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Posted at: Jun 14, 2018, 12:13 AM; last updated: Jun 14, 2018, 12:13 AM (IST)

Let there be light

Open UK files on colonial misadventures too
Let there be light

The recent decision of a UK information rights tribunal judge to allow the release of a majority of files relating to actions by the British government before Operation Bluestar is a welcome breath of fresh air from the country that gave us the draconian Official Secrets Act in 1923. Judge Murray Shanks stands out for resisting the natural official response of cloaking everything on the grounds of national security or diplomatic expedience. He rightly observed that 30 years had passed since the event and ruled in favour of allowing the public access to the truth. Even as his ruling may be appealed, it sets an important precedent. The documents are expected to provide a more detailed picture of the UK’s role in the operation. 

Civilisations need to draw lessons from history, lest they be condemned to repeat it. The history of British colonial rule in India is the one in which a series of blunders stand out: The Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 in which almost 1,000 persons were killed in 10 minutes; the Malabar Wagon Tragedy of 1921 in which 67 protesters died of suffocation while being transported in a goods wagon; the horrific 1943 famines in Bengal and other places (with the wartime colonial policies exacerbating a natural tragedy), where the death toll is placed between one-two crore, and of course, the Partition in which more than 10 lakh civilians lost their lives, and one crore were displaced. Given the vast gap of time, the British government needs to be more liberal in allowing access to documents so that scholars and common people can learn the British administrators’ and political leaders’ perception and perspective at that time. 

By no means are the ills of today a direct result of the atrocities of the past. That said, all these tragedies shaped history and need to be examined in greater detail. Though the British Empire was known for its great record-keeping skills, it is also infamous for its ability to couch the blunders of the past in an opaque mist that is almost impenetrable. Some rays of light are allowed to filter through, but they only serve to whet the appetite of the people who want to learn more about the past.


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