Netaji files: It’s time to frame declassification policy


New Delhi: Many questions regarding the disappearance of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in 1945 may finally be put to rest starting January 23, 2016.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday posted a series of tweets, in which he revealed that his government will start the declassification of files related to Netaji on 23th January, 2016 on the occasion of his birth anniversary. The Modi government will further request various foreign governments to declassify files related to Netaji. The announcement came shortly after Modi’s meeting with the extended family of Netaji Bose.

Modi tweeted:

The issue of Netaji’s disappearance has been hanging since 7 decades and successive governments had maintained that Netaji had died in the air-crash in 1945. The present decision will earn the government enormous goodwill and respect from thousands of people across the country who were eagerly waiting for this declassification to happen.

By this announcement, Modi has not only shown his respect for National heroes, but also his commitment to bring forward the records of Indian history into the public domain. Contrary to the attitudes of presiding governments that has continued to keep important documents classified even after many decades, Modi government has demonstrated its commitment to come clean on history.

The government must now build upon this and should begin declassification of other important files. This is very important not only for setting the records of history straight, but also to set an example for future governments to follow.

Whitewashing of history has already done enough damage to the nation.

As Modi notes in his tweet: “There is no need to strangle history,” it is time for the government to take bold decision to declassify other classified files dealing with important but controversial issues.

One issue that has been hanging for many decades is the death of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Shastri had gone to Tashkent, USSR in January 1966 to sign the peace agreement with Pakistani President Muhammad Ayub Khan that would officially bring an end to the India-Pakistan war.

Just after a day he signed the Tashkent Declaration, he was reported dead at 2 AM on January 11, 1966. The death has been reported to have been due to heart attack. But, no proper account of the incident has been made public. It has been often alleged that Shastri was poisoned and his body had turned blue. It is further pointed that no post mortem of his body was done either in Russia or in India.

The similarities between the death of Shastri and disappearance of Bose are many. First, they both were very popular Indian leaders. Secondly, in both cases, the government has re-iterated its version of events without giving any details or releasing any documents related to it. Thirdly, in both cases, repeated attempts at finding information about the deaths have been rejected.

Anuj Dhar, who has relentlessly strived for finding out information about Netaji and whose efforts have finally begun bearing fruits with the Modi government declaring that it would declassify the files, had also filed an RTI query in 2009 regarding Shastri. The RTI had sought the correspondences between India and Moscow as well as those between the Indian embassy in Moscow and the external affairs ministry after Shastri’s death. But the Prime Minister’s Office had turned down the RTI request by saying that the information will affect ‘security, integrity, and sovereignty of the country.’

Another incidence that adds to the claims of the conspiracy was the death of Shastri’s doctor RN Chugh and memory loss of Ram Nath, Shastri’s personal servant. Both of them met with an accident when they were on their way to depose before parliamentary body in 1977 about the death of Shastri.

Shastri’s family has repeatedly made appeals for declassification of the related documents. Just last month, Anil Shastri, the son of former prime minister appealed to Modi government to declassify. Modi government should listen to those appeals as well and initiate declassification of those files as well.

Another leader who died under mysterious circumstances was Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, who died as a detenu in Kashmir in 1953. Recently, the family members of Bhagat Singh had also appealed to the Center to declassify files related to him.

Then, there is the Vohra report on the criminalization of politics that was submitted in 1993, the Henderson-Brooks Report that analyzes India’s debacle in 1962 India-China War, and many classified files related to Naval Mutiny of 1946 and other aspects of freedom movement, that are yet to see the light.

Calling for declassification of all such files, Indian academic and writer, Madhu Kishwar tweeted yesterday:

Modi government should form a committee that includes members from intelligence, legal fraternity, historians, and experts from other concerned areas to review all these old files and declassify them in a phased manner. The government should further bring out a declassification policy similar to those in the US or UK so that the declassification of files does not become an issue in future.

UK declassifies its files after 20 years. US follows 10 years declassification. It further has a 25-year review that reviews and declassifies those files that were not declassified at 10 years. In Australia, federal documents are declassified at 20 years and cabinet notes at 30 years. India should formulate its own policy on similar lines.

Modi government has taken a welcome step in deciding to declassify Netaji files. But, this declassification should not be its last. The government should genuinely pursue the issue of declassification and legislate laws for automatic declassification after a fixed number of years. Only this would make India a truly information-rich country, wherein its people can easily access documents related to its recent history.