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Cult of secrecy

August 12, 2017


BORN in crime, the state of Israel ethnically cleansed the Palestinians, whose lands it had seized, and now subjects them to apartheid. That said, its record on accountability vis-à-vis its own Jewish people is an enviable one. This is very much like imperialist Britain’s contrasting record of behaviour towards the people of its colonies and its own citizens at home.

But decolonisation did not invest the people of the Third World with the norms followed by their erstwhile leaders. On the contrary, they embraced a cult of secrecy that destroys accountability at its very roots.

Earlier this year, the Israel State Archives released thousands of classified official documents charting political decisions made at the highest levels during the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Made public were 150,000 pages containing minutes of the wartime security cabinet meetings and transcripts of other ministerial meetings.

Inquiries hold lessons and set useful precedents.

In the past, Israel published the report of a commission of inquiry headed by the president of its supreme court, Shimon Agranat, into the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. A whole generation of top leaders was forced into exile. The Kahan Commission report (1983) censured the conduct of leaders responsible for the massacre that took place in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut. In 2007 came the Winograd Commission report on Israel’s war on Lebanon.

On June 15, 1967, a few days after the conflict ended, Israel’s security cabinet discussed various options for the newly occupied territories. Foreign minister Abba Eban described continued Israeli rule as a potential “powder keg”. “We are sitting here with two populations, one of them endowed with all the civil rights and the other denied all rights. The world will side with a liberation movement of that one and a half million” under occupation, he said.

Prime minister Levy Eshkol mentioned the possibility of expelling them, saying that “if it were up to us, we would send all the Arabs to Brazil”. His justice minister, Yaakov Shimshon Shapira, objected. “They are inhabitants of this land, and today you are ruling over it. There is no reason to take Arabs who were born here out of here and transfer them to Iraq.”

Now, 50 years later, Arabs in Palestine are consigned to virtual serfdom by Israel. Inquiries hold lessons — not only on the subject they were concerned with but also on the procedure they followed, thus setting useful precedents.

Prime minister Margaret Thatcher set up a committee of privy counsellors to review the conduct of the government preceding Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands on April 2, 1982. They read all the papers that the prime minister personally saw; cabinet papers and minutes of meetings; foreign office and defence ministry papers, and intelligence reports. All the prime ministers and ministers of the government, as well as those of its predecessors, spoke to the committee.

In glaring contrast is the deplorable record of successive governments of India, from 1963 to 2017, to suppress the report of the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat inquiry into the military debacle in the war with China in 1962. Journalist Neville Maxwell based his book, India’s China War, on a copy of the report. He recently published the report on his website for all to read.

The cult of secrecy is all-pervasive. It covers official papers, the opening of the archives as well as papers of leading personalities. All the records of the Shimla Convention in 1914, where British India negotiated the Indo-Tibetan boundary, the McMahon Line, on the sidelines of the conference, as well as the proceedings in which all three — India, China and Tibet — participated, are still under lock and key. Foreign and Indian scholars have, however, written on the subject fiercely and in detail after being given free access to the papers in London.

The 30-year rule is only on paper. Records of border areas are closed from Jan 1, 1914. Those relating to Jammu and Kashmir are open only up to Dec 31, 1924.

One court ruling is very relevant. It is the judgement on the publication of the Crossman Diaries. Lord Widgery, then lord chief justice of England, said on Oct 1, 1975: “It seems to me that the degree of protection afforded to cabinet papers and discussion cannot be determined by a single rule of thumb. Some secrets require a high standard of protection for a short time. Others may require protection until a new political generation has taken over. There is another factor, besides, which is not found in cases of private confidences and that is the legitimate public interest in the affairs of the state and the right of the citizen to comment on them.” Publication of the diaries was upheld.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2017