New Delhi – Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to declassify the secret files relating to Netaji Subash Chandra Bose, one of India’s freedom fighters who by breaking ranks with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, had joined hands with Hitler and Japan during the World War II( he wanted independence of India by defeating Great Britain during the War) on January 23, his birthday is a welcome step. It is the fulfillment of a very prolonged demand by not only Bose’s family members but also historians and scholars specialising on contemporary India.
In fact, during its days in opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and many of its top leaders( some of them now senior ministers in Modi cabinet) had demanded the declassification of “Netaji Files” and Henderson Brooks 1962 War(with China) report. But after coming to power, the BJP government sang a tune, which was not much different from the one sung by the previous Congress government, that these documents could not be made open, given the sensitivities involved and probabilities of the consequent adverse impacts on the relations with friendly countries. In other words, Modi’s colleagues sheltered behind the country’s” Official Secrets Act”, devised by our then colonial masters in 1923. This Act says, among others, that disclosure of any information that is likely to affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, or friendly relations with foreign States, is punishable.
Against this background, the Prime Minister’s decision to declassify the Bose-files, by going against the assertions to the contrary of his cabinet colleagues, is a welcome step, though some credit for it should also go to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who, in her zeal to show the ruling BJP in poor light, had recently released 64 files in possession of the state government relating to Bose. Sometimes, competitive politics in a democracy is good for the public. This is certainly true in the present case.
Incidentally, while independent India continues to adhere to the 1923 Act devised by Great Britain, the latter, in 1989, made an important amendment to such an Act. The British Official Secrets Act 1989 removed the earlier restrictions. Now in Britain, all official informations can be disclosed “unless there are good reasons for secrecy”; but this requirement of “secrecy” cannot be cited to withhold information after a period of 30 years. In fact, under the “the thirty year rule”, the British government releases, usually on a New Year’s Day, hitherto “secret” documents. And because of one such release two years ago, we came to know that the then government led by Indira Gandhi had sought British suggestion on how to deal with the problem resulting out of Sikh militants virtually seizing the Temple from within in early 1980s. And this despite the fact that the episode of the Blusestar(1984) is not only a sensitive matter in India but also in the United Kingdom itself, Canada and the United States where Sikhs in large number live.
Based on one such declassified document, Britain’s daily, The Independent, had come out with the information how Sir Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, planned to execute Adolf Hitler in the electric chair if the Nazi leader fell into Allied hands. He regarded Hitler as “the mainspring of evil” and a “gangster” and wanted to give him death on an electric chair, despite the fact that it was never used in Britain before the final abolition of the death penalty in 1965. But that was not all. It is of great interests to we Indians that Churchill was also content to see Mahatma Gandhi, father of our nation, starve to death during a hunger strike in 1943.
Take the case of United States, another vibrant democracy. Here, according to the relevant law (the latest being 29th December 2009), there has to be mandatory reviews for declassification all permanently classified documents 25 years or older. And because of such declassifications we know some really sensitive information of global significance. For instance, we now know about brutal “My Lai Massacre” – the story of how there was the mass murder of 347 to 504 unarmed citizens of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), committed by U.S. Army forces on March 16, 1968. Before being killed some of the victims were raped and sexually molested, beaten, tortured, or maimed. Some of the dead bodies were also mutilated.
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