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Address systemic issues in the armed forces archives

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The Indian military, in fits and starts, is undergoing its most significant transformation yet — with the creation of the offices of chief of defence staff, department of military affairs, an expectation of joint theatre commands and the unexpected and controversial Agnipath recruitment scheme. Despite some misgivings about implementing these reforms, and the jury still out on their effectiveness, the Narendra Modi government deserves credit for most of these initiatives. However, these institutional reforms must be matched by an even more important procedural undertaking — a willingness to declassify documents, facilitate scholarly engagement, and be open to research scrutiny. Only then can the military create opportunities for a much-needed intellectual transformation necessary to fulfil the promise of current reforms and deal with future challenges.

The defence minister and chief of defence staff should promulgate an integrated records management policy for all three services. (PTI)

A few months ago, the director-general of the National Archives, Chandan Sinha, highlighted what is common knowledge to India’s (minuscule) tribe of military historians — the archives do not have any records about the 1962, 1965 or 1971 wars. To be sure, over the last few years, the military and the defence ministry have made a concerted effort to transfer older files to the archives. In addition, the United Services Institution of India is digitising some historic files. These are positive and welcome developments. Nonetheless, they also belie a lack of understanding of the value of scholarly research and its role in professional military education.

Nothing illustrates this better than a simple pop quiz — ask any serving Army officer what military lessons were learnt from Operation Parakram, launched in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Parliament in 2001. More specifically, ask where our three-strike corps were deployed, why they were redeployed and whether their operational lessons were a part of their professional military education. This is not just an academic question; analysing this crisis should logically draw lessons for our current operational plans. Most officers will brush away the question, citing secrecy concerns but deep down most will struggle to answer these questions. The fact of the matter is this — the Army does not ask such searching questions or provide its officers with a historically grounded analysis. On the contrary, most formations will struggle to locate records about this operation, in which, according to the government’s admission in the Rajya Sabha, India suffered around 1,874 casualties.

But this is not just about Operation Parakram, which occurred more than two decades ago but pertains to events even before that. Many senior military officers do not understand the concept or value of archives and scholarly research. As a result, hundreds and thousands of documents and dissertations about training, operations, administration, and logistics lie unexamined in formations, units, and schools of instruction across the country.

Egregiously, when space becomes a constraint or as a matter of bureaucratic habit, the military convenes a board of officers drawn from local units to oversee the destruction of documents. These officers are not historians and most cursorily go through the motions without understanding the potential value of such documents. In all this, the ministry of defence has shrugged off responsibility. Their hands-off attitude facilitates a classic catch-22 situation. When quizzed about declassification, military officers ask for guidance from the ministry to do so. On the other hand, ministry officials correctly claim that only the classifying agency can declassify, putting the onus back to the military. All this buck-passing effectively leaves India’s strategic community worse off, with historically minded officers overly reliant on self-convenient biographies and organisational myths.

Addressing these systemic issues will require attention from the top. The defence minister and chief of defence staff should promulgate an integrated records management policy for all three services. Such a document should specify a systematic declassification policy and appoint nodal officers to oversee it. Indeed, transferring records to the public domain is a statutory requirement. As a first step, the defence ministry may also need to empower professional historians — and not necessarily serving officers — to help decide what records should remain classified. To its credit, the Indian Navy has created a naval history division but unfortunately does not allow civilian researchers to access it.

In all this, the military must understand the value of sharing information and open up to scholarly scrutiny and inputs. Such organisational self-knowledge is necessary to intellectually prepare future leaders for emerging challenges. Otherwise, the military will continue perpetuating a half-baked, sanitised version of its past — fearful of the past and, thereby, hesitant about its future.

Anit Mukherjee is an associate professor, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU, Singapore

The views expressed are personal

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