The data on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose that has been de-classified by the West Bengal government ought to be assessed with far greater seriousness of purpose than has been evident since last Friday. More fundamentally, the Netaji papers are not merely of viewers’ interest in the Kolkata Police Museum and they lend no scope for trivialisation of history. They relate to a sensitive phase of India&’s past (1939-45), and ought to have enriched the collection of the West Bengal State Archives, if not the National Archives in Delhi. There is no scope for another Centre-State ego clash on this score and the Chief Minister is justified in appealing to the Centre to open up the files. The edification of the tourist is of lesser moment in the overall construct. At stake is the Idea of History, as RG Collingwood once wrote so famously.
Sad to reflect, the de-classification ceremony turned into grandstanding by the ruling political class and its police… incidentally eight months ahead of the Assembly elections. It begs the question why the data was not de-classified much earlier; Mamata Banerjee has proffered a specious plea that she wasn’t aware that Lalbazar – her department – was in possession of the 64 files. It is the historian&’s craft that is on test both in terms of delineating the information and its inference, though the second is a matter of subjective reflection as in all social science disciplines. Both parameters appear to have been overshadowed. Sure there is considerable public interest in the matter after 70 years, yet the overriding anxiety is decidedly political when it ought to have been almost wholly academic. A distressing thought when one reflects that Kolkata boasts some of the country&’s finest historians; none has been in the forefront of the government&’s initiative during the past 72 hours.
A grand opportunity to craft historiography during the War years and in the period leading up to Independence ought not to be frittered away. The task envisages a two-in-one capsule of information, embedded in what authoritative historians would call “primary sources”. In the absence of professional evaluation of what has been de-classified, there is bound to be an overdose of speculative cant. And the trend has been fairly pronounced since the de-classification. A serious study of the data must of necessity transcend the cursory glance at the police museum gallery. Small wonder that the little that has transpired is of relatively peripheral interest – the letter from Emile Schenkl to Sarat Bose, declaring herself to be Subhas&’s widow; the arrival of Lakshmi Sahgal (nee Swaminathan); the prisoners of INA; and the tabs on German radio broadcasts. Without question, there is more in the papers than such nuggets of information. Let front-ranking historians take over.