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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 1

Barriers to Historical Research: Restrictive Accessibility to Public Records

Tuesday 25 December 2007, by A K Dasgupta


The revelation of archival expletive stuff on Indians in general and Indira Gandhi in particular from the Nixon-Kissinger era is a sharp pointer to the imperative need for relaxing the irrational restrictive policy regarding access to our own archival resources. This sensational disclosure was possible only because of the willingness of the Office of the Historian of the US Department of State to part even with information that has the potential of damaging the reputation of the government. The Nixon-Kissinger conversation recording and other revealing documents of 1971 were declassified as a part of the ongoing publication programme of the series “The Foreign Relations of the United States”. The project purports to present the official historical records of major policy decisions and significant diplomatic activities of the US Government. This is in accordance with a law that not only requires declassification of relevant records but also their publication “not more than 30 years” after the events were recorded. The law further specifies that the publication of the series must be “thorough, accurate and reliable” and meet the standards of “historical objectivity and accuracy”. In sad contrast, records relating to foreign relations involving boundary areas, and those in respect of J&K are not accessible to scholars beyond January 1, 1914 and December 31, 1924, respectively. Ironically, such documents created during the British rule are readily accessible in the Oriental and India Office Collection (OIOC) of the British Library, earlier known as the India Office Library and Records (IOLR).

In his review of four books bearing on India’s foreign relations, aptly titled “Our Secrets in Others’ trunks”, A.G. Noorani described how foreign scholars researched on the issue on the basis of archival documents in their respective countries. (Frontline, July 15, 2005, pp. 75-80) The editors of one of the books India in the Mirror of Foreign Diplomatic Archives, Max-Jean Zins and Gilles Boquerat, in a devastating critique of India’s archival policy in respect of foreign relation records, observed:

…until now none of the existing literature is based on Indian archival documents for the simple reason that the significant diplomatic records are kept locked and not even through restricted-circulation could the political scientists and historians have access to them. There is a veil of secrecy in India that other major countries lifted long ago. Even countries which did not fall in this category until recently, have shown greater openness. For instance, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia started opening its governmental and Communist Party archives to a significant extent.

Noorani thoughtfully adds, “So has China to some extent.”
The authors point out that foreign archives can tell only a part of the story, because India alone can reveal under what circumstances certain decisions were made. Further, a comparison of different national approaches is an incomparable tool to define the multiple dimensions of a problem. The detour via the foreign diplomatic archives can help us to overcome [only] to some extent the non-access to the Indian records and gives us a better comprehension of what drove bilateral relations. At least, this is the objective of this book, which represents the first attempt in this direction.

Noorani commented that the critical comment implicitly points to the acquiescence of India’s academia in the policy. He also squarely blamed our academics, who “seem uninterested; else they would have waged a sustained, spirited campaign for access to records which are open in democratic society—except India”. He called upon the Indian Historical Records Commission to “bestir itself” and also stressed the importance of “invoking the Right to Information Act, 2005, for realising records—and the Henderson-Brooks Report [on India’s debacle in the war with China].”

IN the above context, the purpose of this article is to present a broad overview of the four inter-related mechanisms that both statutorily and non-statutorily, regulate accessibility to official records, namely, (1) the Indian Historical Records Commission, (2) the Public Records Act, 1993, (3) the Official Secrets Act, 1923, and (4) the Right to Information Act, 2005.

Interestingly, it was the colonial government which established the Indian Historical Records Commission in 1919, as a consultative body to make recommendations regarding

(i) treatment of archives for historical study; (ii) the scale and plan on which the cataloguing, the calendaring and reprinting of each class of documents should be undertaken; (iii) the sums required for encouraging research and publication of records; (iv) selection of competent scholars for editing documents; and (v) the problems of public access to records.

The scope of the activities of the Commission is restricted to the post-1600 period of Indian History. (Mercifully, the NDA Government did not take the period back to the Vedic era!) The representative character of the Commission was enlarged first in 1941, and thereafter in 1990. As of now, the Commission presided over by the Minister of Tourism and Culture consists of officials of the Department of Culture (including the National Archives of India), 20 historians and archivists nominated by the government; representatives of the (i) Central Government (including the University Grants Commission); (ii) State Governments and the Union Territory Administrations; (iii) Regional Records Survey Committee; (iv) 71 universities offering courses in the post-1600 period of Indian History; and (v) learned societies involved in historical research, such as the Indian History Congress, Indian Council of Historical Research, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, and Asiatic Society (both at Kolkata and Mumbai). Persons representing various educational institutions and learned socities “should be men of academic distinctions with considerable amount of original research work on the history of India of the post-1600 period to their credit”. Two important functions of the Commission deserve mention:

(i) To act as a forum for exchange between creators, custodians and use of archives and historical documents, of ideas and experience relating to treatment, preservation and users of archives, and to make recommendations to appropriate bodies, official or non-official in this behalf.

(ii) To promote the salvaging and use of material in private and semi-public custody (including institutional, religious and business records) in collaboration with universities, libraries, museums, learned societies, and particularly with Regional Records Survey Committees and similar local bodies, and to act as a clearning house of information on the work done in this field.

Despite its seemingly representative character and noble and lofty objectives, it is essentially an advisory body and, therefore, its recommen-dations are not binding on the governments. For instance, quite some time back the Commission failed to persuade the Intelligence Branch to pass on its records to the National Archives of India (see Official Secrecy and Freedom of the Press by S.N. Jain, Indian Law Institute, 1981, New Delhi, pages 15-16)

BESIDES the Indian Historical Records Commission, till 1993, we had the ineffective Archival Policy Resolution of the Government of India (December 1, 1972) which only expressed the pious desire to permit public access to documents of archival value after 30 years of their creation. In 1993, Parliament passed the Public Records Act, on the lines of Public Records Act, 1958 of the United Kingdom. Packed with bureaucrats, the Archival Advisory Board, created under the Act, mercifully has three non-officials—one archivist and two professors in the Postgraduate Department of History. The Minister of Culture is the Chairman of the Board. Some of the significant features of the Act are :

(i) As a Central Act, it is intended to “regulate the management, administration and preservation of public records of the Central Government, Union Territory Administrations, public sector undertakings, statutory bodies and corporations, commissions and committees constituted by the Central Government and Union Territory Administrators....” (Preamble)

(ii) Public records include “(i) any document, manuscript and file; (ii) any microfilm, microfiche and facsimile copy of a document; (iii) any reproduction of image or images embodied in such microfilm (whether enlarged or not); and (iv) any other material produced by a computer or by any other device of any records creating agency”. [Section 2 (e)]

Two contentious provisions deserve attention:

(i) public records bearing “security classification” would not be transferred to the National Archives of India or the Archives of the Union Territory.
[Section 12 (i)]

(ii) unclassified records “as are more than thirty years old and are transferred to the National Archives of India or the Archives of the Union Territory may be, subject to such exceptions and restrictions as may be prescribed, made available to any bona fide research scholar”. [Section 12 (1)]

The first provision rules out transfer to archives all records bearing the “security classification” label, but the system of labelling is not known. The concept of “security” is notoriously ambiguous—a matter of both subjective and objective perceptions. The second provision would only encourage bureaucratic arbitrariness in refusing access. Thus, in fact, the entire system is heavily weighed against disclosure. Another issue needs consideration—to what extent the all-pervasive and notorious Official Secrets Act, 1923 would influence the operation of the Public Records Act. For decades, the 1923 Act provided the legal framework for regulating the flow of official information to the public domain and provided the government of the day with a cloak of secrecy to withstand most attempts to access official information. Also, the stories of its blatant misuse are legion.

This brings us to the larger issue—the recent enactment of a law which may transform the freedom of information, as it is known in the US since 1966, into the right to information, a much wider concept. Whether the Right to Information Act, 2005 would change the attitude of the bureaucracy to shed its colonial conditioning of secrecy and face the public challenge of their accountability would be known only after the operational formalities are put into place. This discussion is limited to the efficacy of the Act to facilitate access to public records for historical research. While some of the exceptions listed under Section 8(2) may be reasonable, the scope of the restrictive provisions in Section 8(1) (i) is far too wide enabling the authorities to deny information useful for historical research. No information would be disclosed “which would prejudiciously affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state, relation with foreign states or lead to incitement of an office”. Further, Section 24(1) mandates that none of the provisions of the Act would be applicable to 18 central and security organisations listed in the Second Schedule. Under certain conditions, however, information pertaining to corruption and human rights violation would be provided. Section 11(2) dilutes to some extent the restrictive provisions of the Official Secrets Act, 1923 permitting “access to information if public interests in disclosure outweigh the harm to the protected interests”. However, it is not clear whether the “public interests” provision is applicable to historical records needed by researchers, say, documents concerning the 1971 war of liberation of Bangladesh. Perhaps, the efficacy of the Right to Information Act, 2005 can be tested, to begin with, demanding the declassification of the documents relating to this event. This would complement what has been already revealed by the US. Is anybody listening?

The author is a former Librarian and Member of Faculty Administrative Staff College of India. He was also the chief of research, Eenadu Telugu daily, Hyderabad.

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