Mamata Banerjee may not go down in history as the finest chief minister of West Bengal, but she will certainly be remembered as the politician who summarily brought up the curtain on the last act of the Netaji saga by declassifying the files on him in the state archive. It was so patently necessary to end the uncertainty that clouds the last days of the leader, who opened a second front in the freedom struggle with his Indian National Army, that the prime minister has now taken a cue from Banerjee and promised to declassify the stash of Central files on his birth anniversary in January. And he has also taken it upon himself to urge other governments to put documents on the Netaji mystery in the public domain.
In most democracies, declassification is an automatic process that follows a designated cooling-off period. Unlike in India, political decisions to retain classification are permitted only as the exception. It is rather shameful, for instance, that the Indian government is yet to open up completely on the 1962 conflict with China. In contrast, while Beijing has been typically secretive about the central records, it has permitted automatic declassification of provincial archives, which have yielded the most embarrassing details about Chairman Mao’s regime, ranging from idiocy to murder. If communist China can swallow its pride without making a face, democratic India really has no business trying to keep its secrets warm under colonial-era legislation designed to protect the interests of an empire that was permanently at war.
The prime minister’s announcement has rekindled speculation about what the 39 files in the Central archive will reveal. Since it is open season on Jawaharlal Nehru, his embarrassment is excitedly anticipated in certain quarters. But almost half of the files are labelled “classified” and, worse, “unclassified”, signalling the very high probability that their contents are as banal as boiled cabbage and unlikely to harm any reputations. Sadly, as the government prepares to shed light on the subject, the only victim of the truth could be the “Netaji alive” industry. This will be the end of the delicious rural legends about the once and future general — the ashrams he lived in for years, the waterfalls he bathed under, the village belles who fed him milk and fruits. While the truth must prevail, the myth will be sorely missed.