The National Archives of India (NAI) complex is slated for major changes under the Central Vista Project. Conflicting reports indicate that the heritage structure that is part of the National Archives complex will be retained but that additions to the original plot will be demolished later in the project. The lack of clarity around the plans for preservation, transfer and access of these national records is a cause for concern. While the Minister of Culture stated on Thursday that the government will “continue to keep the records safely,” his statement focuses on the retention of the heritage building, and does not mention the demolition of the Annexe building, which reportedly houses several public records, private papers, departmental records etc. This further highlights the need for public scrutiny.
The absence of public consultations and the aggressive pursuit of the Central Vista project during a national crisis raises important questions not just about the future of historical research, but about the state’s responsibilities towards its citizens. The curtailment of access to public spaces as part of the project also bears on the proposed changes to the National Archives Complex and the students, workers, bureaucrats, tour guides, local and international researchers who work in and around the complex.
Archives are essential to the relationship between a state and its citizens. The production, storage, and use of information about the population is central to the work of governance. Moving public records in democracies is a big deal. Recently, when the Federal Government of the United States decided to move the National Archive at Seattle to California, there were extensive public consultations. The move was contested by Native American and other historical groups and proceedings of the ensuing lawsuit were available live to the public via Zoom.
Historical research and the institutional foundations for supporting it were key to the Indian state after 1947. In the 1970s, historians such as RS Sharma, Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar and others began quasi-government councils of research. The Indian Council of Historical Research was formed in 1972, followed by some states forming their own regional councils. In the last 50 years, state archives, regional and central historical councils, and the National Archives have worked on shifting the role of archives from solely record-keeping to serving as institutions that engage directly with the public. However, the National Archives’ website as of today has no notification about the pending demolition, plans for the safe removal of materials and any indication of how long access might be cut off for the public.
Perhaps, this lack of clarity is the reason why calls for transparency and accountability have come from around the world. Outside India, the British Library is one of the largest repositories of archival resources for colonial India. If the NAI is inaccessible for an indefinite period, scholars who have the privilege of access to the British Library, or holdings in American universities, will have exclusive rights to write about Indian history. The pandemic has highlighted the historically constituted regional inequalities that shape our world and it has certainly exacerbated the differential access that students, researchers and scholars located in India have in relation to the global North even in the study of South Asia itself. As we write this, archives and museums are opening across Europe, Britain and the United States, while Indians are still scrambling for vaccines and basic medical supplies.
Indeed, those asking for clarity are not just academics and archivists, but include large numbers of students and citizens from across the country concerned about the preservation of our collective memory. This diverse group reveals that the NAI has a broader, material relevance: People looking for land records, bureaucrats looking for an older government order, a lawyer seeking a legal precedent, or a sculptor looking for inspiration in an old etching. In a sense, we collectively imagine the archive as a place for verification, for evidentiary exploration, for empirical robustness, to support the frame of our present reality.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 21, 2021 under the title ‘History in rubble’.
Banerjee is Vanier Doctoral Scholar, Department of History, University of Toronto; Chaudhuri is Visiting Assistant Professor, Boston College.