Rajnath approves declassification of war histories after 25 yrs - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Saturday 12 June 2021

Rajnath approves declassification of war histories after 25 yrs

Orders war histories to be compiled within five years


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 12th June 21


Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has approved a new policy on the archiving, declassification and publication 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… clear cut policy on declassification of war records was recommended by the Kargil Review Committee headed by K Subrahmanyam as well as the NN Vohra Committee, in order 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 various 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 should be formed within two years of completion of war/operations. Thereafter, collection of records and compilation should 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 publication of three of these histories. Meanwhile 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.


In addition to 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 Report remains “Top Secret” till today.


In the National Archives in New Delhi, most of the post-1914 correspondence relating to 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 should ordinarily be declassified in 25 years. 


“Records older than 25 years should 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 do not just need war histories. More importantly, we need access to the source code which informs the war histories. In other words, scholars should be given access to all the original historical documents which were 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 must involve military historians and not leave it to the uniformed fraternity to decide what is sensitive and what is not,” said Mukherjee.


“The effort should not be about writing up a ‘correct version of history,’ as history is often an argument without end. Instead, the policy should enable more people to be able to read up on the evidence and come up with their own analyses,” he said.


An Indian scholar points out that national security-related documents are often deliberately over-classified in order 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: "Well, we really botched that job. Should we classify it 'Secret' or 'Top Secret'"?

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