Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Is India Spilling Its State Secrets?

The government is declassifying some archives, but it will retain control of public understanding.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Files relating to Indian freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose are displayed at the Police Museum in Kolkata, India, on Sept. 18, 2015.
Files relating to Indian freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose are displayed at the Police Museum in Kolkata, India, on Sept. 18, 2015. Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images

Almost two decades ago, when researching the Sino-Indian border dispute, I spoke to a senior official from India’s Ministry of External Affairs about the document declassification process. Some items that I sought were over 25 years old, which meant that they should have been declassified, but I couldn’t find them. When I reminded the official, he smiled and said, “Yes, there is the 25-year rule; we apply it selectively.” My hopes of accessing materials that were crucial for my work simply evaporated.

Seven decades after independence, India still relies on the colonial-era Official Secrets Act of 1923 to keep information it deems sensitive from the public. This legislation grants the government sweeping power to limit access to classified information—which is seems to have used quite liberally.

Almost two decades ago, when researching the Sino-Indian border dispute, I spoke to a senior official from India’s Ministry of External Affairs about the document declassification process. Some items that I sought were over 25 years old, which meant that they should have been declassified, but I couldn’t find them. When I reminded the official, he smiled and said, “Yes, there is the 25-year rule; we apply it selectively.” My hopes of accessing materials that were crucial for my work simply evaporated.

Seven decades after independence, India still relies on the colonial-era Official Secrets Act of 1923 to keep information it deems sensitive from the public. This legislation grants the government sweeping power to limit access to classified information—which is seems to have used quite liberally.

Yet in a handful of recent cases, Indian courts have started to limit the act’s very expansive provisions and protect the rights of investigative journalists. The willingness of the courts to act stems from two sources. First, the judiciary has recognized that provisions of the code are much too broad and can thereby be applied arbitrarily. Second, it is also cognizant that the legislation is contrary in both the spirit and form to the Right to Information Act of 2005, which was meant to give citizens the ability to access government information, even when it relates to foreign policy or national security.

Indeed, although the government has started, albeit quite selectively, to declassify documents related to India’s foreign relations, anyone who has tried to access archival information knows that declassification remains haphazard, files that apparently have been cleared are often missing, and the acquisition process is byzantine at best.

Given New Delhi’s continued penchant for secrecy, it came as something of a surprise last week when Indian Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh ordered his ministry to declassify and transfer all pertinent war records older than 25 years to the archives.

This will be seen as a most welcome development for scholars of India’s national security and defense policies. However, before researchers become too euphoric about this new mandate, it is worth examining the mandate’s particulars.

First, as some Indian security analysts have pointed out, the decision came exactly a year after a major border clash with China. One can surmise that, at best, the defense minister acted out of mixed motives: It stands to reason that Singh would want to try to promote greater awareness of national defense. Yet, the particular timing of the announcement no doubt was done with an eye firmly cocked on the first anniversary of the conflagration.

Second, the announcement was hedged with a number of important qualifications. Certain military operations that should fall within the purview of the ordinance but are deemed to be sensitive will not be turned over to the National Archives. For example, in 1984, the Indian Army carried out Operation Blue Star, a counterinsurgency action at the Golden Temple in Amritsar in Punjab, a highly venerated Sikh shrine, that was disastrous. The operational details of this case and others like it will be subjected to careful internal vetting before they are handed over to the National Archives.

The government likewise has no intention of releasing the much-sought-after Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report on the performance of the Indian Army during the military debacle of 1962. This despite the fact that Neville Maxwell, a onetime correspondent for the Times of London and the author of a highly controversial book on the war, had somehow obtained access to the report and revealed part of its contents in 2014.

Third, as the prominent Indian defense and security affairs commentator Manoj Joshi underscored in a recent column published in the Indian online portal the Wire Singh’s pronouncement, while laudable, actually reiterates an existing legal framework for declassification. Specifically, Joshi highlighted, the Public Records Act of 1993 had already outlined a procedure for the declassification of records after 25 years or longer.

Furthermore, after combing through the press release with care, Joshi concluded that despite the seeming nod to toward greater openness and transparency, initially the released documents will be used to construct “authoritative compilations” under the aegis of the History Division of the ministry. Only after these official histories have been drafted will the actual records be transferred to the National Archives. That means the government will have the ability to shape public understanding of how events unfolded.

Meanwhile, under the terms of another new directive, any civil servant who publishes an account of their tenure in office without prior permission from relevant authorities stands in danger of losing their pension. Given that no guidelines for granting such permission have been announced—and the glacial pace of decision-making within India’s bureaucratic apparatus—this highly restrictive policy all but ensures that few, if any, former officials connected to the national security or intelligence policy arenas will speak out. No wonder some highly respected former senior civil servants have spoken out vigorously against the measure, arguing that it will not stand up to judicial scrutiny.

These two directives thus reveal that New Delhi’s fondness for secrecy, despite feints at greater openness, is going nowhere. At a time when it is facing a barrage of criticism for its attempts to stifle critical social media posts, any moves toward transparency would certainly burnish the government’s credentials. But this very partial parting (and closing) of the curtains does little to advance that goal.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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