06 September 2000

The government's cult of secrecy

6 September 2000
The Times of India

The government's cult of secrecy

By Siddharth Varadarajan

Times News Network

NEW DELHI: Of the five wars India has fought since Independence, official accounts of only the first - Kashmir, 1948 - and last - Kargil, 1999 - are publicly available. Official military histories of the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars exist but successive governments obsessed with secrecy have refused to make them public. Secure in the belief that an informed public lies at the heart of democracy, The Times of India is making available today the full text of one of these suppressed documents, the official History of the Indo-Pak War, 1965. `Sensitive' official papers are generally labelled Top Secret, Secret, Classified, Restricted, or Limited Circulation. The 1965 war history is a Restricted document.

Many countries have a 30-year rule for making public even highly sensitive official records; but in India, 35 years is not considered enough time for a rather sanitised account of a war to be released. This, despite the fact that it contains nothing which compromises the way the armed forces operate today. Lt. Gen. Harbakhsh Singh, who died recently, privately published his far more revealing official war despatches in 1991, after waiting in vain for several years for official permission. The 1948 war history was only released in the mid-1980s after the ministry of external affairs tried unsuccessful to block its publication.

Prepared by the history division of the defence ministry and handed over in September 1992, the 1965 war history was considered safe enough to be mooted for general release by N N Vohra, defence secretary at the time. However, the government - or more precisely, the committee of secretaries - thought otherwise. The committee consists of the Cabinet, defence, external affairs, home and finance secretaries. Permission to publish was denied on grounds of national security. The ministry was not even allowed to provide copies to the specialised training institutions for officers run by the armed forces. In investigating the fate of the suppressed history, what emerges is an obsession with secrecy, driven not so much by reasons of state but the trivial concerns and imaginary fears of the babus.

A retired bureaucrat, who was part of the committee of secretaries at the time and one of those who had opposed the release of the history, told The Times of India there were three reasons for the decision:

  • "It revealed that the thrust to Lahore was mismanaged, with the Division commander losing contact with his base, and that there were sharp differences between Lt. Gen. Harbakhsh Singh and the Army chief.''
  • "It gave information about certain aspects of command and control."
  • "It had a number of details of operational decisions taken...which, in the context of tensions with Pakistan, we felt should not be made public.''
When contacted, Gen. S J F Rodrigues, who was the Army chief at the time the official history was prepared, said these objections showed that the committee of secretaries had ``a very naive way of looking at things''. Revealing that even he had not been shown a copy of the history, he said, ``The committee of secretaries is totally soul-less. They take decisions on the basis of incomplete knowledge and no one can then question them''. Pleading for openness, Gen. Rodrigues said, ``Unless you get a fair and impartial account of the past, you cannot deal with future challenges. If you don't know what the problems are, how on earth do you correct them?''.

No comments: