The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) finds itself in a spot with the Central Information Commission (CIC) calling for the inspection of files related to the India-Pakistan joint statement issued on the sidelines of last year’s Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt.

With India having a history of not permitting access to any foreign office file, no matter how old, the CIC decision has left the MEA scrambling. Officials said such an order was likely to discomfit even those countries which allowed the opening up of their records after 20 or 30 years.

The CIC came under fire from the former Foreign Secretaries, Muchkund Dubey and Lalit Mansingh, who have termed the order impractical.

Notice to MEA

Responding to a right to information (RTI) petition, Information Commissioner Annapurna Dixit, who is the wife of the former Foreign Secretary and National Security Adviser, J.N. Dixit, issued a show cause notice to the MEA for not complying with her earlier order on making public the notings in the files pertaining to the Sharm-el-Sheikh joint statement. Ms. Dixit had issued the notice after the MEA submitted a list of officials present in Egypt at the time and the text of the joint statement in response to her earlier directive of December 8, 2009 for providing the information within 30 days.

The joint statement’s reference to Baluchistan had a section of the Indian strategic community up in arms with some arguing that Islamabad would now be able to allege Indian meddling in the restive Pakistani province. When the matter was raised in Parliament, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said there was nothing wrong with the reference because India’s “hands are clean.”

According to MEA officials, compliance with the CIC’s order would lead to innumerable difficulties. The first would be a sharp decline in the trust quotient with other countries if the contents of confidential talks at the heads of government level were revealed in real time. The practice in other countries was to let the dust settle down and the mantle passed on to the next generation of political and bureaucratic leadership before the archives were opened for the public.

Second, many minutiae were incorporated at the last moment after one-to-one talks between the leaders and the subsequent verbal directive given by them to their officials (as was the case at Sharm-el-Sheikh) to come up with a joint statement or communiqué. Officials wondered how the “spur of the moment” decisions would be reflected in the notings on the files. They also wondered how revealing the sequence of events leading up to a joint statement would benefit the petitioner or the nation since, as was usual in diplomacy, this was still a very modest step towards normalising ties with Pakistan and a work-in-progress.

No file notings

In the case of Sharm-el-Sheikh, the MEA has contended that there were no file notings about the decision-making process that led to the joint statement. As things stand the Ministry was still contemplating the next step of action which could mean an appeal to the Delhi High Court. The MEA had earlier given a detailed reasoning during the preliminary stage of the process itself specifying why the information could not be made public. But the reasoning did not find favour with the CIC.

Mr. Mansingh felt the CIC directive was laudable if the move was towards greater transparency. But his fear was that it might not be practical because in “such cases” there was no paper trail. “I doubt very much that such an order can be implemented,” he said.

Mr. Muchkund Dubey pointed out that many of the deliberations conducted in a lightning fashion during summit-level meetings were not put on record. “Processes such as these can be recorded in the historical perspective and not recorded here and now. Moreover most of the people are interested in the outcome. Only a few would benefit from this,” he said.

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