes:
  1. Subramaniam, A. (n.d.). Unlocking war histories with a purpose. The Hindu. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/unlocking-war-histories-with-a-purpose/article34816483.ece
  2. Raksha Mantri Shri Rajnath Singh approves policy on archiving, declassification & compilation of war/operations histories. Press Information Bureau. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from https://pib.gov.in/PressReleseDetailm.aspx?PRID=1726446
  3. History Division, Ministry of Defence. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from https://www.mod.gov.in/dod/history-division-0
  4. The Public Records Act, 1993. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from https://legislative.gov.in/sites/default/files/A1993-69_0.pdf
  5. Raksha Mantri Shri Rajnath Singh approves policy on archiving, declassification & compilation of war/operations histories. Press Information Bureau. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from https://pib.gov.in/PressReleseDetailm.aspx?PRID=1726446
  6. The Kargil Committee Report, 1999. The Print. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from https://theprint.in/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Kargil-report.pdf
  7. Vohra Committee Report, Ministry Of Home Affairs. adrindia. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from https://adrindia.org/sites/default/files/VOHRA%20COMMITTEE%20REPORT_0.pdf
  8. The Henderson Brooks Report. Indian Defence Review. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from http://www.indiandefencereview.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/TopSecretdocuments2.pdf
  9. Kashmir: The True Story. Ministry of External Affairs. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from https://mea.gov.in/Uploads/PublicationDocs/19156_Kashmir_The_True_Story_19-01-2004.pdf
  10. OP PAWAN | Indian Air Force | Government of India. (n.d.). Indian Air Force. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from https://indianairforce.nic.in/op-pawan
  11. Chadha, Vivek. KARGIL- Past Perfect, Future Uncertain? Retrieved July 11, 2021, from https://idsa.in/system/files/book/kargil-past-perfect-future_book.pdf

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