Transparency & history: India’s archives must be opened to world standards
by Claude Arpi & Subroto Roy
First published in Business Standard New Delhi December 31, 2008, 0:26 IST
The Government of India continues to hide India’s history from India’s people using specious excuses. An example is the Henderson-Brook report on the 1962 war, a single copy of which is said to exist locked away in the Defence Ministry. An anti-Indian author like Neville Maxwell is among the few ever given access to it; he has reiterated his factually incorrect theory (accepted by Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai and the US and Chinese establishments since) that the 1962 war was due to Nehru’s aggressive policy and China had no choice but launch a “pre-emptive attack”.
In Parliament not long ago, Defence Minister A K Antony said: “Considering the sensitivity of information contained in the report and its security implications, the report has not been recommended to be declassified in the National Security interest.” This is nonsense. Nothing from as far back as 1962 can possibly affect anything significant to India’s security today. In any case the Defence Ministry’s official history of the 1962 war, though officially unpublished, is openly available.
Even the 2005 Right to Information Act goes against transparency of research into India’s history. Article 8 (1) (a) says, “there shall be no obligation to give any citizen,— (a) information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence.” This can cover all files of the MEA, Defence and Home; there seems to be no right to academic freedom for India’s people to research their own history.
China itself is more open with its archives. Since 2004, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing has begun a systematic process declassifying more than 40,000 items from its diplomatic records for the period 1949-1960. The Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington DC has recently published Inside China’s Cold War; the Project Director admits this has been possible due to China’s “archival thaw”.
In the USA, official documents are made available after 30 years or when a reasonable demand is made under the Freedom of Information Act. Numerous groups exist whose only work is to make sure the law is followed. The recently released Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume XVIII, China (1973-1976) published by the American foreign ministry reveals several interesting aspects of the India-USA-China relationship. Last year the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) posted some 320,000 declassified cables on-line. The text of once-secret diplomatic cables indexed is today retrievable from the NARA Website. It also includes withdrawal cards for documents still classified, so these can be requested under the Freedom of Information Act. Out of 119,356 documents for 1973 and 200,508 for 1974, some 7,484 were related to India. Indians scholars today have to rely on US documents for their own history!
In an open society, the ordinary citizen has reasonably easy access to any and all information relating to the public or social interest— whether the information is directly available to the citizen himself/herself, or is indirectly available to his/her elected representatives like MPs and MLAs. Different citizens will respond to the same factual information in different ways, and conflict and debate about the common good will result. But that would be part of the democratic process. In an open society, both good news and bad news is out there in the pubic domain— to be assessed, debated, rejoiced over, or wept about. Citizens are mature enough to cope with both— the experience causes a process of social maturation in formulating the common good as well as responses to problems or crises the community may face. People improve their civic capacities, becoming better-informed and more discerning voters and decision-makers, and so becoming better citizens.
The opposite of an open society is a closed society— in which a ruling political party or self-styled elite or ‘nomenclatura’ keep publicly important information to themselves, and do not allow the ordinary citizen easy or reasonably free access to it. The reason may be merely that they are intent on accumulating assets for themselves in the dark as quickly as possible while in office, or that they are afraid of public anger and want to save their own skins from demands for accountability. Or it may be they have the impression that the public is better off kept in the dark— that only the elite ‘nomenclatura’ is in a position to use the information to serve the national interest. Bad news comes to be suppressed and so good news gets exaggerated in significance. News of economic disasters, military defeats or domestic uprisings gets suppressed. News of victories or achievements or heroics gets exaggerated. If there are no real victories, achievements or heroics, fake ones have to be invented by government hacks— though the suppressed bad news tends to silently whisper all the way through the public consciousness in any case.
Such is the way of government propaganda everywhere. Closed society totalitarianism permitted the general masses to remain docile and unthinking while the ‘nomenclatura’ make the decisions. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor said that is all that can be expected of the masses. Open society transparency was instead defined by Pericles for the Athenians: “Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well; even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics— this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”
The study of the subcontinent’s history using archival material is crucial to disentangle difficult problems like the Jammu & Kashmir issue or the border problem with China. Yet today nobody can access independent India’s primary sources locked in South Block and North Block in New Delhi. Most bizarrely, Jawaharlal Nehru’s papers are under control of his descendants like Priyanka Vadra and Sonia Gandhi, who claim copyright. Someone may need to tell them there is a universal principle that there can be no copyright on the public life-work of historical figures like presidents and prime ministers.
China’s force & diplomacy: The need for realism In India
First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, May 31 2008, http://www.thestatesman.net
It is almost as large an error to overestimate Chinese military aims and capabilities as it has been to underestimate them. On 8 May 2008 at Tokyo’s Waseda University, China’s President Hu Jintao declared in a speech broadcast live “China has taken a defensive military policy and will not engage in any arms race. We will not become a military threat to any country and we will never assert hegemony or be expansionistic”. This was as clear and authoritative a reply as possible to the June 2005 statement in Singapore of the then American defence minister Donald Rumsfeld: “China appears to be expanding its missile forces, allowing them to reach targets in many areas of the world, not just the Pacific region, while also expanding its missile capacities here in the region. Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: why this growing investment?”
