Declassification Laws and the Nation’s Right to know
By Devansh Jajoria
Declassification, in simple terms, could be said as the process that provides the general public access to government documents that used to be restricted. This process usually happens under the Freedom of information acts around the world. In the United States, the originating agency usually assigns a date of declassification of documents and after 25 years all classified documents go under a mandatory declassification and is reviewed by the Department of Justice. There are, of course, valid exemptions for certain types of documents, these documents are further reviewed after 50 and 75 years as well. A similar structure is followed in the United Kingdom, informally called as the “thirty-year rule”, all documents in these countries are transferred to the Public Record offices or the National archives (Names depending on the country). Documents that can potentially compromise the security of the nation, tarnish national image or international relations are refrained from releasing even after they surpass the time stature. These documents are helpful to historians and scholars who retrace the events of past and compile them.
In India, we do not have a defined structure for declassification but the external ministry has been regularly declassifying documents after 25 years, but they have been related to the missions carried out by the ambassadors. The officials first review the report, make recommendations and then these recommendations are sent to the concerned official who approves it and they are archived in the national record. This has not been the case with our Defence Ministry, many documents have not yet been classified and the concerned officials have been rather uncomfortable answering related questions. The tradition of understanding history through eyewitness accounts is not new. That tradition, unfortunately, in the past, as far as India is concerned, has been weakened. An example could be cited here of the Henderson-Brooks-Bhagat report which was an operations review of the Indian army during the Indo-Sino war of 1962, a part of this report is widely circulated on the internet because an Australian journalist had uploaded it on his blog, even after almost 60 years our government has still marked this and all related reports classified. There are other classified files as well on which many researchers, even the general public has had an eye upon, such as the 1971 Kargil war and the files relating to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s death . Many retired officers have written books that contained classified content, these books are informally vetted by the serving director of department. In our nation’s history, we can see that we have always hesitated from releasing war documents, journals and diaries but in the latest announcement by the Union Minister of Defence, Rajnath Singh announced that the ministry is now willing to shed its confidentiality over happenings long gone by. As a result, researchers, analysts and historians will have an easy and reliable lens over the past events, study them and provide insights that would benefit the nation as a whole. The current procedure of declassification would involve a committee including officials of MoD, MHA and MEA with consultations from prominent war historians for compilation of war and operation histories and the current target is to compile the documents within a time frame of five years.
Looking back on the transparency efforts of the governments around the world, we will end up in the late 20th century Europe where the parliaments wanted access to executive records and eventually by the beginning of the 21st century this proliferation of what we call as the right to information in the Indian context. Under the current RTI act of our nation, necessary provisions highlight that this act supersedes the official secrets act and mandates even security and intelligence organisations to disclose information on corruption and human rights violations but at the same time, excludes any information that is sensitive to the nation’s reputation, foreign relations, potentially cause grave damage or might embarrass the government. Delving deeper into the RTI act, it has provided a great deal of information to our nation, the actual implementation of good governance measures as citizens now have a set process to ask the government. We should understand that this act had added another machinery to the government that ensured no citizen would be denied knowledge about any department of the government and any private company file to which the government has access.
The right to information had gained power, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 providing everyone the right to seek, receive, information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. According to Thomas Jefferson “Information is the currency of Democracy”, and critical to the emergence and development of a vibrant civil society. Thinking on similar lines and stating that freedom of speech and expression cannot be fully exercised without information and after 19 years, the RTI act 2005 had come into existence. This act has further strengthened the society and has proved useful in curbing corruption to a sizable extent, although at the same time there have been instances where certain funds such as the PM-Cares fund was not considered a public authority and as a result not subjected to the scrutiny of the general public by way of RTI act and the 2019 RTI Act amendment has further given powers to the centre and consequently challenging the idea of federalism in our nation, reducing the transparency of the act and violating its fundamentals. The way forward suggested is that the government adopt an open data policy, that is the concerned departments put all the disclosable information on their respective websites which will immediately reduce the workload of those involved in the process and they will be able to shift their time to other information.
Democracy is all about governance of the people, by the people and for the people. In order to achieve the third paradigm, the state needs to start acknowledging the importance of informed public and the role that it plays in the country’s development as a nation. In this context, underlying issues related to RTI Act should be resolved, so that it can serve the needs of Information societies.
- Krishn Kaushik (2021, June 13). Opinion | War histories in 5 years, declassification. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/defence-ministry-okays-policy-to-archive-declassify-histories-of-wars-operations-7355751/
- Varghese K. George (2021, June 11) Opinion | Should retired officials be barred from disclosing information? The Hindu https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/should-retired-officials-be-barred-from-disclosing-information/article34784172.ece
- Public Information on https://www.mea.gov.in
- K. Satish Kumar (2019, December 11). Opinion | The paradox of our rights to information and privacy https://www.livemint.com/opinion/online-views/the-paradox-of-our-rights-to-information-and-privacy-11576085219492.html
- Declassification | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declassificatio
- William H. Leary (2009, December 29) | White House Archives | https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2009/12/28/promoting-openness-and-accountability-making-classification-a-two-way-street