The fear of history

The fear of history

India needs a policy that allows scholars to access primary documents and archival material.

The Ministry of Defence has undertaken the writing of the official history of the Kargil War, which is to be completed by the end of the year. In a break from the past, the ministry shortlisted historians not affiliated to its history division and chose noted scholar, Srinath Raghavan, to head the project.

This is a welcome move, considering that war histories in India have been a very sensitive subject. Despite passage of 54 years, the official history of the 1962 India-China conflict is yet to see the light of day. Same is the case of India’s military adventure in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. Many fear this intransigence is to cover the less than sterling performance of the armed forces in both instances. But that may not be true as even the

official histories of the 1965 and 1971 wars, where Indian armed forces performed credibly, were published only in this century. This needs to be corrected, and the government must come with a clear time-bound policy on writing and publishing official war histories. A five-year limit for writing official histories, which can then be updated
every 10 years, and publication within one year of the history being written can be established as policy.

By hiring a noted scholar like Raghavan to write the official history, the government has signaled a new openness towards these activities. The government now needs to take it to its logical conclusion, and make the primary sources — documents, files, war diaries, oral histories, correspondences — available to all scholars. This will need an updated policy on declassification of archival material, at par with other modern democracies. But more than a change in policy, this warrants an attitudinal shift towards national security in the political executive. Unless such a policy is established by an act of Parliament, India will remain bereft of serious works on subjects such as post-independence military.

In the case of Kargil, citing operational reasons, the army has said it will not be able to furnish war diaries or operational notes pertaining to the 1999 conflict between India and Pakistan. It is a valid concern which needs to be taken on board but these should be exceptions to the norm. It is time to allow scholars access to documents that would enable them to analyse, debate and thereby, learn from our past. Only then can India engage in a well-informed dialogue on national security and military effectiveness.