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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Whole generations of Indians are growing up on borrowed and (sometimes) biased notions of their history. This is colonialism of the mind.

Bizarre Classification Policy

It is time to declassify material and open it fully to public scrutiny. Only then can we have an “Indian” version of history.

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 26 April, 2010

Many states routinely declassify official papers including sensitive documents, after a period of statutory limitation, most often 30 years. The British, Americans French. Russians and others have variously done so, with such declassification often enriched by public access to personal papers and publication of memoirs. Declassified documents offer new insights into past events. Such archival material aids scholarship and allows critical reinterpretation and reappraisal of what transpired and how and why. Nations learn from their history.

Alas, not India, which has steadfastly refused to follow this sensible practice. There is a 30 year archival rule. But such is the stranglehold of outworn official secrecy and “need to know” mindsets that the truth remains locked while those who should know remain in ignorance. That folly has been compounded by a national cartographic policy that bars showing borders, sometimes with a bandwidth of a 100 km or more, or any “sensitive” areas or installations. This has blinded the nation to geo-political realities in an age of satellite imagery and Google Earth graphics with their amazing resolution.

With the steady accretion of declassified material in global archives, we have begun to get much raw data or interpretations of matters pertaining to India’s post-Independence security, diplomacy, economic history and natural resources from a variety of national, institutional and international sources. Like beauty, history lies in the beholders eye. Biases are inevitable. The Nixon “tilt” against India in 1971, going as far as to encourage China to move against India militarily, is a classic case. (See Kissinger’s Personal Papers).

Scholars hungrily feed on declassified papers to add to and embellish history. And this has happened in the case of papers bearing on India. Chandrashekhar Dasgupta (War and Diplomacy in Kashmir, 1947-48. Sage, 2002), and Narendra Singh Sarila (In The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition. Harper Collins, 2005) used declassified British and American papers to retell crucial aspects of Indian and sub-continental history. More volumes have appeared since by Indian and international scholars based on foreign archives. So we are now well aware of the British, American, Russian or others’ points of view on matters deeply affecting India. These volumes are avidly read by Indian policy makers and parliamentarians, academics and editors and regurgitated by them. But where in heaven’s name is the Indian record of and point of view on its own recent history which is debated and discussed by the best and brightest in the land on the basis of views, interpretations and “facts” given to us by others who may have been part of the problem at the time or even today? It is missing. Whole generations of Indians are growing up on borrowed and (sometimes) biased notions of their history. This is colonialism of the mind.

This criticism does not suggest that we should falsify history or not be exposed to other points of view. It is bad enough “rewriting” ancient history to fit the narrowly jingoistic fantasies of small minds. To manipulate modern and contemporary history in similar fashion and stuff it into a single mould would be horrendously wrong and dangerous.

The point came home again on reading Howard Schaffer’s “The Limits of Influence: America’s Role in Kashmir”. (Sage. 2010). The author, a former US diplomat, served in both India and Pakistan and was twice Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs. It is in interesting book but, understandably, carries a bias and analyses US views of J&K drawing heavily on American archival papers. The book will be cited but reads very differently from India’s Kashmir story which, though recorded in a few standard works like those of Sisir Gupta and B.L. Sharma, are out of print and scarcely found today in Indian libraries. Even these have not been reprinted.

Schaffer’s very preface locates Kashmir in the context of “two immediately hostile states (successors to the British India Empire), predominantly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan”. In a numerical sense the description fits. But was that and is that the essential political reality? Then there is reference to US Admiral Chester Nimitz being appointed plebiscite administrator for J&K. As plebiscite negotiations floundered, “American policymakers increasingly questioned India’s goals and blamed New Delhi’s intransigence for the continuing impasse”. While talking demilitarization in J&K, the US had by 1950 taken on Pakistan as a cold war ally, insisted that Nimitz be the Plebiscite Administrator and then forgot the fundamental terms of the governing UN Resolution of August 13, 1948. J&K is perhaps the only case since the second world war when an aggressor, Pakistan - so found by the UN Representative, Owen Dixon, (and later confirmed in graphic detail by the Pakistan military officer, Akbar Khan, who led that officially-blessed enterprise - has been rewarded and its victim pressured to accommodate the violator.

There is little or no reference to the military acquisition of PAK and the Gilgit-Baltistan Area in J&K by Pakistan in violation of the UN mandate or to the total lack of self-determination that prevails there to this day.

In 1948, the US endorsed “the legal validity of Kashmir’s accession to India”.
Yet, this understanding “was not set in concrete” and “was later superseded by a more authoritative State Department finding that backed away from that conclusion”. Interesting! When and why did this tectonic shift occur in face of the UN’s own stated understanding of the matter? After Pakistan formally became a military ally? And in the same manner in which the US unilaterally redrew the northernmost segment of the cease fire line to run northeast to a point near the Karakoram Pass at India’s cost, during the period 1967-70 when Pakistan had become a diplomatic conduit to China?

Shaffer tells us that pessimism over Frank Graham’s mediatory role in J&K, led the US to contemplate asking the Security Council to recommend seeking from the International Court of Justice an advisory opinion on the legality of Maharaja Hari Singh’s accession to India to “knock out” India’s arguments for its “occupation” of Kashmir. And in due course the Kashmir “Question” has become the Kashmir “Dispute”.

Operation Gibraltar, Pakistan’s repeat invasion of J&K in 1965 was clearly exposed by the Australian General Nimmo, heading the UN Military Observer Group in 1965. But it is indirectly blamed on India’s obduracy in not vacating a peak just north of Kargil which Pakistan was using to interdict the Zoji La-Leh strategic highway.

And so it goes on, glossing over Pakistan’s building up of the Taliban, its launching of cross border jihadi and terror attacks on India, the extraordinary antics of Dr A.Q Khan in spreading nuclear proliferation – all with the knowledge and even encouragement of the US. (Ref the latest UN Inquiry Commission Report on the Assassination of Benazir Bhutto, April 15, 2010).

Schaffer’s is not a bad book. It is valuable as an exposition of the American point of view. But when shall we read an Indian book based on solid Indian source material. This is, alas, still squirreled away for termites to eat, as happened again this year with India’s huge wheat hoard while people starved.

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