Revealing, not Withholding Information, is Real Power. In India, It's the Other Way Round
Information is power. Withholding information is even more power. News is what the powerful want to hide from the public. The rest is just free publicity. Since the government is the sole repository of all classified matter, it is instinctively reluctant to disclose any information on any subject. An Indian citizen cannot access any file marked ‘confidential’ by any babu, even if it is something relatively harmless like instructions on framing a policy to contain dengue. The civil services have flourished in the smoke and mirrors ecosystem, by cloaking in secrecy even the most visible silhouettes of the establishment and revealing little of what lies hidden in history. The denial of information is its most potent magic spell, which preserves its clubby sense of power. Preventing the public from being illuminated on government matters is deemed the most effective method of protecting national interest.
For the past few weeks, the political class has been obsessed with the quality and quantity of the Subhas Chandra Bose files made public so far. Since West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee joined the Bose battle, it has become evident that the classified files on the INA war hero are a puissant political bomb. Setting an odd precedent, Banerjee not only ordered the local police to release 64 files containing 12,000 pages, but also drove down to the police station herself where they were kept. Bose had become Didi’s latest instrument to woo Netaji worshippers for the upcoming Assembly elections. She went a step further by challenging the Centre to release all Bose files kept in North and South Block.
The furor over the files indicates the lack of transparency in our administrative system. Netaji was one of India’s most respected political leaders. The country has the right to know about his whereabouts and how he spent his days after fleeing India. For the past 65 years, successive governments have refrained from releasing the entire docket of files despite promises made during election campaigns. It is clear that it is the political leadership and civil service, which decide to hold back information without following any consistent principle or policy. For example, why cannot Banerjee reveal the truth about the rise and death of Naxalism in Bengal and the dismissal of state governments in the past?
At the Centre, the Modi government had promised to make the maximum number of classified government files public. But most Union ministries are reluctant to disclose information. According to the Manual of Department Security Instruction, 1994, “every classified file/document will be reviewed every five years for the purpose of declassification”. It also says the “automatic declassification may take place after 25 years except in cases where particular information may require to remain classified beyond this period for reasons of national security and national interest”. Rarely has the bureaucracy followed its own manual in letter and spirit. Official agencies do not maintain records about the number of files to be considered for annual declassification. Many are marked ‘Not to Go Out’. Even a joint secretary-rank official cannot retrieve one.
The situation in the states is worse. None of them have declassified any file during the past six decades. If classified documents that contain details of snooping on political and opinion-driving leaders were to be made public, it would expose the tyrannical nature of ruling establishments. Even Parliament has been denied knowledge about a serious matter like the number of corporate shares held by senior civil servants, by invoking the privacy or security clause. The most well-guarded open secret of the past is the process of appointment of High Court and Supreme Court judges. Much before the collegium system came into force, it was on the basis of secret reports that a person was chosen for the post of a judge. If 50-year-old files about their appointments were made accessible, the ugliest side of the Indian political system will come to light. Even files on the appointments and removal of governors would tell their own stories that delineate the noxious narrative of Centre-state relations.
Ironically, babus have invoked convenient clauses relating to national security to conceal files containing matter that pose a real threat to national security or the leadership. Many, like the ones dealing with the defence preparedness during the Indo-China war haven’t been declassified. But then Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon was forced to resign. Why doesn’t the government release the chain of files and correspondence preceding the 1965 Indo-Pak war and Tashkent declaration, after which PM Lal Bahadur Shastri met a mysterious death? If the files containing Indira Gandhi’s views on Henry Kissinger and the US establishment were to be made public, they would expose a simulacrum of the tortured nature of the Indo-US relationship in the 1970s. Why is India being blindfolded to the circumstances that led to cancellation of nuclear tests when P V Narasimha Rao was in power? How did Mrs Gandhi conduct the Pokhran nuclear test without a single colleague getting a whiff about her intentions? Even her decisions to sack Finance Minister Morarji Desai and nationalise private banks were taken after exchange of secret notes with the Cabinet Secretary.
The people have the right to know the details in the files in North and South Block, concerning US groupies infiltrating the system. There lie numerous files in the defence ministry, containing questions a few upright civil servants had raised on defence procurements. Some of them even name the individuals responsible for sabotaging the domestic production of equipment. Declassification of 30-year-old files from the petroleum ministry would reveal how ONGC wasn’t allowed to explore more terrain and which foreign oil companies were favoured for imports. Even the documents dealing with choosing the new PM’s home after Jawaharlal Nehru’s passing would make an interesting study about decision-making. Who decided to reverse the decision to retain Teen Murti Bhavan as Prime Minister Shastri’s official residence?
The unedited saga of the imposition of Emergency and supersession of three Supreme Court judges is yet to be told. Files recording the consultations among various ministries and PMO on Operation Blue Star remain hidden. Other democratic countries like the US and UK declassify material after periodic reviews. Unfortunately, in India, withholding information from the people is considered the tool to retain power than gaining it by revealing more and more.
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