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Jaimini Bhagwati: Foreign policy, declassified

The author explains how and why the external affairs ministry should declassify its files

Jaimini Bhagwati 

Jaimini Bhagwati

It has been in the news that the ministry of external affairs is expediting the weeding out and declassification of files that are more than 25 years old. In the past this work proceeded slowly, since the ministry is short-staffed at the senior level - particularly in Delhi. It is well recognised that India has a relatively small foreign service and recruitment has been stepped up to meet projected requirements. The ministry's website indicates that retired officers of the Indian Foreign Service are currently helping to weed out and declassify files. This article discusses how best to put the intricacies of foreign policy decision making of the distant past in the public domain.

The book Shaping the Emerging World: India and the Multilateral Order is a compilation of sharply analytical chapters authored by respected foreign policy specialists and practitioners. At a recently held seminar at Brookings India in Delhi, the discussion was centred on this book. There was a sense at this seminar that India continues to be hamstrung by its foreign and related economic policy choices in the first few decades after Independence - namely, that in India's early years our policies were influenced by ideological leanings towards the Soviet Union, and in multilateral settings we continue to exhibit an inward-looking, inadequate understanding of the country's longer-term self-interest. To debunk or confirm such impressions, the external affairs ministry's files, as distinct from those of the ministry of defence or the agencies, at least from before 1974 should be declassified. And if select files that are more than 40 years old are not to be declassified, the ministry should follow explicit guidelines to justify taking such a view.

It could be argued that nothing much that is new would be found in the ministry's old files. The contents of Archer Blood's telegrams (he was US consul general in Dhaka in 1971) became public even at that time through leaks from the US State Department and the then US Ambassador in Delhi, Kenneth Keating. However, as The Blood Telegram by G J Bass has demonstrated, there was much that remained to be exposed through declassification of White House tapes from the Nixon era. These tapes have added to our understanding of the extent to which the views of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger about South Asia were coloured by cold war animosities and personal bias.

Going back to the 1950s, it would be interesting to know if there are any notes or correspondence in the external affairs ministry's files on India being sounded out about a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). It would also be useful to know about the exchanges between the ministry and Indian embassies in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in relation to events in those countries in 1956 and 1968, respectively. Although India's Nuclear Bomb by George Perkovich is well researched, there could be additional and complementary nuggets in the external affairs ministry's files on this subject. Collaboration between India and developed countries on dual-use technology dried up after 1974. Was the expression "peaceful nuclear explosion" discussed within the external affairs ministry as an apt reflection of what was clearly a demonstration of capability that had dual use? Maybe the ministry's files carry an examination of the merits/demerits of holding off on nuclear tests till we were ready to also test fusion devices, or perhaps these issues were left entirely to the Department of Atomic Energy.

Similarly, the ministry's papers on the circumstances that led to India providing refuge to the Dalai Lama in 1959 could be declassified. The Dalai Lama came to India 54 years ago and it is time to make the external affairs ministry's records public. Many may say that this would be foolhardy, given the multiple sensitivities including an unresolved border with China and the China-Pakistan factor. However, these issues would perhaps be better examined if we were to declassify our files from this period and let the spotlight of expert scrutiny focus on the analysis contained in them.

The People's Republic of China (PRC) became a permanent member of the UNSC in October 1971. This was the time when the US was preparing for Nixon and Mr Kissinger to visit China (this visit was announced in July 1971 and took place in February 1972). Consequently, it is probable that India's support for the PRC becoming a permanent member of the UNSC was irrelevant in determining the final outcome. However, it would have raised eyebrows domestically that India supported the PRC's candidature despite the 1962 war. The ministry's files may clarify whether our stance was driven by India's need to dissuade China from providing any muscular support to Pakistan, as war with the latter looked increasingly inevitable from mid-1971 onwards.

It is very probable that most crucial decisions were taken without putting pen to paper and only through high-level conversations. Even if this is true, a systematic exercise in declassification would lead to better minutes of future decisions. Concurrently, the external affairs ministry could request retired officials who once held senior and sensitive positions - and who remain tight-lipped as per the Official Secrets Act - to record their views in-camera about how and why significant decisions were taken. It is possible that some oral histories would be self-serving and magnify personal achievements while minimising errors of judgement. However, if the oral statements of a number of officers are recorded, distortions and contradictions would be detected. The downside is that the external affairs ministry's officers who are already hard-pressed would need to take the time to review oral histories for periodic declassification.

Foreign policy scholars and journalists speak to ministers and senior external affairs ministry officials on a regular basis. The contents of such briefings are included in writings that are valuable but are not necessarily reliable. It is conceivable that even with the best intentions of being objective, ministers or officials may not have all the nuances in mind when they are interviewed, or personal opinions could creep into their narratives. This is another reason to archive in-camera recordings of retired officials to cross-check impressions and correct errors due to lapses in memory or subjectivity.

To summarise, unless there are serious national security considerations, the external affairs ministry's files prior to 1974 should be declassified. Hindsight is always 20-20. Thus, decisions that were taken more than 40 years ago cannot be judged with the benefit of hindsight, but can be used in future policymaking.

The writer, a former high commissioner of India to the UK and finance professional at the ministry of finance and World Bank Treasury, is currently RBI chair professor at Icrier in New Delhi. These views are his own

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First Published: Thu, February 20 2014. 21:50 IST