How the National Archives of India Is Actually Destroying History
By Choodie Shivaram
Published in thewire.in on 24 May 2017
History is jeopardised as priceless documents are ill-treated and defaced on a regular basis by both staff and scholars.
Something is rotten about the state of the National Archives of India. The heritage Lutyens building houses priceless historical documents, “stored in over 40 km of shelf space”, according to Sanjay Garg, deputy director of the archives. These include documents dating back to 1748, a rich collection of private papers, over 7,500 microfilm rolls and records from several countries. Scholars, academics, authors, journalists and students frequent the repository. Outstanding works by renowned authors and researchers have emanated from this goldmine.
One would think that the guardians of the National Archives would make it their bounden duty to protect and preserve our nation’s written history. However, the horror story begins here.
Thanks to callous mishandling by staff and scholars alike, priceless documents have ended up dog-eared and annotated. Staff at the research room mandate scholars to number all the pages of a document selected for photocopying. Some scholars highlight portions important to them using coloured pens – on original documents. Fragile and aged archival pages are flipped through several times by each scholar; while photocopying, these are disengaged from the file, only to be put back in a haphazard manner. As a result, documents end up with multiple page markings, at times right in the middle of a priceless document. This defacement happens every day, on treasure that belongs to the next generation.
“It’s the first I’m hearing of this, it’s shocking, this is blasphemous,” says Garg, when this writer informed him of this practice. Public Records Rules 1997 section 11 (8) mandate that it is an offence to “write, put any marks or indications on public records, and to take any eatable or drinking products while consulting public records.” I recently saw a staffer eating an orange as she sat looking over the documents on her table. A 1947 document on Travancore has a completely tattered page whose pieces are bunched together and tucked inside the file.
William Dalrymple writes in his book White Moguls, “In Delhi in the vaults of the Indian National Archives, someone installing a new air conditioning system had absentmindedly left out in the open all six hundred volumes of the Hyderabad Residency Records. It was monsoon. By the time I came back for a second look at the records the following year, most were irretrievably wrecked, and those that were not waterlogged were covered with thick green mould. After a couple of days a decision was taken that the mould was dangerous and all the six hundred volumes were sent off ‘for fumigation’. I never saw them again”.
A JNU professor was horrified when he was told that the files he was seeking had been sent for drying since they had become damp owing to waterlogging.
The National Archives is truly archaic. Every single process here, from the requisitioning of documents to seeking copies, involves tedious paperwork – in multiples. In the era of ‘Digital India’, the NAI is surely not in contention for the prime minister’s award for going paperless.