Declassifying Histories of Wars and Operations
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has issued a policy for compilation, publication, archiving and declassification of the histories of wars and operations with the stipulation that such events must be officially recorded within five years, which should ordinarily be declassified in 25 years and records older than 25 years should be appraised by archival experts and transferred to the National Archives of India once the war/operations histories have been compiled. The government will, however, continue to have discretionary power over withholding records it deems sensitive.
The new policy says that the responsibility for declassifying records continues with respective organizations under existing rules on the subject. But here it may be noted that the Public Record Rules, 1997 and Public Record Act, 1993, had already established a procedure for the declassification of records and their transfer to the National Archives after a period of 25 years or more. Should one then assume that records of the 1962 Sino-Indian War, 1965 Indo-Pak War and 1971 Indo-Pak War are already with the National Archives?
The new policy says that Services, Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), Assam Rifles and Indian Coast Guard are to transfer the records, including war diaries, letters of proceedings and operational record books to MoD’s History Division for upkeep, archival and writing the histories.The History Division will be responsible for coordination with various departments while compiling, seeking approval and publishing of war/operations histories.
The policy mandates constitution of a Committee (formed within two years of completion of war/operations) headed by a Joint Secretary of MoD and comprising representatives of the Services, Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and other organizations and prominent military historians (if required), for compilation of war/operations histories. Thereafter, collection of records and compilation is to be completed in three years and disseminated to all concerned.
The website of the 25-man strong History Division established on October 26, 1953 lists 17 post-Independence publications which among others include: History of Operations in Jammu & Kashmir 1947-48 published in 2005; India-Pakistan War of 1965 – A History, and; India Pakistan War of 1971. For these three publications, it is obvious that all concerned would have provided required records to the History Division. This being established procedure, logically the History Division should also be holding similar records pertaining to the Sino-Indian War of 1962.
Both the 1999 Kargil Review Committee and the follow up Group of Ministers (GoP) reports had recommended having war histories written with a clear-cut policy on declassification of war records to analyze lessons learnt and prevent similar mistakes in future. Declassification would help policymakers make more informed decisions on policies relating to defence and national security. But whereas the Services follow their own system of classification and declassification, government has yet to evolve a uniform system for classifying, safeguarding and declassifying national security related information for all.
On taking over as Army Chief on November 20, 1962, General JN Choudhuri tasked a two-man committee comprising Lieutenant Henderson Brooks and Brigadier (later Lieutenant General) PS Bhagat to undertake ‘operational review’ of the just concluded war with China. The report generally known as ‘Henderson Brooks Report’ was never made public. On 17, March 2014, Australian journalist Neville Maxwell posted Volume 1 of this report on his website based on which he wrote his book ‘India’s China War’.On September 2, 1963, Defence Minister YB Chavan (successor to disgraced VK Krishna Menon) told Parliament that Indian reverses were due to poor military leadership and high-level “interference” in tactical operations. He omitted the failings of the political leadership and its lack of strategic planning, marginalising the military resulting in it being ill-quipped and ill-prepared, and gross political interference in placements in the higher military appointments.
Notably, successive India governments including those led by the Congress and BJP had continued to refuse declassification of history of the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Now there is speculation this may be declassified coinciding with the next general elections for drawing political mileage, which may or may not be true. But histories of wars and operations need to be declassified with minimum ‘doctoring’ especially of covering political bungling labeling them ‘sensitive’ information. Unless all facts are brought out, correct lessons will not emerge.
Broadly we should be able to derive the following from declassifying histories of wars and operations:
Accurate account of events, what went wrong, what was right and what corrective measures are required.
Understand the dynamic nature of operations and conflict related to the application of military forces in rapid technological advancement together with the art and science of managing them.
Operational capability voids in all forms of conflict (not conventional only) including hybrid wars that are waged against a nation, not military alone.
Reforms required in the higher defence organization, within the military and civil-military relations.
Equipping and modernization of the military, application of technology, procurements, integration, jointness and training.
Help formulate strategic theory for defence studies, professional military education and future application in operations to avoid repeating similar mistakes. Theory provides cumulative wisdom harvested through cumulative strategic study of campaigns that help exploit practical opportunities.
Clausewitz had said, “Theory exists so that one need not start afresh each time sorting out the material and ploughing through it, but will find it ready to hand and in good order”.
Under the 25-year rule of the new policy, a number of histories of wars and operations are already due, like: Sino-Indian War of 1962; India-Pakistan War of 1965; India-Pakistan War of 1971; Operation ‘Meghdoot’ – 1984 – Siachen operations; Operation ‘Falcon’ (1986-1987) – Sumdorong Chu, and; Operation ‘Pawan’ (1987-1989) IPKF operations. This is a gigantic amount of workload for which the History Division may need to be augmented, given prioritized timelines and importantly a format for the final product to ease its analysis and drawing lessons.
Constitution of a Committee within two years headed by Joint Secretary of MoD and comprising representatives of the Services, MEA, MHA and other organizations and prominent military historians (if required) for compilation of war/operations histories as given in the policy would be grossly inadequate considering what is involved. This certainly is not a cut and paste job. It require analyzing facts on the basis of material available in plentiful and provide a lucid and coherent account of the war or specific operation.
Looking at the backlog of wars and operations listed above, how many such committees are required to be constituted or will one committee headed by a joint secretary suffice to handle all? Besides, we are in an era where every action is weighed from the political angle and to ensure it catches the eyes of the vote bank. This is relevant to all governments including the current dispensation, which must be avoided at all costs. When we have set a deadline of 25 years then all facts must be de-classified. Besides, after 25 years there is no reason to keep secrets from the civilians, especially when MoD including the History Division is manned by civilians.
In view of the above, it may be prudent that instead of a Committee headed by a joint secretary, Independent Panels be constituted for producing histories of wars and operations. Such a panel could be headed by a civilian (historian?) from outside the government with members of the panel a mix of civilians (both government and non-government), historians, scholars and military members. Inclusion of representatives from Think Tanks and faculty members of institutions dealing with military history and defence studies should also be considered to help analyze archival material pertaining to various wars and operations.
The policy announced for declassifying histories of wars and operations requires much refinement without which it is unlikely to provide the required tangible results. In the present form it appears more an exercise in rhetoric of having made another landmark decision.
By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch