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Defence ministery clears policy on declassifying war, operation records

By Saima Siddiqui 
Updated Date

New Delhi: The Defence Ministry on Saturday approved a new policy to declassify war histories and records of other military operations in a time-bound manner to give the country an accurate account of events, provide authentic material for research and counter unfounded rumours, for which everything will be officially recorded within five years, and will be handed over to the National Archives, the defence ministry said in a statement.

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The Defence Ministry mentioned in a statement on Saturday that Defence Minister Rajnath Singh “has approved the policy on archiving, declassification and compilation/publication of war/operations histories by the Ministry of Defence” under which “each organisation under the Ministry of Defence such as Services, Integrated Defence Staff, Assam Rifles and Indian Coast Guard, will transfer the records, including war diaries, letters of proceedings & operational record books, etc., to the History Division” of the ministry for “proper upkeep, archival and writing the histories”.

Further, the statement said that according to the new policy “records should ordinarily be declassified in 25 years” and “records older than 25 years should be appraised by archival experts and transferred to the National Archives of India once the war/operations histories have been compiled”.

The policy on “archiving, declassification and compilation of war and operations histories” mandates the setting up of a committee headed by a joint secretary in the defence ministry and consisting of representatives of the armed forces, external affairs ministry, home ministry and prominent military historians (if required).

The development is significant as the military has faced uncomfortable questions about several events including the sinking of an Indian warship in the 1971 Indo-Pak war, the 1999 Kargil war and contentious war accounts authored by veterans.

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It was not immediately clear if the policy would lead to the declassification of the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report on the reasons behind India’s defeat in the 1962 India-China war.

“The committee will take a view on earlier wars and operations,” an official familiar with the developments said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Australian journalist Neville Maxwell had made portions of the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report public in March 2014 by uploading it on the internet triggering a debate on India’s worst military defeat and the events that led to it. The report practically held the entire civilian and military leadership responsible for driving the country into a war it wasn’t prepared for.

The BJP then demanded that the report, authored by Lieutenant General Thomas Bryan Henderson Brookes and Brigadier PS Bhagat, be declassified immediately. But in July 2014, then defence minister Arun Jaitley told Parliament that the release of the document would not be in national interest.

The government declassified the 1947-48 Kashmir operations in 1987. The defence ministry’s History Division has published histories of the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars.

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The responsibility for declassification of records rests with the respective organisations as specified in the Public Records Act 1993 and Public Record Rules 1997, the defence ministry said in the statement.

“According to the policy, records should ordinarily be declassified in 25 years. Records older than 25 years should be appraised by archival experts and transferred to the National Archives of India once the war/operations histories have been compiled,” the statement said.

The ministry’s History Division, set up in October 1953, will be responsible for coordination with various departments for compiling, seeking approval and publishing war and operations histories. All organisations under the ministry will transfer the records, including war diaries, letters of proceedings and operational record books to the History Division for upkeep, archival and writing the histories, the statement said.

The new policy lays down timelines for compilation and publication of war and operations histories.

“The above-mentioned Committee (under the joint secretary) should be formed within two years of completion of war/operations. Thereafter, collection of records and compilation should be completed in three years and disseminated to all concerned,” the statement said.

Sensitive information will not be released, the officials said. “The history of wars and operations compiled within five years will be for internal consumption first and later the committee may decide to publicly release whole or parts of it, considering the sensitivity of the subject,” said one of the officials cited above.

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Experts welcomed the move. “It’s good to have certain aspects of a war or a campaign declassified for people to know the rationale behind those actions, how they were carried out and the lessons learnt. But there are certain aspects that are confidential and need not come out in the public domain keeping national interest in mind,” said Lieutenant General VK Ahluwalia (retd), director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies.

Expert panels including the Kargil Review Committee have underlined the need to have war histories written with a clear policy on declassification of war records in order to analyse lessons learnt and prevent future mistakes, the statement added.

The government appointed a committee in October 2001 under former defence secretary NN Vohra to look into publication of war histories. After it submitted its report in July 2002, the History Division approached the United Service Institution of India (a think tank) to scrutinise its war histories and eliminate distortions.

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