Plus cía change
Opinion in D N A Thursday, June 05, 2008
The two important aspects of the declassified papers from the prime ministerís office (PMO) dating back to Nehruís tenure published in this newspaper are both simple and startling. First, it is the unreasonably inordinate time taken by the government to put these records in the public domain. Despite growing demands from scholars, the officials refuse to declassify official records at regular intervals. They do not even follow the 30-year rule.
This incorrigible tendency to be secretive is not just a bureaucratic bug. It reveals an anti-democratic bias in matters of state. The assumption is that ordinary people need not know about what was said and done in high places of power. The Right to Information (RTI) Act challenges this presumptive authoritarianism. DNA has been able to lay its hands on these papers because of the persistent efforts over months. The spirit of democratic India does not seem to have penetrated the thick walls of official secrecy. But the time has come to break these barriers. There has to be a mandatory periodic declassification of state papers. Parliament must pass the required legislation and the courts need to punish all those who obstruct the declassification process.
The more interesting aspect of these declassified papers is of course the vivid glimpses we get of Indiaís first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his approach to issues. It is true that in the last few years the image of Nehru has taken a beating because he has been wrongly identified with all the ills of socialist India. But the papers reveal that he was more a liberal than a socialist, that he was impatient with both feudal and colonial trappings and that he had progressive ideas valid even today. That is why he was all for converting Government House ó now Rashtrapati Bhavan ó into a place where official banquets and other functions are held. His suggestion that the class IV employees in the government offices ó the ubiquitous peons ó should be done away with is radical even by the administrative standards of present-day India.
The papers also reveal what we have already know: Nehruís indefatigable mind engaged with every aspect of governance, from the broadly strategic issues to those dealing with the smallest detail. His note on the dress code for government servants, and his asides on the snobbery of Indians, especially with regard to imitating European evening dress, reveals an intelligent man with a sharp eye for the little things that reveal a social trend and bias. Many of his ideas came to naught, not the least because a well-entrenched bureaucracy stymied them. It shows that the more things change the more they remain the same.