Destroying files on Modi's orders: Have parts of Indian history been lost forever?

Many a baby may have been thrown out with the bathwater if emptying the shelves was the only intent.

Mahesh Vijapurkar June 28, 2014 20:10:36 IST
Destroying files on Modi's orders: Have parts of Indian history been lost forever?

Narendra Modi needs to be thanked by India for one thing: asking central departments to destroy files.

In the process, they discovered one file saying that the country’s first President, Babu Rajendra Prasad had refused to accept a pension and a later Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, his salary. the money was sent to the calamity fund instead.

These are of huge moral import to the country which is conditioned to see politicians’ avarice. Only Shastri’s resignation as Railway Minister after a railway accident occasionally comes up.

The man who had presided over the Partition, Lord Mountbatten, had taken Rs 66,000 as expenses for his return trip home. These, according to a news agency which put out the story of the spring cleaning, were only “interesting tidbits” or even “snippets”, at once playing down the significance of their attitudes stemming from a sterling personal character.

Destroying files on Modis orders Have parts of Indian history been lost forever

Representational Image. Reuters

We do not know just how many useful, to go by PTI’s despatch on June 23, “titbits” and “snippets” could have been found. We do not know what process the files were put through before being tossed out. The report had said, “Asked if these files of historic value were saved or junked, the official expressed ignorance.”

The Home ministry seems to have dealt with the largest number of files and reports - 1.5 lakh. The HRD had set aside 5,000 for the clean-up. They had “gathered dust for years” which, it would imply, meant they were not taken down for a reference, or no one bothered to nurse or cull them for archiving.

The Home Department is the most sensitive in the country and therefore to take down 1.5 lakh files in one go and consign them to the pile of useless stuff is rather risky. They could lead to huge gaps in the understanding of issues as they developed and handled. Sardar Patel down, it has been a crucial ministry to India.

Many a baby may have been thrown out with the bathwater if emptying the shelves was the only intent.

It is not known what test to which the files were put to before the decision was made to discard them. None of the ministries have explained the methods employed.

We don’t even know if the National Archives, “the repository of the non-current records” of the Government” was asked to give the files shredded, since the ones with reference to Prasad and Mountbatten are as old as independent India. The Archives holds documents “in trust for the use of administrators and scholars”, which has been its function since 1911.

Files, those hardboards with two red flaps which overlap and two strings that go around it to be knotted to hold papers in them, are ubiquitous in government offices. They contain typed papers with hand written notes at the bottom with dates, marking the progress or decline of an idea, an intent, or a purpose.

Besides, they hold the trails of their movement with much of what has been orally discussed at each step reduced to a crisp sentence or two, “put up” being a milestone which marks out who has asked it to be moved to whom. A loss of a file can be disastrous to the process of governance’; wilfully hiding or destroying them could be mala fide.

Files are a government’s lifeblood for officers and ministers could change but the movement remains on course, even if it means being kept on a shelf. If it is taken out again, it is off the ‘dusty shelves’, the dust being a measure of its pause. The pause could be eternal. The files would never know when their tryst with the shredder arrives till it actually happens.

They take a long, long time to get built, note by notation, and  the process is much slower and more laborious than building, say, a house, brick by brick. The last brick could be the “approved” on the file,  till a new file starts on its journey marking the movement of whatever has been approved. Take them away, and you have a vacuum.

The stockpiles of files in record rooms of government offices grow slowly with clever assistants able to ferret them out rather quickly only when the boss wants them. If the ordinary folk require them taken out for some work to be done, then the ferreting process goes into slow motion.

But suddenly, once Narendra Modi made up his mind to clean up government offices in New Delhi, they were pulled out by in their sacksful and a deed done – ‘destroyed’ is the media word for them. If there was some culling, we don’t know. They gave up their ghosts rather slowly compared to a fire’s speed in a government building.

We don’t know much about how many each of the various government departments suddenly chose to determine them of no consequence and more importantly, how they arrived at that conclusions because culling files cannot be like spring cleaning. In spring cleanings, one throws out what is the least used.

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