The controversy over whether the Indian government spied on Subhash Chandra Bose’s family has kicked up a lot of political dust. The Bharatiya Janata Party government, which declassified some of the Intelligence Bureau files on Bose, sparking the row, used the issue to try and attack Jawaharlal Nehru (even if Nehru’s role in the matter is still to be verified). In response, the Congress accused the BJP of running a “sinister campaign” against national icons. The noise that this political tug of war created ended up drowning out the real lesson to be learnt from the episode: the sorry state of archiving Indian state documents for posterity.

Modelled on the systems of the United Kingdom, the Indian government has a 30-year window after which files are to be selected and sent over to the National Archives from where historians and researchers can then access them. The selection is carried out by the ministry in question and irrelevant or sensitive documents are held back from being archived. Of course, this system exists mostly in the breach, with bureaucratic apathy ensuring that most ministries simply never bother to archive their files.

The Netaji controversy had echoes of a row that had similarly erupted a year ago. In the run-up to the 2014 general election, the Bharatiya Janata Party had made a big deal of the classified Henderson-Brooks report on the 1962 Indo-China war, with Arun Jaitley hinting that the United Progressive Alliance government had kept it under wraps because the report contained information that would be “embarrassing to those in power in 1962” (read: Nehru).

However, within weeks of coming to power, the Modi government did a volte-face: it ruled out the release of the report. Jaitley himself told Parliament that releasing the Henderson-Brooks report would be against “national interest”, thus parroting the line of every government that had come before his. Moreover, even setting aside the political embarrassment, the continued secrecy over the report was all the more inexplicable given that large parts of it had been made public anyway by Australian journalist Neville Maxwell.

Archiving in shambles

As these two incidents show, India’s shambolic archiving process has created a window for misrepresentations and political one-upmanship.

Sucheta Mahajan, a professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, explains that “it’s not as if India doesn’t have a policy of for historical archiving”. The issue, however, is in implementing this policy. “It only exists on paper,” Mahajan said.

While India’s archiving systems are modelled on the United Kingdom, the difference is that in Britain these policies are scrupulously followed and are updated from time to time, given the keen interest in archiving historical documents. Historian Patrick French explained: “In Britain, there was an ‘open government’ initiative in the late 1990s, which led to more government papers being released, including material relating to the Indian national movement. The United Kingdom is now moving to a situation where all official records will be released to the National Archives or elsewhere after 20 years”.

As a result, even for something as integral as India’s freedom struggle, researchers are mostly forced to use British documents as a source, the Indian ones being still locked up.

Deeply embedded

Historian Ramachandra Guha says that the culture of historical neglect is deeply embedded in Indian’s current system. “Our government archives are headed by civil servants on deputation rather than trained historians or archivists,” he said. “Ideally every ministry should have a historian to help archive documents, but of course we have nothing of the sort.” Guha lamented that “Indians are culturally bad at record keeping”.

In Delhi, things were so bad that when historian Mushirul Hassan took charge of the National Archives, he found that some ministries had stopped sending files to the National Archives since 1950. The gaps for anyone thinking of writing a history of independent India were immense.

In a series of articles written for the New York Times, historian Dinyar Patel points out that things are so mismanaged here that something as basic as choosing the right sort of building to house our archived documents has not been thought through. “The Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai,” Patel writes, “is housed in an open-air structure built in 1888.” Air-conditioning, a basic need to preserve documents, has not been considered.

Losing our history

While the Netaji and the Henderson-Brooks controversies hit the headlines because of their political impact, the Indian government’s neglect of archiving means there is a much bigger, if silent impact: we are losing out on our history. “If today, someone wants to write a history of, say, the Green Revolution, which changed the face of modern India, he’ll have a very tough time because we simply haven’t preserved the papers which tell us which government did what,” said Guha.

Currently, the Netaji issue has been treated as a thoroughly political matter. The BJP’s national spokesperson, MJ Akbar, said that Nehru was “afraid of the political ghost of Subhash Chandra Bose” and even speculated that Bose had not died in an air crash – as commonly accepted by most historians – but was spirited off to “a prison in a foreign country”.

Political compulsions make the scoring of quick brownie points against an ideological rival easy. But for the Modi government to really do some long-term good, it should look to reform India’s archival policy for state documents, making sure we document our history scrupulously for posterity.