...we need to be sensitive to official records of historical importance
Purushottam Agarwal | July 30, 2014
By the time this issue of Governance Now hits the news stands, I would have, let us hope, received a response to an RTI query I filed on July 3. What is this RTI query about? Readers may be aware that on June 23, several newspapers carried a PTI report on the destruction of 1,50,000 files and documents held by the home ministry under instructions from the prime minister’s office as part of a ‘cleanliness drive’ undertaken by the new government.
Keeping the corridors of power ‘clean’ is indeed a noble idea – both metaphorically and literally. But ‘cleanliness’ should not imply destruction of records and erasure of history, literally and metaphorically, in that order. The PTI report mentioned that the ministry has “done away” with many historically significant documents, the most important being the minutes of the cabinet meeting held immediately before the formal announcement of Gandhiji’s assassination.
Interestingly, the import of this report went largely unnoticed in the officially created euphoria of cleanliness, the only exception that I know of being an article in the DNA newspaper, which analysed the implications of such a destruction
I waited a few days for the government to voluntarily clarify its position on such an important matter, but in vain. Eventually, I filed my RTI query, asking the ministry to state if the newspaper report was indeed true, and if so, whether record retention schedules were followed in the process of destruction. Were important documents identified and preserved in some way – say, by digitisation? Where can a researcher or any other citizen access these documents?
I have also asked for a copy of the order and file noting by which the instruction for destroying the files was issued to the officials of the ministry.
I also initiated an online petition demanding that the government provide a full public clarification on this matter. This petition has been endorsed by SH Raza, Shyam Benegal, Gayatri Spivak, Sheldon Pollock, Romila Thapar, Gyanendra Pande, Sudipta Kaviraj, Ashok Vajpayee, Om Thanwi and many other artists, intellectuals and journalists. The RTI query also attracted some media attention.
Meanwhile, P Rajeeve of the CPI(M) raised the issue in the Rajya Sabha on July 9, forcing home minister Rajnath Singh to make a statement in the House. He clarified that the documents pertaining to Gandhiji, Shashtriji and Mountbatten were safe, but also admitted to the destruction of 11,000 files (not 1,50,000 as initially reported) between June 5 and July 8. He further clarified in another statement that the destroyed files were examined during the UPA regime and were marked for destruction in any case as per established procedures.
Some questions still remain even after the home minister’s statement. Crucially, the government has still not stated which files have been destroyed, apart from stating that these were of a ‘mundane’ nature.
The issue here is not about a UPA or NDA government; it is about the government of India as such, and its practices. True enough, ‘doing away with files’ takes place routinely and is hardly considered a matter serious enough to deserve the attention of the prime minister and his office. The instant case is interesting precisely because the reported direct interest shown by the PMO. Maybe, the home minister came to know about the instruction of destroying files only after it was already in motion. After all, we have entered a certain phase of governance wherein ministers, including the home minister, cannot even appoint private secretaries of their choice – they have to choose from a list pre-approved by the PMO!
Later on, it was clarified that not the PM or his office, but the cabinet secretary had sent the instructions. The question still persists: why instructions from the top on a routine matter? It reflects an urgency of a rather disturbing kind. Was there something that needs to be erased at the first opportunity? Unfortunately, this reflects a frivolous approach to governance, giving top priority to shining office spaces and corridors, instead of really urgent matters of policy and perspective.
Interestingly, the government chose not to show similar pro-activeness in clarifying the matter when the report was carried by prominent newspapers.
It must not be forgotten that institutional memory is one of the defining features of the state as such, more so in case of the modern state. The British colonial power, in order to project itself as the rightful successor to previous regimes, chose to continue with many aspects of the land revenue system of the Turks and Mughals, which in turn had “if not historical, then logical continuity” (as British historian Moreland puts it) with the preceding Hindu systems. Many aspects of this ‘continuity’ continue in the Indian administration till date. This ‘logical and historical’ continuity has come down to us only through careful maintenance and preservation of records pertaining to even “mundane” and “routine” matters.
The records maintained by any state for any purpose can prove useful in unexpected ways. The Russian city of Astrakhan was home to influential traders from Marwar, Gujarat and Sindh. We know this fact with far reaching implications for the history of Indian culture and commerce only through the records kept by the Russian authorities since the 16th century. I visited Astrakhan for my research and was pained but not at all surprised that given their scant regard for historical documentation, Hindu traders themselves hardly left any records of their movement to and their activities in Astrakhan. It is the Tsarist archives which provide us fascinating information. And please don’t think that these fabulously wealthy traders were ‘illiterate’ – they have left many manuscripts of religious and secular texts, but no ‘records’ of their own activities.
Given the evolution of technology, the modern state can and does preserve records even more carefully and competently. It is not for nothing that mature democracies have been preserving seemingly ‘insignificant’ records diligently even before the digital era which has made storage of trillions of bits easy, accessible and inexpensive. The government with its avowed fascination for IT and systems technology can digitise all its files and documents and thus can have ‘shining’ corridors even without resorting to the erasure of records and documents.
And why only historical research – remember the humble Gumati on a manned railway crossing? The man there is supposed to maintain a ‘book’ simply recording the time of every passing train along with his observation, whether he noticed anything abnormal with the running train, or if it was ‘sab theek-thak’. It is simply routine and mundane, as the home minister termed the records destroyed by his ministry, but can one ignore the crucial importance of this record for an enquiry, let us say into a train accident or an act of sabotage?
Government records, particularly of sensitive ministries like home, defence and external affairs, can prove valuable in unexpected ways for unexpected people and often with unexpected results. Perhaps, it is this last part which propels paranoid political formations everywhere to irretrievably destroy files and documents and clean up corridors as well as history itself.
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