Declassification law on official documents needs review, says committee
By Murali Krishnan,
New Delhi, June 15 (IANS) The recommendation of a government-appointed committee on declassification of public documents has again thrown up the question as to how long documents of national interest can be kept under wraps. The Veerappa Moily Commission, which submitted its first report on administrative reforms earlier this week, has urged the government to review its decision of keeping official documents classified after a period of 30 years.
"In other countries even war secrets are brought into the public domain after a lapse of a specified period, usually 30 years. It is therefore necessary to review such classified documents after a reasonable period of, say, 30 years," the report says.
"Those which do not merit classification should then be declassified and kept in the public domain."
For years, research scholars, academics and journalists have been campaigning for making public the Henderson Brooks Report on the Indian Army's reverses in the 1962 war with China. Nearly four decades after the event, the government says the report is classified and that it is not in the "public interest" to disclose its contents.
Lt. Gen. Henderson Brooks - who died in 1997 in Sydney - had been asked to go through the official records and prepare a report on what went wrong in the war. In 1963, he presented his study to then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and a couple of his ministers.
Forty-three years later, nobody has seen the report that lies buried in the government archives. Some experts have managed to piece together the contents of the report, including veteran British journalist Neville Maxwell.
Of the five wars India has fought since independence, official accounts of only the first (Kashmir 1948) and the last (Kargil 1999) are made available to the public. Official military histories of the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars exist, but successive governments, obsessed with secrecy, have refused to make them public.
"But with this report submitted, we hope the government takes into consideration our views and acts," said a member of the Moily commission.
Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah told IANS that if war documents did not fall into a security classification, then there was no purpose of holding it back.
"I have not read Moily's report, but as a citizen I would like to know what is in the report if it does not merit classification," he said.
Moily's report further goes on to say that "the task of classifying a document is vital in the larger national interest and should be handled with great caution, as any security classification denies access of information to the public".
He also argues that the hierarchy of security classification needs to be rationalised, reflecting the scheme of exemptions under the Right to Information Act and emerging challenges.
During his six-year stint in the Rajya Sabha, columnist Kuldip Nayar had requested the government many times to publish the Henderson Brooks report, but he was constantly told it was not in the "public interest".
Nayyar had argued that democratic governments like the US and Britain took pride in the fact that they make top secret papers public even before the stipulated 30 years.
"The wrongs of the Vietnam War would not have come to light if the American government had taken shelter behind the exigencies of public interest," he said.