The Inalienable Right to the Archives – Entering the Capital

EMBLEMThough one approaches all state archives with apprehension about possible obstacles in the way of research, it would be a mistake to think that all have the same self-perception or anxieties as the Delhi-based National Archives of India. The NAI, one of the largest repositories of colonial and post-independence records, is overseen by the Ministry of Culture, but also, by default, by the Home Ministry. Since it is the repository of ‘non-current  records’, the NAI becomes the recipient of de-classified documents and receives directives from time to time from the Home Ministry regarding restrictions to be placed on public viewing of documents.

This fact generates an over-hanging awareness of potential reprimands and memos that could issue from these Ministries, asking for explanations for why certain documents were released. A direct result of this is the pro-active censorship of materials such as maps of disputed territories or documents that ‘may incite communal disharmony’ by the archival staff themselves. One member of the staff, for instance, disallowed the reproduction of a map of the Tibetan region on the grounds that it would ‘jeopardise the geo-political interests of the country’, and recounts how he was responsible for withholding certain documents that were asked for in the Emergency period, that would have impacted the then office of the leader of the opposition, Charan Singh.

The NAI thus sees itself as closely wedded to the state and as a responsible guardian of potentially impactful documents that would have dire consequences in the wrong hands. No other state archive quite sees itself as the official concealer of the state’s dirty linen, and the Delhi archive, in that sense, is the apex institution in the degree to which it alone manifests emotions displayed typically by state archives across the country: secrecy, responsibility, control, paternalism, righteousness as the arbiter of access.

This is in direct contrast to the functioning and world view of many of the archivists, who in fact declare that the archives are technically open to all citizens, and are a public repository. This legal fact is predictably enough mediated through other legal qualifications about sensitivity and interests of the nation, and looped through a relay of permissions solicited from various authorities. A search for a conspiracy of concealment would draw a blank in most state archives. What works is a sort of relay of apprehensiveness and bureaucratic lag, with most staff looking over their shoulders to watch who sees them hand over any document from a list of publications available in their bookshop, to a list of documents acquired from the British Library through official exchange agreements. Save those who are higher up in the hierarchy and more secure in their positions, acquiring information could necessitate an RTI application purely to surmount the anxiety generated by informal questioning.

Archivists themselves are aware of this. They point to the fact that the maximum difficulty is encountered at the gate, where it can take a full half-hour or more to get past the security, get a daily pass issued, etc. Senior members of at least two prestigious archives in the capital pointed to the security guard’s authority at the gate as being the biggest hurdle to accessing the archives. Some point to the ‘caution exercised by the hatchet’ at the Ministry level, even before documents arrive in the public domain.

Pramod Mehra, the Assistant Director of the Archives indicates that little has changed since 1923 in the form of record-keeping, a consciousness brought in by the colonial government. The strife over public access can be recounted from the time of the colonial government with differing views exercised by changing governor-generals. The archives, he states, function as a mediator between the creating agency such as the Ministries, and scholars. But, he insists, all who carry bona fide documents proving their identity as citizens have an inalienable right to enter the archives.

Technically therefore, there seem to be sufficient spaces for intervention by users, and in fact, as the earlier post states, the increase in the number and kind of users has in itself forced an expansion in the categories of users permitted. It would appear that this is the trend everywhere. Where archival records accidentally have non-historical functions, as in the Delhi Archives, the archive alters eventually to accommodate users and it would seem that generating such users and uses is the easier way to pragmatise the question of access.

The other mechanism is to find hooks within the system through which to enable access. Take the case of the Central Secretariat Library which is housed within the Secretariat complex in New Delhi. The Library sees itself as a repository of government records and documents, open to government employees by right, for any research they may want to conduct. As a transition from the colonial period, this library stores official documents that pertain to the past of the current state. Since the library views itself as open to the public for generalised reading, there is not much anxiety over making older books and documents available. A student working on the North East, for instance, will find it cumbersome to enter the National Archives and to access maps of the region which may be far more easily traced in the Central Secretariat Library.

What is of even greater interest is that this is the library that holds any document acquired by a foreign entity in collaboration with a state institution. So, for instance, the online Digital South Asia Library, a consortium that is housed by the University of Chicago website, collected a range of literary works in Indian languages based on the compilations of a national librarian. A copy of this collection lies with the Central Secretariat, as do microfilms that have been received as part of an exchange programme with the British Library. The current director of this Library appears only too willing to encourage collaborations from historians towards the cataloguing of these collections, which once again are closed to the public merely because adequate cataloguing procedures are not in place. In an interview that appeared to open doors, he insisted that generating public pressure around the significance of the collection would work as a persuasive force, as evidence that the funds allocated for digitisation or preservation are in fact needed, and that an audience exists for such material.

It seems as though appealing to abstract principles of access, citizenship and rights calls forth nameless and immovable blocking mechanisms inbuilt in the state, whereas tinkering with minor functions that do not invoke its broader raison d’être allows one to enter unnoticed.

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