The official details of the signing of the instrument of accession by Maharajah Hari Singh of Kashmir has not only been kept under secrecy for 75 years now by successive governments, but has even led to several decades of allegations of motives and vested interests regarding the document. An application filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, revealed that the actual official date of signing it is 26th and 27 October 1947, something which also had remained mired in controversy. Now, with the central information commission (CIC) terming disclosure of this issue as pertaining to ‘national interest’, there is hope that more information could tumble out, but there is a big if!
For, Information Commissioner Uday Mahurkar has played it safe by directing the central public information officer (CPIO) of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) to “take up the matter with the higher officials” of the NMML to “secure the necessary permission from them before sharing the information” with the RTI applicant!
This also means that the CPIO will have to take permission from the ministry of external affairs (MEA) too. The CPIO had earlier denied information saying he had no instructions from this ministry to do so.
However, Venkatesh Nayak, transparency advocator of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), who is the RTI applicant in this case, says this is a positive decision that might help clear up the cobwebs which have obscured details of events leading to and beyond Jammu & Kashmir (J&K)'s accession to India as we approach its 75th anniversary.
He says, “Even though the CIC does not mention Section 8(3) of the RTI Act in its decision, the concurrence with the public interest argument (labelled as national interest in the order) in favour of disclosure of such old records may prove to be a milestone in the development of RTI case law in India.”
Mr Nayak wonders though whether the NMML will comply with the CIC's order or challenge it in court or whether the MEA will refuse permission to disclose these papers in defiance of the CIC's order—all remain to be seen.
He had sought information on J&K accession papers in his RTI application, based on the script of an audio interview he recently heard, of General Sir Roy Bucher, second chief of the army staff of India between 1947 and 1948, recorded by noted biographer BR Nanda. General Bucher had stated therein that he has handed over papers of J&K accession to the NMML. These documents, Mr Nayak feels could reveal a lot; hence he invoked the RTI Act.
He says, “The disclosure of papers handed over by General Bucher to NMML are essential in order to put an end to the baseless and needless controversies created by some foreign scholars and authors about the circumstances surrounding the accession of the erstwhile princely state of J&K to the Dominion of India, in 1947. These controversies have ranged from questioning the very existence of the instrument of accession as a physical document to doubting the dates of the signing of this document by the then Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh and its acceptance by the then governor general of India, Lord Mountbatten.”
In 2016, the RTI activist was able to obtain a scanned copy of the instrument of accession pertaining to J&K through the combined use of the RTI Act and the Public Records Act, 1993. By making these records public through an article he authored that year, the appellant was able to counter the allegations about the non-existence of the said instrument of accession.
The RTI Application
• Inspections on for a period of five hours, the files and papers pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir handed over to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library by General Sir Roy Bucher, second Chief of the Army Staff of India, as mentioned in his interview with eminent historian BR Nanda, which is recorded in the Sir Roy Bucher Transcripts available in your holdings. Kindly make arrangements for supplying copies of all papers and microfilms or microfiche, if any, or any other materials that I may identify during the inspection.
• a clear photocopy of any list of records, documents, papers, microfilms, microfiche and any other material available in the holdings of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library that are closed to the public, under instructions from any agency in or under the government of India,
• a clear photocopy of any list of records, documents, papers, microfilms, microfiche and any other material available in the holdings of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library that are closed to the public, under instructions from any agency in or under the state or union territory governments,
• The name of the agency which has issued instructions, the date of such instruction and the period for which every such record, document, paper, microfilm, microfiche or other materials must remain closed to the public.
The Reply by the CPIO
Interestingly, the CPIO replied that he had no instructions from the MEA to reveal information sought by Mr Nayak but sent him a list of archival papers that are closed for public scrutiny under orders from the Central government or under directions from the donor. A study of the list of 'closed papers' attached to the PIO's reply reveals the following interesting facts:
1) Sir Roy Bucher's papers (except for the transcript of the interview with Shri BR Nanda) are closed under orders from the union ministry of external affairs;
2) Certain papers of Shri Pyarelal, who was personal secretary to Mahatma Gandhi in his later years, and Dr Sushila Nayyar who was Gandhiji's personal physician, are closed from public scrutiny under directions from Harsh Nayar. This restriction is to run for a period of 30 years. The start date of the embargo is not revealed in the RTI reply;
3) Certain papers relating to former prime minister Indira Gandhi are closed under instructions from the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust;
4) Certain papers of Uma Shankar Dixit, former union minister and governor of Karnataka during the 1970s (he was removed within a year and a half of appointment when the janata government came to power in 1977) under instructions from his daughter, the Late Sheila Dixit, former chief minister of Delhi. Whether her heirs will continue to press for this secrecy remains to be seen;
5) Certain papers of K Hanumanthaiah, former chief minister of his home state Karnataka (he was instrumental in completing the construction of Vidhana Soudha, which houses the state legislature and certain segments of the government secretariat) under instructions from one V Shivalingam; and
6) Certain papers donated by noted author Nayantara Sahgal who has instructed maintenance of secrecy until 2033. Incidentally, Ms Sahgal is the niece of Pandit Nehru, the daughter of his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit who was India's ambassador to the United Nations and the first woman president of the UN General Assembly in 1953.
The CPIO of NMML, in his reply, endorsed the note prepared by a staffer of NMML that Sir Roy Bucher's papers and the rest listed above cannot be permitted for anybody to see or consult.
Mr Nayak filed a first appeal because he argued that according to Section 7(1) of the RTI Act, a CPIO is required to give a decision whether to disclose the requested information. Instead, the CPIO, NMML merely forwarded a note from one Priyamvada containing some details without giving his decision regarding disclosure of the information sought about the J&K papers handed over by General Sir Roy Bucher to NMML. Also, he did not get information about the dates when Sir Roy Bucher handed over the J&K papers and files and for how long they must remain closed or when the MEA put restrictions on public access to these papers. So this is incomplete information.
It may be recalled that in June 2021, Rajnath Singh, minister of external affairs approved the policy on archiving, declassification and compilation, publication of war or operations histories by the ministry of defence.
According to the policy, records should ordinarily be declassified in 25 years and those older than that should be appraised by archival experts and transferred to the National Archives of India.
Strangely, says Mr Nayak, the official history of the J&K Operations of 1947-48 published by the history division of the ministry of defence in 2005 does not mention the Sir Roy Bucher papers in its bibliography.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)