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The Need for Declassification of War Histories and other Documents

Lieutenant General Satish Nambiar, PVSM, AVSM, VrC, Retd, former DCOAS, DGMO and First Force Cdr, UNPROFOR, Yugoslavia.
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  • July 06, 2011

    The compilation of war histories of the 1962, 1965 and 1971 operations by the Indian Armed Forces are commissioned works undertaken by historians at the instance of the History Division of the Ministry of Defence, Government of India. Despite that fact, sections of the civilian bureaucracy continue to obstruct publication of these documents. On their part headquarters and units of the Armed Forces do not always adhere to the laid down procedures for declassification of documents, which precludes their availability for historical study. This is further compounded by the indifference of the post-independence political leadership to matters military.

    The observation about a lack of military historiography is possibly reinforced by a quick peep into the not-too-distant past. During World War I nearly 1.2 million Indians were recruited for service in the British Indian Army. When the war ended, about 950,000 Indian troops were serving overseas. According to some official estimates, between 62,000 and 65,000 Indian soldiers were killed in that war. In World War II, the Indian Army saw action on fronts ranging from Italy and North Africa to East Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. In South East Asia alone, 700,000 Indian troops joined the effort to oust Japanese armies from Burma, Malaya and Indo-China. By the time the war ended, the Indian Army numbered a massive 2.5 million men, the largest all-volunteer force the world had ever seen. The irony today is that it is not just the foreigners who are unaware of this British-era Indian military legacy. India’s own post-colonial political class and civilian bureaucracy seem to have deliberately induced a collective national amnesia about the country’s rich pre-independence military traditions. And the Indian foreign policy establishment still largely pretends that India’s engagement with the world began on 15 August 1947.

    A lack of consciousness about military history is evident from reports about the alleged ‘wilful’ destruction of documents pertaining to the 1971 operations at Headquarters Eastern Command in Kolkata. While the facts remain unclear, if my experience in the Indian Army serves me right, it could well be just a case of sheer incompetence or negligence induced by utter lack of awareness or disregard for history. All of us who have served in the Indian Armed Forces are aware that every five years boards of officers are convened in units and headquarters to review old files and documents and destroy those that are no longer relevant; a practice followed because of the lack of storage space rather than anything else. Most members of such boards are aware neither of the historical value of these documents nor of the rule that upon declassification documents of historical value are to be transferred to the national archives. Instead, such records are destroyed by burning. The historical memory including of the sacrifices made by the Armed Forces personnel thus goes unrecorded—destroyed by mindless adherence to bureaucratic procedure.

    It is possibly our inability to honestly record history that contributed, in part, to the controversy last year over the judgement by the Armed Forces Tribunal ordering a re-writing of operations of the Kargil war. While this was an embarrassment for the Army, on the positive side it showed that corrective mechanisms are in place. It is also important to note that the operational record is not the official history of the war. It is a compilation of the events by the operational staff at Army Headquarters, as much to keep a consolidated record of events of the time before institutional memory is lost, as to derive lessons learnt. Compilation of an official history of the Kargil operation will no doubt be undertaken when the Government formally commissions a historian to do so. Hopefully the government will do this while the participants of that campaign are still alive. This is the best way to honour the sacrifices made by our soldiers. However, given past experience, such a history even if written is unlikely to see the light of day in the immediate future.

    The publication of war histories—a recommendation of both the Kargil Review Committee and the Group of Ministers Report – seems to have been held up due to lethargy and bureaucratic indifference. The following account based on my personal involvement with this issue may shed some light. The histories of the 1962 and 1965 wars as compiled by the Historical Section of the Ministry of Defence were referred for comments to the Military Operations Directorate when I was in that organisation initially as the Additional Director General and then as Director General. I distinctly recall that we cleared both histories for publication without any caveats whatsoever. In late 2001, I was nominated as a member of a Committee set up by the Ministry of Defence to examine the 1962, 1965 and 1971 war histories and make recommendations on whether these should be published. The Chairman of the Committee was N.N. Vohra (presently Governor, Jammu & Kashmir) and the other member was the former head of the Historical Section of the Ministry of Defence and in fact the author of one of the histories, Dr. S. N. Prasad. The Committee studied the three documents in great detail, as also comments submitted by various organs of the Government, including the Ministry of External Affairs, the three Service Headquarters, the Intelligence organisations, and so on. In mid-2002 after coming to the conclusion that there was no case for withholding the histories from the public domain, the Committee recommended that they be released for publication. Not much action would appear to have been initiated on the Committee’s recommendations because, a couple of years later the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research that had been established in December 2000 under the aegis of the United Service Institution of India of which I was the Director, was asked to review the histories for factual correctness and editing where necessary. The USI-CAFHR carried out the task using the services of senior members with established credentials of a sense of history and personal knowledge of the operations, and resubmitted the histories with the recommendation that they be published.

    It is a measure of the ‘cussedness’ of the civilian bureaucracy and the indifference of the political leadership about matters military, that the war histories still remain under wraps. The debate should not end with mere publication of the war histories, which would probably result in one less potentially embarrassing parliamentary question for the Ministry of Defence. The History of the 1965 war has recently been published. However, the equally important point is that the primary documents that these war histories are based upon must be made available to researchers and the general public.

    It appears that the political leadership does not have the time or inclination to attend to such mundane aspects as military history. And the civilian bureaucracy that has a stranglehold on the administration without accountability is single minded in its determination to deprive the Armed Forces of any credit for their contribution to national security and cohesion. The only way this stranglehold can be broken is by civil society in general and the strategic community in particular raising their voices for the release into the public domain of documents pertaining to the security of our country.

    (Lt Gen Satish Nambiar is a Distinguished fellow at IDSA)