By 2006, Rumsfeld’s generals were saying China had “the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States,” and could “field disruptive military technologies that could over time offset traditional US military advantages absent US counter strategies”. The “sizing” of China’s military by American and other Western analysts became a parlour game ~ one with major business implications since the threat perceived or misperceived from China affects American decisions on the size of its own military.
As recently as 13 May 2008, the Wall Street Journal carried opinion that China’s military expansion demanded America have a 1000-ship navy not a 280-ship one, 40 aircraft-carriers not 11, 1000 F-22 aircraft not 183. Exaggerating China’s military and the threat posed by it to the world can mean big business for militaries opposing it!
Communist China’s physical, political and psychological domination of independent India since the 1950s has been achieved more by diplomacy, subterfuge and threat of force than actual military conflict. In its first phase, the policy was expressed clearly by the Chinese Ambassador to New Delhi on 16 May 1959 when he told India’s Foreign Secretary: “Our Indian friends, what is your mind? Will you agree to our thinking regarding the view that China can only concentrate its main attention eastward of China but not south-westward of China, nor is it necessary for it to do so?…. Friends, it seems to us that you, too, cannot have two fronts. Is it not so? If it is, here then lies the meeting point of our two sides. Will you please think it over?” (BN Mullick, Chinese Betrayal, p. 229).
At the time, Pakistan was in military alliances with the USA through CENTO and SEATO, and the Pakistan-China alliance was still years away. The Chinese had used subterfuge to construct their road linking Tibet and Sinkiang through Aksai Chin, ignoring India’s sovereignty, and were now suggesting they had no interest in fighting India because their major military interests were to their east as India’s were towards Pakistan.
The second phase was the short border conflict itself in 1962-63, which consolidated China’s grip on occupied territory in Aksai Chin while establishing its threat to the Brahmaputra Valley that has been perpetuated to this day. The third phase is represented by the 27 November 1974 conversation between Henry Kissinger and Deng Xiaoping, recently made publicly available:
“Deng : There’s something very peculiar about Indian policy. For example, that little kingdom Sikkim. They had pretty good control of Sikkim. Why did they annex it?
Kissinger : It is a good thing India is pacifist, I hate to think (of what they would do) if they weren’t. (Laughs).
Deng : Sikkim was entirely under the military control of India.
Kissinger : I haven’t understood Sikkim. It is incomprehensible.
Deng : After the military annexation, their military position was in no way strengthened.
Kissinger : They had troops there already.
Deng : And they haven’t increased their troops since. We published a statement about it. We just spoke for the cause of justice.
Kissinger : Is it true that you set up loudspeakers to broadcast to the Indian troops on the border? It makes them very tense. (Laughs)
Deng : We have done nothing new along the borders, and frankly we don’t fear that India will attack our borders. We don’t think they have the capability to attack our borders. There was some very queer talk, some said that the reason why the Chinese issued that statement about Sikkim was that the Chinese were afraid after Sikkim that India would complete the encirclement of China. Well, in the first place we never feel things like isolation and encirclement can ever matter very much with us. And particularly with India, it is not possible that India can do any encirclement of China. The most they can do is enter Chinese territory as far as the Autonomous Republic of Tibet, Lhasa. And Lhasa can be of no strategic importance to India. The particular characteristic of Lhasa is that it has no air-because the altitude is more than 3,000 metres.
Kissinger : It’s a very dangerous area for drinking mao tai (a Chinese hard liquor).
Deng : Frankly, if Indian troops were able to reach Lhasa, we wouldn’t be able to supply them enough air! (Laughter)
Kissinger : I don’t think their intention is with respect to Tibet, their immediate intention is Nepal.
Deng : That is correct. They have been recently exercising pressure on Nepal, refusing to supply them oil. It is the dream of Nehru, inherited by his daughter, to have the whole subcontinent in their pocket.
Kissinger : And to have buffer zones around their border…. It is like British policy in the 19th Century. They always wanted Tibet demilitarized.
Deng : I believe even the British at that time didn’t make a good estimate of whether there was enough air. (Laughter)
Kissinger : I think an Indian attack on China would be a very serious matter that cannot be explained in terms of local conditions, but only in terms of a broader objective….”
The attitude that is revealed speaks for itself, and has been essentially continued by Deng’s successors in the next decades, especially Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. It is because China does not perceive a military threat from India that it has agreed to military exercises with us ~ exercises which, if anything, reinforce their psychological dominance by helping to spook our military’s morale. During this third phase also, China went about systematically creating a major military threat to India in its support of Pakistan’s military, exploiting our subcontinent’s communal conflicts fully to its own strategic advantage.
China has been engaged for more than a decade now in a massive exercise of modernisation of its armed forces, improving productivity, technology, organisation and discipline while trying to cut corruption. It has a right to do so, and such modernisation does not in and of itself signal aggressive intent. The last aggressive war China fought was almost 30 years ago against Vietnam. It is possible that what simply explains the military modernisation (besides conflict with Taiwan) is China’s awful history of being exploited by foreign powers over the centuries.
Indian analysts have expressed concern about nuclear submarines based in Hainan; but where else would China put them? We delude ourselves if we think we are the guardians of the Straits of Malacca. We may do better being concerned to try to modernise, improve productivity and reduce corruption in our own forces, as well as integrate them better with national goals as China has done instead of continuing to maintain them in a rather old-fashioned colonial / imperial manner.