Doing contemporary history, or, the difficulty of accessing post-independence records in India

by Naved Masood

A view from the IAS – preserving post-independence government records – revisiting present arrangements*


1. Introduction

If research in various aspects of Modern Indian History has excited so much interest among Indian and foreign scholars, the reasons have as much to do with ready availability of public records of the last couple of centuries as to the intellectually stimulating and challenging nature of problems posed by the encounter of an ancient, culturally vibrant society with an imperialist power. Material germane to the tasks available in libraries and private collections is amply supplemented by meticulously kept government and other records in the myriad archives in the country and abroad, most notably the National Archives of India (hereinafter the NAI) at New Delhi and the India Office Records U.K. There are, of course, a whole host of other archives of State Governments and other organisations containing documents relating to an era that led to the evolution of the politically integrated Indian nation and its partition and many other equally important developments. It is quite obvious that this interest survives and the near future will see a continuance of similar inquiries in the more recent, post-independence India if material pertaining to this era continues to be available. This note addresses the limited but no less important issue of availability and access to post-independence government records useful in reconstructing important political, economic, educational, cultural and administrative aspects of the history of our country with particular reference to the role of government policies as the ‘causes’ and ‘outcomes’ of such aspects.

2. The Problem

The main repositories of government records important enough to be preserved in perpetuity are the National and State Archives for the Union and the State Governments concerned respectively. Government records are deposited in the archives after a series of ‘weeding out’ processes involving ‘sievings’ at different points of time to destroy records- mainly government files- considered to be no longer necessary. Without going into the details, it may be mentioned that records considered important enough to be preserved indefinitely are ‘consigned’ to the Record Rooms of the organisation concerned from where, after a further and supposedly detailed review, they are either weeded out or passed on to the NAI.

For every Department of the Government of India – the word Ministry was not in vogue before 1947 for obvious constitutional reasons – virtually all pre-independence records of important policy decisions or issues engendering public interest/ controversy are to be found in the NAI.

The situation drastically alters when it comes to the period after 1947. While the generality of the statement made in the last sentence is unlikely to be contested by many, the point may be illustrated by drawing attention to some of the records not available with reference to two randomly selected Ministries viz the Ministry of Education (since 1985, Ministry of Human Resource Development- MHRD) and the Ministry of Agriculture.

The position is summarised here:

Ministry of Education ** (now MHRD)

  • Examination of the Recommendations of the University Education Commission (only intermittent records available).
  • Setting up of the University Grants Commission as a statutory body (hardly ten percent of the relevant records in the NAI).
  • Records relating to the tortuous course of the ‘Three Language Formula’.
  • Setting up ‘institutes of national importance’ like the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the NEHU and subsequently most of the recently established Central Universities (prior to the 42nd Constitutional amendment, Parliament could establish only ‘institutions of national importance’)
  • Evolution of policy of uniform pay structure for college and university teachers.
  • Records relating to the National Education Commission (1967).
  • Records relating to the formulation of National Policy on Education of 1985.
  • Records relating to the politically sensitive affairs of the Aligarh Muslim University between1965 to 1981.
  • Transfer of ‘education’ from List-II to List-III of the seventh schedule.
  • Proposals for ‘privatization’ of higher and technical education from time to time.
  • Constitution/ reconstitutions of the Central Advisory Board of Education.
  • Internal discussions in the Ministry on several parliamentary debates on ‘state of education in the country’.
  • Setting up separate Councils for Research in Social Sciences, History and Philosophy (after protracted controversy whether the government could directly fund research institutions or whether UGC could function as the canalizing agency).
  • Setting up the NCERT and NIEPA (only partial records).
  • Discussion of the pros and cons of the ‘National Curriculum Framework’ and the ‘Minimum Levels of Learning”.

