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T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan: Memoirs vs official histories

The official versions usually tell you only what happened but not why. The memoirs tend to be other way round and place the writer at the centre of the universe

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan 

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan

There used to be a time, no more than a decade or so ago when Indians who had worked for the government would look askance at colleagues who wrote their memoirs. It was regarded as vulgar.

But now, thanks to the generous advances and the free publicity, there is quite a spate of such books. Simultaneously, there is also quite a strong trickle of official histories commissioned by the agency whose history is being written.

Be it the Congress party or the RBI, a private firm or a nothing more than an official agency producing some commodity like salt, many now want to tell their stories. This is as should be.

It reverses a perverse and long standing tendency towards snobbish reticence. While such discretion had its uses, it left future generations unaware of what had actually happened.

This may not have mattered much if Indians were good at keeping official or any sort of records. But we still believe in the oral tradition of the Vedas.

So as anyone who has sought them will tell you, barring institutions like the RBI which have been quite meticulous, official records are a shambles. A former revenue secretary once told me how he found the division of assets files with Pakistan on the corridor outside his room.

The unborn will eventually elicit most of the truth. But the current generation is faced with a big problem: how do you arrive at a balance between what is written in the official histories and biographies and the personal memoirs? Which version should you trust more?

The official versions usually tell you only what happened but not why. The memoirs tend to be other way round and place the writer at the centre of the universe. (I heard a good crack about Khushid Kasuri's autobiography: that it sought to prove Pakistan's bekasuri. An official version posing as a memoir).

In Volume 4 of the RBI's history, as the chairman of the Advisory Committee, Bimal Jalan issued a fatwa: give only the facts, not always the reasons for them. The 1991 balance of payments crisis was the centre-piece of that volume. In 1990, in the year leading up to the crisis, Mr Jalan had been the finance secretary.

But a few weeks ago, Jairam Ramesh published his version of that crisis. It is an excellent read and accurate to boot. It also has a lot of documentation. But as a reader I am left with a niggling doubt. Was it really Mr Ramesh who saved the day?


Whose version should I trust more: the RBI's or Mr Ramesh's? One version seeks to duck the role of the finance secretary and the other seeks to claim a role for itself.

Or take D N Ghosh's recently published autobiography, claiming oblique credit for the final decision of bank nationalisation in 1969. But for him, suggests Ghosh-da, it may not have happened. I should add here that as chairman of SBI in 1988, he had said India didn't need ATMs. But he does not refer to that statement in his book.

There are scores of such examples, from Maulana Azad's India Wins Freedom to Mountbatten's Diaries; from V P Menon's memoirs to Alan Campbell-Johnson's diary of his stint as Mountbatten's press secretary; from B N Tandon's Emergency Diaries about the PMO to T V Rajeshwar's memoirs; and so on. You get the point.

Leave it to the people
So what needs to be done to help people arrive at a reasonably accurate picture of what happened? The simplest way would be to release the files in about 10 years and bring out edited versions.

This is what was done by the British government in respect of the transfer of power. The first volume came out sometime in the late 1960s. Now the technology allows an even speedier release.

In India, the Ministry of External Affairs has already been doing this.

Its chief librarian, Avtar Singh Bhasin, now retired, has been compiling the documents for the last 20 years and the collection is now quite imposing. You can find the whole lot here*.

The home and the finance ministries, whose files are very hard to obtain, should do the same the same thing.

There is the 30-year rule to contend with, though. But with the RTI, it stands considerably diluted.

In any case Narendra Modi - and may god bless his transparent soul - has shown the way with the Bose files.

Next, the Henderson-Brookes report, Sir?


*http://www.amazon.com/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A283155%2Cp_27%3AAvtar%20Singh%20Bhasin.

First Published: Mon, October 19 2015. 21:43 IST
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