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Ajai Shukla: History ... or mystery


Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

Rooted in Britain's DNA is the ability to see the funny side of even the darkest situations. In college in the UK, studying military history, I couldn't help finding endearing the perversity of a country that could lay claim to great military success, but chose instead to focus attention on a handful of military debacles. Trafalgar, Waterloo, El Alamein and Burma never received anywhere near the interest that surrounded the reverses at Gallipolli, Dunkirk and Arnhem.
And when it was time to document the history of the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas campaign, the task was not handed over to some dusty government department. Instead Whitehall called upon Sir Lawrence Freedman, one of Britain's most distinguished historians, and a man who would surely be unsparing of the failures in that difficult conflict. I asked Freedman, then my dissertation tutor, what approach he would bring to the history. "I won't bring an approach", replied Freedman wryly. "I'll just let the reader know what happened."
In India, in contrast, compulsive governmental secrecy and a crippling fear of admitting mistakes have ensured that India's official histories of the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars remain confined to the almirahs of South Block. Well, not exactly. Leaks have ensured that full copies of all three histories are available on the Internet, each typed page separately available in pdf format, including an introduction under the signature of then defence secretary, Mr NN Vohra.
It is in this context that, on November 26, Defence Minister AK Antony told Parliament, "A committee to review the publication of war histories, constituted by the Government, has given its recommendations. The recommendations of the committee are being considered for arriving at a final decision on the issue." And therein hangs a tale.
In 1991, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had okayed the publishing of all three histories "" 1962, 1965 and 1971 "" but the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) jumped in, protesting that making public the 1962 war history would "damage relations with China", with which the Narasimha Rao government was negotiating a border tranquility agreement. Not to be outdone, the Home Ministry protested that making public the war histories would have "security implications".
So a total of 75 copies of the history were typed out and distributed to senior government departmental heads, such as the home secretary, the foreign secretary, and a few instructional establishments in India. It did not take long for complaints to start coming in; the Air Force felt that it had not received its due and the MEA made its displeasure known again. So the 75 copies were treated as highly classified documents and clapped into cupboards and forgotten.
While that finished off the child, the father was handled by the then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, as he took on the job of reducing government expenditure. Amongst the first departments to get the knife "" what delicious irony "" was the History Division of the MoD, which had produced the three war histories. The distinguished Benaras Hindu University professor, Dr SN Prasad, who had been called out of retirement to oversee the exercise, went back into retirement, bemused perhaps from his first intimate contact with government.
The next chapter opened after the Kargil conflict in 1999, the only official history of which exists in the findings of a Commission of Inquiry. Mr NN Vohra, under whom the original exercise had been carried out in 1991, seized what he saw as a fresh opportunity to dust out the history. He told George Fernandes, then a defence minister burnished with the victory of Kargil (even though tarnished somewhat by the coffingate scandal allegations) that there was little sense in keeping the earlier histories from India's patriotic public.
Mr Fernandes promptly did what ministers do when asked to take a decision. He constituted a committee to formulate recommendations on publishing the history of the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars; the committee included Mr NN Vohra, Lt General Satish Nambiar, and Dr SN Prasad himself. It did not take long for them to recommend immediate publication. At that stage, the MEA objected again, once again taking note of China's sensibilities. This is the committee whose recommendations Mr Antony says are being considered. This consideration has now gone on for more than five years.
This is not just a parable illustrating the government's obsession with secrecy, or an example of how a young India is focused on the future to the almost total exclusion of its past. The sorry tale of India's war history draft also illustrates the government's ostrich complex, wherein documents that are freely available on the Internet continue to remain classified, despite the government's moral obligation to declassify papers after a reasonable period of time. The famous Henderson-Brooks report on the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict continues to be "top secret", even though historian Neville Maxwell has published 90% of the report, after he migrated to Australia along with Lt Gen Henderson-Brookes.
Perhaps this has to do with our inability to learn lessons from past mistakes. Maybe it also has something to do with our inability to take criticism. It certainly shows up our inability to demand accountability from government. What is certain is that we are a long way off from asking an Indian Lawrence Freedman to write the history of one of our wars. For now, it'll remain a well-briefed government-picked committee.

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First Published: Tue, December 04 2007. 00:00 IST