Ministry of Agriculture

  • Establishment of separate Departments of Agriculture & Cooperation and Agricultural Education & Research.
  • Formulation of plans like the IADP and the IAAP to boost agricultural production.
  • The bulk of the records pertaining to ushering in the “Green Revolution”.
  • Setting up of the first few Agriculture Universities under the ‘land lease pattern’.
  • Separation of rural development from agriculture and formation of the Ministry of Rural Development (1985).
  • Records relating to the management of severe droughts of 1966, 1979 and 1987.
  • Transfer of work relating to ‘Scarcity relief’ from the Department of Food to the Department of Agriculture.
  • Issues relating to ‘plight of farmers’.
  • Evolution of ‘relief assistance norms’ for natural calamities.
  • Evolution of the policy relating to ‘procurement prices’ and ‘minimum support prices’.
  • Establishment of the Food Corporation of India and the policy on inter-State movement of food-grains.
  • Review of land reforms policies.
  • Fertilizer subsidies- evolution of policies.

(On some of these subjects, there are incomplete records).

It may be reiterated that the omissions listed here are only illustrative to bring home the point that a large corpus of important record of considerable significance to academics and policymakers is disappearing. There are no reasons to believe that the status of records is particularly dismal in case of the two Ministries discussed. If the vast machinery of the Government of India is taken into account it would seem that a considerable source material for the scholar and policymaker may have already been lost.

3. The Causes

It is necessary to briefly consider the causes of important records not finding their way in the archives as the solution to the problem would depend on its correct diagnosis. The causes can be summarized as under.

Disinterest, or worse, indifference of the senior organizational functionaries in Ministries, Departments and executive agencies to the need to preserve important records. When the present writer first joined the Government of India as Under Secretary in 1984, record management was an important aspect of the functioning of general administration or O&M branches- this is no longer so. Ministry of External Affairs is possibly an exception in that it has created its own efficient archives but this has reportedly resulted in MEA not transferring its own records to the NIA.

Total neglect of the Record Rooms. In fact, in cases of the two Ministries considered above, Record Rooms are not even located in the buildings housing the ministries – in case of the MHRD it is a good 7 KMs away from Shastri Bhavan! An off-shoot of this neglect is that often personnel incapacitated for reasons of health or intemperate life styles are assigned to these dreary places.

Disinclination to use the Record Room. Neglect results in Sections and Branches, two important functional hubs in the Secretariat, minimizing transfer of important records to the Record Room. It is not uncommon to find Sections retaining three decade old important records, lest they are needed at some point of time. It can be safely asserted that most of the records which ought to be lodged in the Record Rooms get weeded out from the Sections after their perceived utility is over.

Lack of historical perspective even among the top management. Even at the top most level of the civil service, it is not uncommon to find that the need for preserving important records is not considered necessary except for creating more space for new records or having the ‘foresight’ to decide which record may still be needed as inputs for official work, particularly for handling future litigations.

Neglect by professional historians and archivists. This writer had occasion to discuss the topic with some of the most respected names in Modern Indian History only to realise that these eminent persons are not sufficiently worried as their ‘research interest’ terminates before 1947; they have so far not realised the drastic drop in fresh archival accretions. Similar attitude is found among professional archivists; most of them have a genuine interest in their work which, however, revolves round catering to the needs of the scholars. This restricted perception of their role arguably comes in the way of the professionals realizing that while the reservoir under their charge is impressive; its inlets are drying up fast. There is a quaint way in which the archivist’s attitude manifests itself- one has to register as a ‘scholar’ to be able to use the Reading Room of the NAI, thus even a government functionary needing to consult archival records for official purposes, has to be registered as a scholar! There is nothing wrong with this except that it indicates a rather segmented ‘client perception’.

4. The Remedies

We may discuss the solution to the problem in two parts viz. (i) Objectives of reforms and (ii) Specific remedies.

(i) Objectives of Reforms

The following would appear to be the objectives for which specific remedies need to be tailored.

– Bring about greater clarity and professionalism to the process of records preservation.

– Removing preservation of records from the category of ‘routine’.

–  Bringing NAI and record preservation within the same Ministry.

– Changing attitudes of all role players to preservation of important public records.

