In recent weeks, reports that the government spied on Subhas Chandra Bose’s family until 20 years after his death have led to conspiracy theories worthy of a John Le Carre novel. But the real scandal is this: nearly 70 years after Bose disappeared, the government refuses to declassify 39 of the 41 files created between 1953 and 2000, containing information on the life and death of the iconic leader. It is heartening that fresh demands to make them public have prompted the government to set up a panel to review the colonial-era Official Secrets Act (OSA), 1923.
State secrecy is an increasingly anachronistic notion in modern democracies. The US “state secrets privilege” takes inspiration from provisions of the British “Crown Privilege”, which sets the sovereign above the courts and parliament, gives the ruler the right to withhold information from subjects. In the US, this power was transferred to the executive. It is a privilege based on the quaint assumption that the state will act in the best interests of its subjects, and that secrecy is needed for better governance. Many have questioned it, starting with 19th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who felt the state drew its power from a reservoir of secrets, which it used in its own “sinister interests”.
The UK has attempted reform, with provisions to release classified files over 30 years old. But the Indian state has not broken the habit of nursing its secrets. The Bose files keep company with many others like the Henderson-Brookes report and documents on the 1965 Pakistan war: much of independent India’s history is really mystery. But the OSA seems jarring in the age of the RTI and in a democratic culture that has come to prioritise transparency. It’s time the government showed more wisdom on which secrets to keep.