The Larger Issue Behind - And Beyond - The Netaji Records

Published: February 11, 2016 11:34 IST
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Historians and conspiracy theorists alike rejoiced in the wake of last month's declassification of the 100 files revealing details related to the death of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. In the excitement of the much-anticipated release of the files, the Prime Minister even launched a web portal at netajipapers.gov.in to publicize the released files. The files revealed many details related to the mysterious death of Netaji, including the location of his death, how his body was treated, and how his death was received in the international community. The story - and all the ensuing conspiracy - dominated the newscycles during celebrations of Netaji's birthday in January.

And yet, virtually no attention was paid to the structural barriers in the Indian government that prevented the release of such documents of public interest in the first place. The declassification of the Netaji papers was a much-needed step towards transparency. But the Netaji declassification demonstrated a larger problem: a culture of opacity in the Indian government. The measures taken by the Prime Minister in response to the decades-long Netaji controversy missed the forest for one set of trees. India still lacks comprehensive and accountable routines for maintaining accessible public records.

The wider lack of transparency across the government, which keeps important information outside the discriminating gaze of public scrutiny, harms India in two crucial ways. First, opacity undermines the democratic process, which requires that an informed citizenry acknowledge the successes and the failures of its governmental officials. Democracy demands transparency; secrecy is essentially undemocratic. For voters to keep their government accountable, they require access to critical information. Assessment requires access, lest such restrictions - intentional or otherwise - undermine the democratic apparatus. That is the principle behind the Right to Information Act, and it's ironic that RTI exists alongside such a regressive policy on declassifying public records.

Second, public records are critical to understanding national history, culture, and identity. Public records are the institutionalized embodiment of Indian history, codified in the form of documents, records, and archives. Our understanding of yesterday's events also enables us to solve today's challenges. The American statesman Henry Kissinger said, "[History] teaches by analogy, not by maxims. It can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations, yet each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable." Lacking access to yesterday's public records derails the current generation's ability to shed light on today's pressing issues.

Underlying all of this is a lack of clarity and public consensus of the purpose of public records. Public records currently function as the prerogative of a government bureaucrat who can use records to retain some level of tangible evidence of their industriousness in the event that their productivity comes under closer inspection. Public records serve as evidence of transactions between two parties, serving political purpose. For instance, an MP might write to a minister advocating a favor for a constituent. The record of this action can be paraded amongst the MP's constituents to solicit public support. But the private benefit of such records - i.e. the showcasing of personal activities - is dwarfed by the potential public benefit of making all such records, by default, part of the public domain. They are a living window to the historical actions of an entire democracy. The benefits accrue to a larger collective.

Accessible records are part of the debt we owe to history. Much of what we now know about the Soviet Union - a thoroughly undemocratic state - was only discovered after a mass release of Soviet records and files following its dissolution. The release of Soviet records in the early 1990s led to a new era of scholarship and updated our understanding of contemporary global affairs.

Indian law already governs the management of public records. The 1993 Public Records Act intended to accommodate the public interest's in maintaining public records. However, many flaws in the original bill promoted opacity, making it near-impossible for a layman to obtain public records. And archaic classification rules allowed the government to keep records from public access, most notably Netaji's - but also material relating, for example, to the wars of 1962 and 1971, far past any reasonable declassification deadline in any other democracy.

The pending Amendment (2014) to the Public Records Act introduced by me mitigates the numerous shortcomings of the antiquated 1993 Act by introducing transparency and accountability to the management of India's public records. It redefines the role of the Public Records Officer from "regulating" access to public records to promoting access. Transparency is the expectation, rather than the exception. Classified records are to be declassified by default within 20 years (reduced from 25 years). The Amendment updates the original Act's language to more comprehensively include 21st century forms of digital records; it will encompass every medium from parchment, palm leaves, and birch bark to modern-day optical drives. It also increases the number of historians on the Archives Advisory Board - the National Archives of India's governing board - to advocate for the public historical and cultural interest in the governance of India's Public Records.

The Amendment is a critical first step to a more open and accessible government. India remains critically behind some global standards in encouraging its citizens to engage with government data more broadly. The United States launched data.gov - a government website that improves public access to digitized data - over half a decade ago. The online repository, part of President Obama's 2009 Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, resulted in a multitude of user-friendly apps that leverage government data in the public interest. The apps help people navigate college selection, dietary decisions, and even consumer purchases based on government data about product recalls. Two years later, in 2011, India started data.gov.in as an open-sourced joint initiative between the United States and Indian governments. The platform boasts thousands of datasets for public use, but still faces a number of implementation problems, including a weak infrastructure to facilitate the collection and management of data in various government agencies and problems sharing the most recent data sets with the public.

The Public Records Amendment and data.gov.in seek to reimagine the ethos of how the government handles its data and records. Parliament must support the Public Records Amendment to honour the simple notion that democracy demands reasonable measures of accountability and transparency from public officials. India needs more than belated declassification: it needs an effective system of public oversight of the government's work. The time to amend the Public Records Act is now.

Dr. Shashi Tharoor is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development. He is the sponsor of the Public Records (Amendment) Bill, 2014.

Adam Joseph, a 2015 graduate of Harvard College, is a 2015-2016 Fulbright Scholar in India.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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