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Devangshu Datta: Institutionalised ignorance

A nation that knows its past is less likely to repeat its mistakes

Devangshu Datta  |  New Delhi 

The Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914 saw two Tsarist Russian armies destroyed by a German force about half as large. The credit for brilliant German tactics is generally apportioned to staff officers Erich Ludendorff and Max Hoffman, rather than to the commander, Field Marshall Paul Von Hindenberg. Years later, Hindenberg said, “I don’t know who was responsible for the victory but I would have been the one responsible for defeat.”

A key factor was bad blood between the two Russian army commanders, who refused to coordinate, even in the face of disaster. The Germans suspected this rift after hearing radio intercepts and exploited it.

The animosity was only confirmed in the 1990s when Tsarist archives were declassified after the dissolution of the USSR. Post-Soviet Russia is not noted for a commitment to transparency. But it deserves credit for a consistent policy of declassifying archives.

In the last 18 years, this has altered and deepened understanding of both World Wars and of decades of Cold War intrigue. It has also shed some light on the difficult, opaque relationship between the USSR and China. We now know what Soviet doctrine actually was, and why the USSR took certain actions and decisions when it did.

Most democracies routinely declassify documents. The British have a “30-year-rule”; most UK documents are declassified after 30 years. The US has a “25-year-rule” and in certain cases, just a “10-year rule”. It takes exceptional circumstances for documents to be redacted or held back.

Of course, wider dissemination of historical knowledge allows for more informed analysis and deeper introspection about historical events and policy mistakes. But declassification has a utility that goes beyond the needs of the merely scholarly.

It enhances the institutionalisation of strategic thinking and policymaking skills by offering insights into the thoughts of people who made key historical decisions. A nation that collectively knows its past is less likely to be condemned to repeat its mistakes.

When do governments decline to declassify documents? When “the sensitivity of information contained and its security implications” make something dangerous to release. Or, when release would “harm foreign relations, cause disruption in the country or breach of parliamentary privileges.”

The first excuse was trotted out by the Indian government in February 2008 when it refused to release the 1963 Henderson Brooks Report on the Sino-Indian War of 1962. The second excuse was given in August 2009, when the government refused to declassify a January 1966 document pertaining to the death of Premier Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent.

It is difficult to believe these reasons given the efflux of time. It is, in fact, very frightening if security implications noted in 1963 have not yet been dealt with. But keeping things under wraps is the default position of the Indian government. It doesn’t have a declassification policy — documents are rarely released, and never without tedious prodding.

The last time any documents were declassified was back in 1997. Those archives centred on the Naval Mutiny of 1946, and on Netaji and the INA circa 1942-46. Earlier, in 1989, some documents from 1950-60 were released. Nothing has been declassified since 1997.

As a result of this tight-lipped attitude, conspiracy theories abound in Indian public life. There are persistent whispers about Shastri’s death, about the 1962 War, the death of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and Netaji’s disappearance.

It’s also very likely that strategic mistakes in policy are repeated by successive governments since a philosophy of secrecy institutionalises ignorance. Thankfully, the infighting in the BJP has ensured that the Kandahar episode doesn’t languish for the next 50 years in folders marked “Top Secret”.

First Published: Sat, August 29 2009. 00:19 IST