The custodial death of Indian history
Indian archives are in terrible shape. The funds and expertise required to preserve records are seriously lacking. The only hope is to establish a foundation to digitise all records and make them freely available online
A remarkable aspect of contemporary India is how much we care about our history and how little we do to preserve it. In bookstores, volumes about our past dominate the bestseller lists. But in the archives, records of our past are crumbling away. The irony is profound: We are hungry for knowledge but are starving ourselves of the answers.
In the colonial era, archives received generous support from public and private sources. Many had unique collections and were the pride of their town. With Independence came apathy and neglect. In archive upon archive, collections have steadily thinned: Valuable items have been “lost”, others sent for “restoration” have never returned, and those too troublesome to repair have been “weeded out”. Decrepit facilities have allowed the elements to do their worst, monsoons and floods leaving volumes stamped with the forlorn phrase “this book was drenched”. What little has survived continues to be subject to manmade disasters, none worse than the periodic “reorganisation” that has left many an archive with entirely redundant catalogues.
Tragedy is not all you will encounter in an Indian archive. There is plenty of farce too. There is usually an onerous registration process that leaves access to the discretion of officious employees. Researchers are frequently disallowed from using mobile phone cameras. Instead, they are required to use expensive photocopying “services” that take days to weeks to deliver copies. A few institutions, such as the National Archives of India, provide digital scans, which they then kindly emblazon with a watermark that covers a third of every page. Then there are establishments like the Rajasthan State Archives in Bikaner, which don’t allow researchers to copy more than 30% of a record, presumably because too much knowledge is a dangerous thing.
To be sure, every researcher has a story to tell of some employee that, despite the dismal conditions, has gone out of their way to offer help. But the fact that access depends on mercy, on a compliant cog in a grinding wheel, is not something to cheer. There is a deeper invidious consequence too. The more arbitrary the rules, the more certain that only the privileged will have the time and money to put up with them. How many individuals have the resources to camp out and wait for “Sir”, “Madam”, and “Bhaiya” to “do the needful”?
The custodial death of Indian history is all but certain. The funds or expertise required to preserve and manage archives will not be available on the required scale. A few high-profile archives will survive, but the bulk will perish. The only hope is to digitise all surviving records and make them freely available on a well-designed, user-friendly platform. Declining digital storage costs and growing internet connectivity make this route more viable and equitable than it was even a few years ago.
But who should undertake this urgent exercise? The government lacks the skills required. In recent decades, “missions” to digitise materials have been trumpeted, each armed with its fearsome semi-Sanskritic lexicon. The outcome has been an e-Narak of defunct websites, ghastly interfaces, and faulty services. There is not a single example worthy of praise. The National Digital Library of India, for example, contains millions of items but lacks the most basic forms of digital hygiene, such as standard tags and filters, that are essential to navigating records.
Given this track record, the task of digitising and presenting archival materials must be entrusted to a dedicated non-profit foundation governed by a board composed solely of experienced professionals. (Perhaps it could be named the Jadunath Foundation in honour of Jadunath Sarkar, the historian who worked tirelessly to recover Indian records.) There is some domestic expertise that an organisation of this kind could make use of. One example is the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, whose “Granth Sanjeevani” is a modest but genuine achievement. But if this foundation is to embody global best practices, it will need to involve internationally recognised firms such as Cogapp, which has built the highly regarded Qatar Digital Library. At any rate, the government’s role should be strictly limited to providing the requisite funding and vesting the foundation with the authority to compel public archives to share records from before 1947.
Do our political leaders understand what is at stake? Indians are already being forced to trek to foreign shores because archives there have preserved our records better than we have. Since these pilgrimages involve considerable expense and inconvenience, we can be sure that over time less and less of Indian history will be written by Indians themselves. To understand why this matters, recall what the bards would say to Maharajas: Victors make history and historians make victors.
Rahul Sagar is Global Network Associate professor, NYU Abu Dhabi. His most recent book is The Progressive Maharaja: Sir Madhava Rao’s Hints on the Art and Science of Government The views expressed are personal