Operation Bluestar controversy - Destruction and declassification of sensitive records7 Feb, 2014
It is election time in India and all kinds of controversies - old and new are vying with each other for headline space. One old controversy that has been on the boil for three decades is Operation Bluestar ordered by the then Government to flush out 'militants' from Harmandir Saheb also known as the Golden Temple- a holy place of the Sikh community in Punjab. The current phase of the controversy is about whether the UK Government had anything to do with what was essentially a military operation conducted by Indian armed forces. We will not go into the main issue but look at the ramifications of this controversy that have a bearing on regimes of transparency established in both UK and India.
Transparency of information in India and the UK
While the latest round of the controversy had its origins in January 2014, the allegations about the role of the UK government or its secret service functionaries have been in existence for the last 3 decades. Be that as it may, in January this year some official documents classified 'Top Secret' were declassified for public scrutiny under the 30-year rule in the UK. Amongst these declassified documents is the February 1984 letter from the then Principal Private Secretary of the Prime Minister to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which mentions the plans for removing "Sikh dissidents' (mind you, the phrase armed militants' is not mentioned in this letter) from the Golden Temple (1st attachment). This document is accessible on the website of an MP in the UK: http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/30-Yr-Documents-1984-Attack-on-Golden-Temple.pdf
Subsequent to the disclosure of these documents the Prime Minister of the UK ordered an inquiry this year. The report (attached) of the inquiry conducted by the Cabinet Secretary is accessible on the UK Government website at:
Some of the Annexes to this inquiry report are accessible on the same website at:
The statement read out by the UK Foreign Secretary to Parliament yesterday based on the findings of the inquiry report is accessible on the UK Parliament website at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/chan117.pdf
Now let us look at India. A group of international experts have rated India second in the list of countries with RTI laws compared on the basis of the relative strength of their provisions, while UK stands at #26. I checked the website of the Ministries of Home and External Affairs as well as those of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretariat. Not a word from any of these sources about this ongoing controversy. Perhaps this issue may be raised in Parliament which began its session today - the last before the general elections. If it is indeed raised, the matter will be reported within 24 hours on the House website. Until then the only official sources we can depend upon are from the UK Government. This is the state of affairs after almost nine years of implementing the RTI Act in India.
Destruction and declassification of sensitive records
The inquiry report released by the UK Cabinet Secretary mentions an interesting phenomenon. Some documents relating to the Operation Blue Star matter are said to have been destroyed in 2009 without even releasing them to the public. However some of the records annexed to the report are said to have been sourced from copies contained in other existing files. In India it is not known what kinds of classified records are maintained and which ones are destroyed without being released to the public. I am not talking about documents such as leave of absence applications received from officers. My focus is on sensitive records that have a bearing on India's national security and strategic interests. If such records are fit to be destroyed, it means the Government has no use for them. Should such records not be released to the public through the National Archives?
UK has a 30 year rule for declassifying secret and top secret records. The Public Records Act, 1993 (PRA) is the only law that governs declassification of sensitive documents and that too for the Central Government only. A few States have their own variations of this law applicable to records they create within their jurisdiction. However none of these laws prescribe any outer time limit for this declassification exercise. The PRA only requires the ministries and departments to review the classification every five years to see if the secrecy level can be downgraded. Even this exercise is not done meticulously in most departments. When I filed some RTI applications with several Ministries on this issue a couple of years ago, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology was the only public authority which regularly reviewed its classified records. It also maintained a record of all files that were weeded out under the weeding rules and they sent me copies of the same.
Sadly, the procedures for classifying and declassifying records contained in the Manual of Departmental Security Instructions which is under the keep of the Union Home Ministry is itself a confidential document. I lost a case before the Central Information Commission (CIC) seeking access to the same as the CIC did not buy my argument that rules of classification must be in the public domain while the classified documents themselves may be exempted from disclosure under the RTI Act, for justifiable reasons. We have a long way top go to actually earn our ranking of being #2 in the community of countries with RTI laws.
Parliament's access to information on such sensitive matters
Readers may recollect that a few months after the Operation Bluestar concluded, the then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi was assassinated. This cruel act was followed by another dastardly episode of mass murder of members of the Sikh community in Delhi and attacks on their brethren in other parts of India. A Commission of Inquiry appointed under the Chairpersonship of Justice M P Thakkar gave an exhaustive report on the events that led to the assassination. Some scholars have criticised this report for its findings, but that is not our concern at the moment. While this report was tabled in Parliament, several documents annexed to this report were withheld from the MPs. It is reported in the media that some MPs were shown some of these documents in confidence behind closed doors. We do not know which MPs were shown those papers and what did they make of that knowledge later on. All of this happened under the aegis of the Congress-led Government. The BJP led Government also did not make these annexures public during its six year rule between 1999-2004.
Now that the Vice President of the Congress Party has spoken about the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 which occurred in the aftermath of his grandmother's assassination, he must answer the very important question of whether he will make all these sensitive documents that have been lying in closed cabinets for more than three decades, public, if his party is voted back to power. In a recent interview to a popular TV news channel, he claimed credit for passing the RTI Act nine years ago and mentioned RTI more than 30 times in his replies. Making these documents public would show true commitment to transparency. It may also heal the wounds that are still festering in the Indian body politic.
Even the other aspirant to the post of the Prime Minister from the opposition party - the BJP who does not lose an opportunity to demonstrate his love for the nation or to denounce the Congress for even small things like breathing out in his direction must declare whether his party/alliance will make information about these gory incidents of 1984. Or else all assurances of transparency and accountability will amount to hogwash.