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Off the record

Akshat Kaushal 

Searching the National Archives for post-Independence government documents is a futile exercise

In July 1969, Indira Gandhi, the prime minister, nationalised 14 large commercial banks in order to gain control of credit delivery — Punjab National Bank, Central Bank of India, Canara Bank, Allahabad Bank et al. This, she argued, was the only way to tap banking facilities to the poor; market forces had left them totally unbanked. India was a socialist state and this was yet another step to help the public sector attain “the commanding heights of the economy.” Socialist leader Jaiprakash Narain called it a “masterstroke of political sagacity.”

If you want to research the subject, don’t waste your time in the National Archives in downtown New Delhi. The repository of all non-current records of the government of India has only a handful of documents on it. The problem is that the ministry of finance has transferred very few records to the National Archives on the subject. “We are not able to trace those files. Even the records that are available are not in good shape,” says Rajesh Verma, an assistant director at the National Archives.

Or if you want to research Indo-Pak relations, the National Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi between 1975 and 1977 and the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, again don’t look for official correspondence and studies at the National Archives. It has precious little on the subjects. It would be a safer bet for you to approach the ministries concerned and see if they open their vaults for you. Therein perhaps lies the problem. Since Independence, few ministries have bothered to transfer their files to the National Archives. At work is sheer laziness, the urge to control information and protect turf and (perhaps) a shortage of staff.

The National Archives was set up as an Imperial Records Department in 1891 in Kolkata. In 1937, it was shifted to New Delhi and renamed the National Archives after Independence. It has three regional offices at Jaipur, Puducherry and Bhubaneswar. The transfer of records is governed by the Public Records and Transfer Act of 1993 and Public Records Rules 1997, which mandate that all records older than 25 years after de-classification should be transferred to the National Archives. Subsequently, after another five years, they should be thrown open to scholars.

So the rules are in place, but the implementation is tardy. “It is not a fault of the National Archives but the apathetic attitude of the government,” says historian Ramachandra Guha. Historian Mridula Mukherjee, the director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, adds: “The issue is why the law is not being implemented? Till Independence, barring a few files, most of the material has been transferred to the National Archives. But after 1947, the transfer of records has been very patchy. This is because this is the lowest priority for our ministries.” That there is no penalty for moving the files on time doesn’t help.

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Bureaucrats admit that sending documents to the archives is the last thing on their mind. “I agree that transferring of records to the archives is certainly not a priority area for the government. There are other works that require immediacy,” says former finance secretary Ashok Chawala. “I think more papers should be open to scholars.” NC Saxena, former bureaucrat and a member of the National Advisory Council, says the National Archives too is a part of the problem. “The National Archives should prepare a list of important documents of a decade and give them to the ministries. This would help the ministry in knowing which documents they should transfer to the archives.”

The gap is evident, with just a handful of books on post-Independence India available as compared to colonial India where there is no dearth of scholarship. “There is damage to history. The history of India stops in 1947. Independence provides a break,” says historian Mahmood Farooqui.

Vivek Prahladan, a research scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, has been researching at the National Archives the development of the Constitution of India. He says he faces difficulty as there is hardly any record relating to policy formation. “The entire nature of post-colonial records is highly fragmented. Most of the available records are on departmental nitty-gritty and very few are available on policies.” Another scholar, Saagar Tewari, researching “tribal development policies in late colonial and post-colonial India,” echoes the sentiment. “There is a vast difference between the colonial records and the post-colonial records in that the colonial records are very meticulous.”

Some bit of it is explained by national security. The travelogues of 19th century explorer and British agent Pandit Kishan Singh have not been made public apparently because the revelations might embarrass India over its stand on Tibet. But why have the post-Independence papers of Jawaharlal Nehru and Pyarelal, the secretary of Mahatma Gandhi, not been made public? Or why are documents that ought to explain how India became the largest producer of milk in the world not to be found in the National Archives?

Another concern that scholars raise is that most often the government does not know what records to transfer. Bipan Chandra, historian and the chairman of the National Book Trust of India, says he has requested the government several times to have historians on committees that are given the responsibility of transferring files to archives in vain. “The committee appointed for the transfer of records rarely has a historian on it. In the absence of a historian, the government officials don’t know what to keep in the archives and what to destroy. This is not good for history.” Guha says the problem is worse in state archives. “There the attitude is terrible. Most of the time these organisations are headed by an IAS officer either because it is a punishment posting or because he’s incompetent at everything else.

Britain's National Archives, in contrast, is managed by an executive team with a chief executive. Moreover, while earlier the records were opened after 30 years, after the Freedom of Information Act, the British government has decided that all records older than 20 years would be transferred to the archives. This is being welcomed by researchers as the eagerly awaited Thatcher papers would be available soon.

How important the National Archives is in the government’s scheme of things is clear from the fact that for five years, the institution had no director general to run it. It was only last year that historian Mushirul Hasan was appointed as its head. His appointment has ensured that in one year around 100,000 files from various government departments have been transferred to the National Archives. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

First Published: Sat, May 28 2011. 00:05 IST