Stuck in a time warp

Our inability to treat 1962 as history stems partly from our academia... It is not surprising that the scholarship on 1962 largely recycles the received wisdom.

Fifty years is a long time. Long enough to treat anything of that vintage as nothing but history. But the Sino-Indian war of 1962 seems to be trapped in a time warp. Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the onset of the war.

Much of the commentary on the war over the past few days has been strikingly reminiscent of the post-mortems performed in its immediate aftermath. In some cases, of course, the exercise is being carried out by the same people. Even so, it is evident that we continue to see the war as a morality play from which we should draw lessons: on the dangers of Nehruvian idealism and woolly mindedness, of Menonite meddling in military matters, and of the ever-present danger of Chinese aggression.
This Amar Chitra Katha version of the war may have been comforting to the adolescent country humiliated by the defeat of 1962. But its continuing resonance suggests that we are content to remain cocooned in such platitudes and are reluctant to grow up. Our inability to treat 1962 as history stems partly from the state of our academia. Most of our historians are uninterested in the recent past. And most of our political scientists have never seen the insides of an archive. It is not surprising that the scholarship on 1962 largely recycles the received wisdom.
The larger problem is the government’s refusal to declassify documents pertaining to the conflict. This stance only serves two purposes. It leads to mistaken speculation about the government’s motives: how many more skeletons are stacked in the cupboards of South Block? And it boosts the self-importance of the officialdom, which arrogates to itself the right to hold on to records that are well past the date for declassification.
Take the case of the Henderson-Brooks report. This report was written by Lt. Gen. Henderson-Brooks and Brig. Prem Bhagat after an operational review of the Army’s performance during the war. Despite periodic calls for releasing the report, the government refuses to oblige. This mindless stonewalling, in turn, has led to the creation of an elaborate myth about the report as the definitive account of the Himalayan blunders before and during the war. It is nothing of that sort. The report was the outcome of a limited exercise. In fact, the authors did not even have access to documents from the ministry of defence (MoD) — let alone those from the ministry of external affairs (MEA), or the Prime Minister’s Secretariat. The report’s casual remarks about the failure of the “higher direction of war” were hardly authoritative. The report was useful only for its account of the military details of the war, though even here there were important gaps and omissions.
That said, the reasons advanced by the government for refusing to declassify the report can barely stand scrutiny. Replying to a question in Parliament a couple of years ago, defence minister A.K. Antony claimed that the report could not be declassified as its contents “are not only extremely sensitive but are of current operational value”. A few months later, in response to a request for the report under the Right to Information Act, the Army Headquarters reiterated this position. In its submission to the Chief Information Commissioner, the Army argued that declassification of the report would amount to “disclosure of the Army’s operational strategy in the Northeast”. The Army also claimed that reports of internal inquiries are “not even submitted to the government”.
This is patronising patter. The Indian military is very much answerable to the political leadership. The government can requisition any such report. Indeed, the Henderson-Brooks report was sent by the Army Chief to the defence minister in July 1963, who in turn forwarded it to the Prime Minister. Further, the key operational findings of the report have been well known for the last four decades. Neville Maxwell’s book, India’s China War (published in 1970), punched a gaping hole through the wall of official secrecy. The official history of the war prepared — but characteristically not published — by the MoD also relied on the report and was leaked into the public domain some years ago. Declassification of the report can hardly harm our national security.
The government’s inane stance reflects its larger attitude towards official documents. None of the ministries scrupulously follows the 30-year rule for declassifying and transferring old records. This does not prevent them, though, from allowing handpicked scholars or retired officials to consult these documents. The MEA has belatedly begun the process of declassification; although documents pertaining to China continue to remain under lock and key. The MoD has not even done this much. Never mind the papers of the Cabinet and Prime Minister’s Office. This deplorable situation makes India singularly illiberal amongst mature democracies. Even Israel has followed the 30-year norm for declassification and has opened up records pertaining to past conflicts that have a direct bearing on contemporary issues: the expulsion of Palestinians during the 1948 war, for instance.
The archives are unlikely to throw up secrets, but they will afford perspective. Great historian Reinhart Koselleck once observed that, “In the short run history may be made by the victors. But in the long run the gains in historical understanding have come from the defeated.” If this were the case in India, we may have drawn some consolation on the 50th anniversary of the war. Perhaps five decades is not long enough after all.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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