Some petal-picking has begun after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent announcement on declassification of files related to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. This guessing game of ‘he will’ and ‘he will not’ will continue for some time to come. And that is not bad at all. The prime minister’s announcement that his government will release all Netaji-related classified files in the public domain starting 23 January 2016 and that he will ask the foreign states where Bose is likely to have moved — or which had a keen interest in his whereabouts — to release whatever documents they hold on the leader of India’s freedom movement has expectedly evoked varied reactions. Most editorials have welcomed his decision, albeit at the same time attributing political motives to the timing of the announcement and expressing reservations on the mode of phased declassification. Not surprisingly, the most stringent criticism has come from known Modi-baiters.
What is surprising though is that most of these critics have never been seen to pressure any government — whether of the NDA or UPA — for declassification. The Telegraph, for instance, which if asked, would struggle to show any sensible reportage on the declassification campaign in the past decade is prompt in casting doubt on the prime minister’s commitment to declassify the files. Similarly, the Netaji-founded Forward Bloc, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Trinamool Congress’s historian MP Sugata Bose wondered why the government couldn’t declassify all files immediately. Regardless of the merit of their opinion, these parties and politicians need to be told that they have long forfeited their right to say anything on this particular issue.
The Forward Bloc and the CPI(M) sat over the files in Bengal, which were declassified by Mamata Banerjee this year, for over three decades. They need to first explain their inaction. Moreover, they were allies to the Indian National Congress that rejected the report of the Justice Manoj Mukherjee Commission of Inquiry. Prof Bose’s position is the most pitiable. Despite having the twin credentials of being a Harvard historian and a member of the Bose family, he needs to explain why, instead of leading from the front, he considered declassification of the Netaji files to be a ‘non-issue’.
The Bartaman reported that the bureaucracy in the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs has been caught unawares by the prime minister’s announcement. They had no inkling of the commitment he was going to make. This might be true to a large extent, but not entirely, if the ministers are taken into account. Modi explained to the delegation of the extended Bose family that he had Home Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj by his side so that if there were rough edges in the declassification process, they could put forth their views. None of them said a word that can be construed as imposing conditions on the process. That Modi would commit to declassification wasn’t in doubt; it was evident that he had come prepared for the occasion. But the announcement of the date of the first phase could have been an on-the-spot decision.
PM’s approach towards Netaji
From the way he spoke at the meeting, it did not appear that Modi thought much about the excuses given repeatedly by his office and the other ministries that the country would face a law-and-order situation and its foreign relations would be affected if the files were opened to public view. His government has nothing to fear from the declassification of Netaji files, he repeatedly said. History need not be strangled, and past leaders should be known just for what they were and what they did; people will have to accept that. But was he ever briefed by the bureaucracy — which will handle the process subsequently — about the nature of the files? It didn’t appear so from the anecdote he recounted on how he came upon this issue.
Soon after taking office, he said, he had come across a news item printed prominently in a newspaper that his government had denied information on Netaji to an RTI applicant (in all probability this was an application which this author had filed asking for files on Netaji’s wife and daughter in the custody of the prime minister). He was surprised about this response and asked the home minister to enquire about it. Modi said he was yet to receive a report on that inquiry, but he was not surprised knowing how the bureaucracy worked. If anything, this indicates that there has been little or no exchange between the prime minister and the bureaucracy on the Netaji files yet. This is bound to raise questions on the declassification process that is to commence now since it will be worked upon by the bureaucracy. But if the prime minister remains firm on the principle as he seems to be, the bureaucratic hurdle will not be an insurmountable one.
What the announcement means
But what does the promise of declassification hold for the country? It is difficult to say anything right now. And that is probably what Modi wanted after pressure was building on him following Mamata Banerjee’s bold move last month. Seen in the context of the tradition of secrecy maintained by successive governments, this announcement is totally praiseworthy. And this aspect alone triggered the euphoria of the family members.
But when assessed in the backdrop of what we do not know, question marks remain. We do not know which files will be considered for declassification, what will be the government’s approach to files it considers difficult to declassify for whatever reason and by when the government plans to complete the process. Maybe Modi will make further announcements later, but as of now, there are many unanswered questions.
It is important to understand the two categories of classified files lying with the government. The first category is that of files whose existence is announced by the government. The second category is of files whose existence has not been publicly listed or announced anywhere — their existence is evident from the references in other intelligence files.
It is also important to remember that most of the files listed as classified by the government, which are in the custody of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), MHA and the MEA (files of the first category stated above) have been seen and examined by the JMCI. The contents of many of these files have been revealed by Anuj Dhar in his India’s Biggest Cover-up and subsequent books. They are important but do not have the information that can resolve the mystery of Netaji’s disappearance.
Therefore, it is imperative that, in addition to these files, the government releases all classified files held by the Intelligence Bureau and the R&AW as well as those to which only the prime minister has access if they relate to Netaji. A special search should be made in all intelligence offices and branches to ensure that no record is left out.
If the prime minister releases only the files of the first category, the government will be in a win-win situation — it can claim that it has declassified all files, but they don’t show anything that can change the accepted view that Netaji died in 1945. Hence, all those who have contested the official theory will be painted as nothing but conspiracy theorists.
In declassifying the intelligence files, the question that will be in the minds of the politicians and bureaucrats is what could possibly be the fallout of the findings from the declassified documents. Finding that Netaji was killed in Russia by a totalitarian communist regime is still something that can be handled and probably will be a useful political stick to beat the Congress and the Left parties with.
But if the Faizabad/Gumnami Baba hypothesis turns out to be true, who will be bold enough to explain why such a great man lived incognito in India for many decades? Difficult question will no doubt be raised by the process of declassification. Will the government be prepared to face the storm that follows?
It is also important to understand that the issue of declassification has not been raised by groups such as Mission Netaji for any academic purpose. The central issue is that of bringing closure to the mystery of Netaji’s disappearance, for which declassification is an important means. Stopping at declassification is likely to keep the debate alive since debates on the nature of the documents will hinder reaching a conclusion. Mission Netaji had, therefore, raised the demand for formation of a multi-disciplinary special investigation team along with declassification, which would take up the investigation on Netaji’s fate from the point where Justice Mukherjee Commission stopped. This demand is qualitatively different from the family’s demand for setting up a team to study the declassified documents, which will have to limit its work to the assessment of the declassified documents and might or might not serve any useful purpose. On the other hand, a conclusive inquiry, as demanded by Mission Netaji, with powers to summon individuals and documents as well as to penalise, can take the matter to a closure.
All this leaves us with the question if the prime minister is serious about his announcement. When a prime minister not only makes a categorical announcement but also makes it public, there is no reason why he should be doubted. Moreover, the home minister told Mission Netaji that the government is open to discussing its suggestions — indicating that the government’s approach towards handling this difficult issue is still evolving. But the matter is extremely complex and it is in the final count a matter of politics with ramifications beyond the imagination of most.
Three official inquiries have failed to satisfy people of the country. It is not possible that a declassification process driven by the government and the bureaucracy will bring a closure to the controversy. It is, therefore, imperative for the Modi Government not only to be transparent about the process, but to be also seen to be transparent. The government must announce a timeframe by which the process will be completed, which files will be declassified and where they are looking for all the secret files. And it must set up an inquiry to take the investigation to a closure. Nothing less will do.
In the meantime, the government should accept the main findings of the Mukherjee Commission. The BJP had argued in favour of the commission when the UPA government rejected its findings in 2006. Why should it shy away from the issue now?