(ii) Specific Remedies

It is obvious that the objectives listed above are inter-related and ways and means of addressing them have to be similarly integrated. Keeping this in view the following remedial framework may be considered.

(a) There is a strong case to introduce the concept of “preliminary custody” of records which are prima facie worth preserving. In this approach soft copies/ reprographic records could be sent to the NAI immediately after a decision is taken in a particular case – the originals may be retained in the organisation for the time being. It will be essential to identify the class of cases to be treated under this dispensation.

A suggested list of such cases could be;

* Files relating to all legislations (including passage of bills through legislative committees etc) after they receive the assent of the President.

* Files relating to formulation of ‘national policies’ after these are notified in the Gazette.

* Files relating to creation of new Departments and Organisations and transfer of work from one Ministry/Department to the other after the orders are implemented.

* Files in which prosecution / defending of cases heard by constitution benches of the Supreme Court (i.e. benches consisting of five or more judges) is handled on behalf of the Union of India by the administrative Ministry after the case is finally disposed off.

* Files relating to matters referred by the President for the advice of the Supreme Court under Article 143 of the Constitution.

* Files of Ministries concerning matters handled by the Public Accounts Committee of the House of People after the ‘Action Taken Report’ in the relevant matter is ‘tabled’ in Parliament.

The custody being ‘preliminary’, access to such records by the general public may be available only after the original is ripe for ‘consignment’. In the case of legislation, ‘records’ will include not only the relevant files of the ‘administrative Ministry’ but also the ‘connected file’ of the Legislative Department of the Ministry of Law. In all cases under this category, the administrative Ministry must certify that the papers transferred for ‘preliminary custody’ to the NAI constitute complete records of a given case. The primary responsibility of monitoring the progress of consignment and getting the originals transferred will rest with the NAI.

(b) Converting Record Rooms into ‘intermediate archives’ 

It would not be disputed by anybody with even nodding acquaintance with the functioning, or non- functioning, of Record Rooms, that these derelict spaces currently serve no purpose. Clearly, they need professional attention if important records are to be retained pending their transfer to the NAI or a decision about their final ‘weeding out’. Considering the small size of the average Record Room, there is a strong case for grouping Ministries / Departments for the purpose of retaining their records. These merged Record Rooms could be called “Intermediate Archives” and be managed jointly by ‘constituent Ministries’ and the NAI with a professional archivist from the latter in charge of their functioning. The broad grouping of such archives could illustratively be- Agriculture, Food, Rural Development, Consumer Affairs and Water Resources; Planning, Finance, and Statistics; Education, Culture, Sports and Scientific Ministries; Infrastructural Ministries; Economic Ministries and; Defence; Home and Personnel.

Access to records could be on the existing lines. The advantages of this arrangement will be that records will be more professionally managed; NAI would be in a position to keep a watch on the state of transfer of records from ‘feeder organisations’; and users will be in a better position to know the nature of records available. Besides, once the Branches and Sections realise that retrieval and upkeep may not be difficult, there will be more ‘willing transfer’ of records.

(c) Formation of subject-matter specific Records Management Committees

While archivists know best how to preserve records and make retrieval trouble-free, it is often difficult for them to assess the future importance and ‘need to retain’ many classes of public records, particularly in cases where the issues involved may be of technical or scientific nature. With the establishment of ‘intermediate archives’ it would be practicable to set up committees comprising of experts from the relevant subjects, archivists and representatives of feeder organisations under the chairmanship of the Secretary of the ‘nodal ministry’ to take stock of the acquisition of records in the intermediate archives, the movement of ‘eligible records’ to the NAI and the working of the prescribed arrangements in the organisations to see that important records are being maintained while unnecessary papers are regularly weeded out.

(d) Designation of ‘Nodal Ministry’ for the preservation of public records.

Currently, while the Department of Culture is administratively responsible for the NAI. Technically, the Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances (ARPG) deals with the management of records in government offices. The role of ARPG is, however, notional and is confined to laying down ‘record retention schedules’ occasional reviews of ‘weeding out’ and similar peripheral matters. It is doubtful if that Department has played a pro active role in this sphere. In view of the scheme suggested above, it is logical that the Department responsible for the NAI should also become the ‘nodal department’ for the preservation of important government records.

