In the hot seat, BJP, mimics the Congress. Says Henderson-Brooks report ‘will remain top secret’

NEW DELHI: In a dramatic about turn, India’s Defence and Finance minister Arun Jaitley asserted in parliament on Tuesday, 8 July that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s position on the controversial Henderson-Brooks committee report which chronicles the reasons for the Indian army’s crushing defeat at the hands of China in 1962, would be the same as that of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

In a written reply in the Rajya Sabha, Jaitley refused to make the report public. He said the release of the “top secret document” would not be in national interest. The government ruled out the possibility of any information related to the report being released fully or partially.

Australian journalist Neville Maxwell had made portions of the report public in March, triggering a fresh round of debate on India’s worst military defeat and the events that led to it. The BJP had then demanded that the report, authored by Lieutenant General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier PS Bhagat be declassified immediately.

Maxwell had written on his website that he was making the report public as he wanted to end his complicity in keeping it a secret. The report was leaked 13 years after the government had appointed a committee under former defence secretary NN Vohra to look into publication of war histories.

In the heat of the election campaign, then BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad (who is now law minister in the NDA government) had called for declassification of the report whose contents, he had said, the “nation had a right to know.” In a blog post, Arun Jaitley had gone a step further to say that public interest demanded that the top secret document not remain in the government’s vault for an indefinite period of time.

He wrote in his blog post: “Any society is entitled to learn from the past mistakes and take remedial action. With the wisdom of hindsight, I am of the opinion that the report’s content could have been made public some decades ago…Was the Himalayan blunder of 1962 in fact a Nehruvian blunder? Are we willing to learn the lessons from 1962?”

However, having occupied the hot seat in the ministry of defence after the BJP’s stunning Lok Sabha victory, Jaitley seems to have changed his spots. 

Observers believe that the reason behind such double-speak could be the advice of the army establishment which wants the Henderson-Brooks report to remain classified. Critics say this does not bode well for the BJP, which often projects itself as hyper-nationalistic and left no opportunity to target the Congress-led UPA for its many failures on the security front, including its toothless counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency measures. The BJP’s doublespeak, they say, exposes its defence of the indefensible.

The Hindustan Times reports that the only war record to have been declassified so far relates to the 1947-48 Kashmir operations. It was published four decades later in 1987.

Hearing an RTI plea on the sinking of INS Khukri during the 1971 India-Pakistan war, the Central Information Commission (CIC) had whacked the government in January 2008 for being obsessed with confidentiality. The defence ministry was asked to outline its declassification policy for releasing information to the public.

The Khukri saga was immortalised after its commanding officer, Capt Mahender Mulla, refused to abandon the ship and remained seated in the captain’s chair till she sank with 18 officers and 178 sailors. Mulla was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra.

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