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Declassifying Netaji files

The West Bengal government on Friday declassified 64 secret files on Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and his family members, which were earlier in possession of the Kolkata police and West Bengal police. After the state government’s decision, the onus is now on the Centre to declassify files on the freedom fighter. Before last year’s general elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party had promised to declassify all confidential files about Netaji’s role in the freedom struggle and subsequent death. 

However, after it took over the office, the Centre took an about turn and refused to declassify them. The NDA government’s refusal was on the ground that the move would “prejudicially affect relations with foreign countries”. It is a weak justification, primarily because nobody is going to blame today’s government for what its predecessor did 50 or 60 years ago. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was right on the need for disclosure and transparency regarding “the truth about Netaji”. For the time being more than 150 “secret” government files containing crucial information regarding 

Netaji’s death remains sealed off and nothing can be said with certainty about his reported death. The move by the West Bengal government is a welcome move in this regard. The ball is now in the NDA government’s court.  The Centre’s confused position on the secret Netaji files, notwithstanding, questions surrounding its use of the Official Secrets Act is what has irked many. Earlier this year, the Centre had set up a committee to review the provisions of the Official Secrets Act (OSA), 1923, given the Right to Information Act, 2005. Many had hailed the move as the Centre’s earnest attempts at moving on from the shrouds of “secrecy” to an ideal of transparent governance. Sadly no real progress was made. 

Former Union Cabinet secretary Ajit Kumar Seth, who headed the newly formed committee of secretaries to review the OSA, refused to declassify the Netaji files. According to prominent legal experts, if there is a divergence between the OSA and RTI, the provisions of the latter override the former. However, the RTI can only override the OSA, only “if the public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests”. 

The challenge ultimately lies in discerning what “public interest” entails. The fine balance that must exists between protecting the sovereignty of the state with the principles of transparency and accountability in a democracy is blurred by a rather vague definition of “public interest”, which is not time-bound.  It is interesting to note that the OSA was formulated by India’s former colonial masters under the very different circumstances. Post-Independence, however, successive governments at the Centre have used the OSA to insulate themselves from public scrutiny. Today what we need is a proper historical assessment of the personality and the complete declassification of all secret files. Subhash Chandra Bose lived in West Bengal, engaged in politics from West Bengal, launched his struggles from there, yet we do not know what happened to him after he left. 
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