While this writer has never had the opportunity to work in the Department of Culture, he had occasion to watch the affairs of that Department from the neighbouring Department of Education and would venture to submit that the top ‘culture managers’ have generally been partial to the more glamorous aspects of their work neglecting the ‘boring’ archives.

A decision about the ‘nodal department’ may accordingly be taken having regard to the nexus of ‘archival affairs’ with the overall mandate of the Department.

(e) Changing attitudes towards Public Records

This might seem a rather ‘ceremonial suggestion’; it is, however, strongly submitted that as a long-term measure it goes to the root of the very basis of this note – how to enlist the willing cooperation of all the role players to improve the existing state of preservation of important public records. First and foremost, in an era where the right to obtain information from any ‘public authority’ is a statutory obligation, the proprietary attitude towards information contained in old public records must itself change- if public have virtually unbridled access to current information, no higher degree of segregation can be attached to information relating to decision-making in the past. The leaders of NAI must actively work towards reorienting the attitude of their cutting-edge level functionaries.

The requirement of being registered as a scholar to use the facilities of the archives being a manifestation of that attitude must give way to free access subject to establishment of identity – inquiry as to the ‘purpose for visiting archives’ is surely an avoidable exercise. Members of the public with a degree of curiosity, the odd government functionary keen to know what transpired in his sphere of work in the past should be as welcome as the hard-core scholar.

Equally important is the need to inculcate an appreciation of the importance of public records within the officialdom, particularly at the top level. Generally, senior officials lack curiosity, let alone knowledge, of what kind of records may be available in the NAI or even their own Record Rooms. This disinterest is, arguably, the root cause of the archives not receiving fresh infusions and it needs to be dealt with by a series of proactive measures – principally by the archivists. Some of these measures could be the following;

  • NAI must initiate the practice of issuing brief ‘abstracts of selections from records’ pertaining to the various ministries to acquaint the personnel of the organisations concerned of the importance of information preserved.
  • List of files in the Record Rooms with a brief description of their subject-matter should be made available at all levels within the organisation. Once the ‘intermediate archives’ come into being restricted circulation of ‘selections from records may also be introduced.
  • Ministries could initiate the practice of quarterly presentations of archival material pertaining to their sphere of work. Aside from inducing greater interest in preservation of records, this should also be professionally rewarding as past initiatives can have significant educational value.

5. Conclusion

There are admittedly far more important tasks before the government than the preservation of important records. As this note endeavours to show, however, retaining important papers, apart from safeguarding a major source of our history for future scholars, is also helpful in improving the quality of decision-making in the government by providing useful insights in major policy-making initiatives of the past.

There is a clear disparity when it comes to pre and post-independence government records and the reasons for historically significant records escaping the archival net must be understood and set right. While India’s colonial encounter is the subject matter of so much of research by scholars at home and abroad for its intrinsic importance, it is clear that ready availability of relevant records in archives has made research of such high quality possible.

Similarly, independent India’s experiments in development, social justice and managing a truly complex and plural society within a democratic framework- despite serious doubts of the skeptics in the early post-independence days- may continue to excite future students of society and policymakers the world over. Let the researcher and policy maker of tomorrow not blame the Indian establishment of the early twenty-first century for not doing enough to save much of the evidence to enable them to critically examine the role of the Indian state in grappling with massive problems of a newly independent country.

Naved Masood is retired from the IAS and served in various ministries. He may be contacted at



* An expanded version of an earlier, shorter note prepared by the writer based on his experience with NAI during 1998-99. The writer is grateful to Dr. R.V Vaidyanatha Ayyar, for introducing him to the world of NAI.

**It is worth noting that the main source for the development of education in pre-independence colonial India, is “Selections from Educational Records”, selective reproduction of the records of NAI of different eras.


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