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Is India Spilling Its State Secrets and techniques?

When researching the Sino-India border dispute nearly two decades ago, I spoke to a senior official at India's Foreign Ministry about the process of releasing documents. Some of the items I was looking for were over 25 years old which meant they should be released, but I couldn't find them. When I reminded the officer, he smiled and said, “Yes, there is the 25-year rule; we apply it selectively. ”My hope of access to materials that were critical to my work simply fizzled out.

Seven decades after independence, India still relies on the Official Secrets Act of 1923 to keep information it deems sensitive from the public. This law gives the government extensive powers to restrict access to classified information – which has apparently been used quite liberally.

When researching the Sino-India border dispute nearly two decades ago, I spoke to a senior official at India's Foreign Ministry about the process of releasing documents. Some of the items I was looking for were over 25 years old which meant they should be released, but I couldn't find them. When I reminded the officer, he smiled and said, “Yes, there is the 25-year rule; we apply it selectively. ”My hope of access to materials that were critical to my work simply fizzled out.

Seven decades after independence, India still relies on the Official Secrets Act of 1923 to keep information it deems sensitive from the public. This law gives the government extensive powers to restrict access to classified information – which has apparently been used quite liberally.

However, in a handful of new cases, Indian courts have begun restricting the very extensive provisions of the law and protecting the rights of investigative journalists. The willingness of the courts to act arises from two sources. First, the judiciary has recognized that provisions of the Code are far too broad and can therefore be applied arbitrarily. Second, it is also aware that the legislation is contrary to both the spirit and form of the Right to Information Act 2005, which should allow citizens to access government information, even if it relates to foreign policy or the refer to national security.

Although the government has begun, albeit quite selectively, to release documents related to India's external relations, anyone who has tried to access archival information knows that the release is still arbitrary, files that appear to have been released are often missing and the acquisition process is Byzantine at best.

Given New Delhi's continuing tendency towards secrecy, it came as a surprise last week when Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh ordered his ministry to release and archive all relevant war records older than 25 years.

This is seen as a most welcome development for academics in the national security and defense policy of India. Before researchers get too euphoric about this new mandate, however, it is worth examining the details of the mandate.

First, as some Indian security analysts have pointed out, the decision was made exactly one year after a major border conflict with China. One can surmise that the defense minister acted for mixed motives at best: it stands to reason that Singh would try to promote greater awareness of national defense. The exact timing of the announcement, however, was undoubtedly made with a view to the first anniversary of the conflagration.

Second, the announcement was secured with a number of important restrictions. Certain military operations that should fall within the scope of the regulation but are considered sensitive will not be transferred to the National Archives. For example, in 1984 the Indian army carried out Operation Blue Star, a counterinsurgency operation in the Golden Temple in Amritsar in Punjab, a revered Sikh shrine that was disastrous. The operational details of this and other cases are carefully checked internally before being handed over to the National Archives.

The government also has no intention of publishing the coveted Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report on the performance of the Indian army during the 1962 military debacle, the author of a highly controversial book on the war, somehow gaining access to the report and one in 2014 Part of its content disclosed.

Third, as prominent Indian defense and security commentator Manoj Joshi pointed out in a column recently published on the Indian online portal, Wire Singh's statement, while laudable, actually reiterates an existing legal framework for the de-classification. Specifically, Joshi emphasized, the Public Records Act of 1993 had already stipulated a procedure for the release of records after 25 years or more.

In addition, after carefully reading the press release, Joshi came to the conclusion that despite the apparent allusion to more openness and transparency, the published documents would initially be used to create “authoritative compilations” under the aegis of the Ministry's history department. Only after these official histories have been drawn up are the actual records transferred to the National Archives. That means the government will be able to shape the public understanding of how events unfolded.

Meanwhile, under yet another new directive, any civil servant who publishes a report on his or her tenure without prior approval from the relevant authorities runs the risk of losing his pension. Given the fact that no guidelines for issuing such a permit have been disclosed – and the icy pace of decision-making within the Indian bureaucratic apparatus – this extremely restrictive policy practically ensures that few former officials involved with the national security or government Intelligence related policy, will do so speak out. No wonder some well-respected former high-ranking officials have come out strongly against the measure, arguing that it will not stand up to judicial review.

These two directives thus show that New Delhi's penchant for secrecy is going nowhere, despite the guile of greater openness. At a time when it is faced with a barrage of criticism for its attempts to suppress critical social media posts, any move toward transparency would surely revamp government credentials. But this very partial separation (and closing) of the curtains does little to achieve this goal.

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