'New' Defence Ministry Policy on Declassifying War Histories Isn't Original, More Must Be Done

There is need for an automated process through which documents get downgraded every five years, till they are declassified at 25.

It is difficult to know what to make of the Ministry of Defence’s new policy on archiving, declassifying and compiling war operations and histories announced last week.

On the one hand, Rajnath Singh’s decision has opened the gate to declassification of defence information; on the other, where this gate takes us is a maze of bureaucracy-driven processes that will ensure nothing happens. Singh certainly seems to be well-intentioned, but the babu authors of the policy seem to have only a vague idea of the problem.

Cutting through the verbiage of its June 12 press release, this is what the Ministry of Defence seeks to have defence organisations do:

1.  Transfer their records, “including war diaries, letters of proceedings and operational record books” to the History Division of MoD.

2. These would be records that were already vetted by the organisations to see if they were fit for declassification.

3. Thereafter, the History Division would use these declassified records to publish authoritative compilations and war histories. This process would be done in a time-bound span of five years after “completion of war/operations”.

4. After the compilation or publication of the official history, records older than 25 years will be transferred to the National Archives, presumably to be made available to the public.

Established procedure

In fact, the Public Record Rules, 1997 – which framed the rules of the Public Record Act, 1993 – have already established a procedure for the declassification of records and their transfer to the National Archives after a period of 25 years or more.

All ministries are supposed to have a records officer responsible for liaison with the National Archives. As for declassification, the 1997 rules say the ministry or office “shall by an office order authorize an officer not below the rank of the Under Secretary to the Government of India to evaluate and downgrade the classified record being maintained by it.” The officer concerned is supposed to evaluate these records every fifth year for the purpose of downgrading. Finally, when these are deemed records of “a permanent nature”, they are to be transferred to the National Archives. Otherwise, presumably, they will be destroyed.

Two processes mixed up

The MoD’s June 12 press note seems to have mixed up two things: first, the process of declassification and transfer to the archives, and second, the writing and compiling of war histories.

While these are indeed bureaucratic processes, the MoD has also bureaucratised the writing of the histories by appointing a joint secretary as its nodal figure.

The History Division which has, in the past, authored a number of well-received war histories, will not, lead the process of “compiling” or writing future accounts. The job will be done by a committee headed by the joint secretary, who may or may not have a background in history, or for that matter, the military. This committee will have representatives of the three services, Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Home Affairs. As for “prominent military historians” they will be inducted “if required”.

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By the way, the press release confuses the 2012 Naresh Chandra Committee, which actually gave recommendations in the area, with the 1993 N.N. Vohra Committee, which dealt with the criminalisation of politics.

But more important seems to be a complete absence of understanding of what history is all about. You get a hint, perhaps with the use of the word “compilation” in the press release, implying that all you have to do is to compile “facts”. As E.H. Carr pointed out, history is not just about “facts” but sifting, interpreting and analysing facts on the basis of the expertise of the historian. When writing on any given modern battle, the historian will not be wanting for “facts” which are plentiful; his/her challenge will be to sift through them, select the most relevant and provide a coherent account.

The background

The reason for this development arises from the contorted history of India’s wars of 1962, 1965 and 1971. The History Division of the MoD is an old one and had, after independence, published the history of Operation Polo, the “police action” to liberate Hyderabad in 1948, Operation Vijay to liberate Goa, the History of the Indian armed forces in UN Operations in Congo (1960-63) and that of the Indian Custodian Force in Korea in 1953-4.

All are now out of print. None are officially available online.

The real problem began with the History Division’s work on the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars. Under the talented team headed by Dr S.N. Prasad, all three war histories were prepared based on declassified documents and records of the day, as well as interviews of participants. The History Division then went through the difficult process of finding approval from various departments. The manuscripts readied for publication were signed off by the then defence secretary N.N. Vohra in 1992, who actually wrote the foreword for all three books.

At this point, however, objections came primarily from the Ministry of External Affairs. It was not too happy with the idea of releasing the 1962 history because relations with China were sensitive. For the same reason it felt that a 1971 war history, too, would be imprudent because of Bangladesh.

So, the government gave the MOD authority to circulate these histories in a limited way to training institutions and higher command levels.

Around 2000 or so, the Times of India obtained the manuscripts and put them on their website from where they were downloaded across the world. Since these were PDFs of ready-to-print manuscripts, scholars around the world have believed that these were actually officially released histories. Today, as far as the academic world is concerned, they are.

And now comes the bizarre part. In 2011 and 2014, S.N. Prasad and U.P. Thapliyal, who had already retired from service, updated and published the histories of the 1965 and 1971 wars. But, though the copyright of the two books is held by the Ministry of Defence, Thapliyal noted in the foreword that the ministry had merely “sponsored” the books, and that they did not reflect the views of the armed forces or the MoD. In other words, we still don’t have the official history of those two wars.

As for the Sino-Indian War of 1962, that remains off-limits for the MoD, though the leaked version continues to be authoritatively cited by scholars around the world.

So, there is nothing particularly unique in what Rajnath Singh has done. The Public Records Act of 1993 had already mandated some of these actions. Most ministries have already created records rooms to transfer older documents. The MEA has tasked former ministry staffers to author a number of authoritative works based on these records. But whether they have transferred those documents to the National Archives or not, is not known.

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One big problem which is mentioned only in passing is declassification. All agencies involved in security – the armed forces, intelligence agencies and so on – have a system of ascending scale of classification (confidential, secret and top secret) by section officers, under secretaries and deputy secretaries and so on. Only the Official Secrets Act of 1923 is clear about what is secret – maps, sketches, codes, passwords, note or document relating to the sovereignty and integrity of India. Needless to say, this does not even begin to meet the requirement of secrets in a digital age.

The government has yet to work out a uniform system for classifying, safeguarding and declassifying national security related information. It needs to set up classification standards and levels of classification, and categorise the classification authority, duration of classification and the process of declassification or downgrading the classification of a document in clear terms.

Having the junior-most person in the hierarchy to declassify documents, as the 1997 rules provide, is a problem. No officer, specially a junior one, would be willing to take the risk of declassifying something really sensitive, even if it is 50 years old, assuming that she or he even understood its importance.

In this era when information is generated in huge volumes, separating wheat from chaff is the key issue. If you have too many secrets floating around, the chances are some will spill out. There is need for an automated process through which documents get downgraded every five years, till they are declassified at 25. Any decision not to automatically downgrade a document should be taken by a small committee and they should record their reasons in writing so that the decision can be reviewed again later.

The government can, if it is wise, begin involving retired officers to aid the process of declassification. Their expertise and domain knowledge would ease the process considerably.

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.