MEA: Sense and Sensibility!
The Indian Ministry of External Affair's (MEA) Archives and Record Management Section in New Delhi has records from 1934 onwards, a storehouse of research material on how the foreign policy has been conducted in contemporary times. Everyday, at the Ministry of External Affair’s Archives and Record Management Division sit two dozen former diplomats sifting through and poring over piles of old files. The Association of Indian Diplomats offered to assist the MEA with the declassification process of the available old official documents.
The offer was a godsend for the Ministry of External Affairs as it is already extremely short-staffed. Most serving officers get little time from their onerous duties and hectic routines to look through these old files. Help from their seniors has, therefore, been most welcome. Files need to de-classified under Indian law every 25-years. But the process was inevitably delayed as senior officials who need to give a final nod remain occupied with other issues. That is where former diplomats bring with them a lifetime of experience of handing sensitive issues of national security and foreign policy.
These sensitive files are apparently in capable hands for many files contain information that may still have a bearing on India's national security. These former diplomats send their recommendations on each file, at times after needed "scrubbing" to the concerned senior official to make the final call. The Association of Indian Diplomats had coordinated a pilot project last year to help the Ministry of External Affairs declassify its old files. The success of that initial effort has now motivated both the Association and the Ministry to request many more former diplomats to help with their expertise.
The old files under scrutiny date back to 1934. These files include British India's relations with Persia, the Gangtok-Nepal boundary issue, and several others that would be of immense interest to researchers. The total infrastructure MEA's Archives section is consisting eight record rooms, a browser room, a server room and a room where appraisal of these files takes place.
Former diplomats jot down their appraisal of each and every file. These recommendations are sent to the MEA, which then approves the recommendations and decides to declassify these files by despatching these to the National Archives of India or it can also decide to keep it classified based on the recommendation received. It is rare to continue to keep a file as classified, say some of the former diplomats, who had worked on the pilot project earlier. Old government records are declassified after 25-years These old files are at the National Archives of India available to researchers. These files are catalogued and in a user-friendly searchable format and the titles and file numbers are also available.
The Government is setting up the norms exactly aligned on the format of the UK declassification rules that would drive the declassification of documents automatically after the 30 years of their life. The government is also in the process of constituting a six-member expert committee comprising of senior bureaucrats, established researchers, archivists, retired senior officers etc. to look in the issue of declassification of available data and pen down the guidelines for declassification of government documents kept with Union, State and intelligence agencies.
Interestingly, the website address published (http://www.indiandiplomacy.in) of Ministry of External Affairs, which was launched to provide information on the modalities of accessing the files at the National Archives and being the old files of Ministry of External Affairs are an important source of material for research and reference purposes. The MEA has already declassified and transferred 70,000 files transferred to the National Archives of India and made it available files for academic community in properly catalogued and in a user friendly, searchable format and titles and file numbers have been uploaded on the above mentioned website and promised further 22,000 files will be added soon. But, ironically the same domain name is on sale for an asking price of 599 USD !
Noteworthy it is that the method of declassification of documents or governing the disclosure of files are not fixed to single source or rule or guidelines in India and the committee will make new norms which would comprise the policy and guidelines for the disclosure and this may also seek an amendment in the Official Secrets Act. The classified files and documents should be secured enough and all the preventive security measures in place to avoid the espionage activities by enemy countries, which may cause embarrassment and danger to the nation.