Our past is being moth-eaten

How do you destroy Indian history? In Delhi, letters written by Mahatma Gandhi, Dadabhai Naoroji, and Babasaheb Ambedkar are left to rot away in rooms lacking proper temperature control. In Lucknow, secretariat holdings are dumped and burned. And in Chennai, archival records are literally washed away by the monsoons.

Among both foreign and Indian scholars, it is an open secret that most Indian archives and libraries are in a deplorable state. Over the past 15 months, I have visited many institutions across the country in connection with my dissertation research on Naoroji. What I have seen has disturbed me. Archival experiences recounted by my academic colleagues have horrified me. Unless the government takes quick and decisive action, India is at risk of letting much of its heritage literally crumble into dust. Sources of Indian history are at grave risk of being lost forever.

Poor preservation

India is a country that is justifiably proud of its illustrious past. But this pride does not always translate into proper custodianship and preservation. Most Indians would cringe at how sources of Indian history are treated in government institutions. In spite of the plethora of capable administrators and skilled archivists in this country, many institutions do not follow clear, up-to-date, and verifiable standards for document preservation.

State-level facilities, where the majority of public archives are housed, are in the greatest need of help. Many institutions are housed in old buildings that may actually facilitate rapid damage to collections. The Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai, for example, is located in an open-air structure built in 1888. As a result, pigeons regularly fly into the premises and leave their droppings on centuries-old colonial factory records and priceless newspaper collections. Occasionally, as an American colleague recently recalled, a pigeon will collide into a fan, plummet to the floor, and writhe around in a pool of blood until a peon is charged with cleaning up the mess.

The situation is also quite grim in New Delhi. At the National Archives of India, I consult Naoroji's papers in the Private Archives room, which has broken windows and no proper climate control. It is no surprise, therefore, that thousands of Naoroji's letters have been destroyed over the past few decades and that thousands more are now too damaged to be read: while Naoroji bequeathed over 60,000 items upon his death in 1917, less than 30,000 survive today. The papers of Naoroji's colleagues, such as Romesh Chunder Dutt, are in a similarly shameful state. How would the Grand Old Man react to this disappearance of so much nationalist heritage?

Poor upkeep has also damaged more recent records. Some of Dr. Ambedkar's correspondence has decayed into piles of scraps. This should not happen in a country where his legacy and memory are subjects of such great contestation and debate.

Within the international academic community, Indian archival experiences are traded like war stories. In the 1990s, an eminent British political scientist found documents and files from the Uttar Pradesh Secretariat's library dumped and burned outside. The Secretariat, the political scientist noted, contained valuable revenue settlement and provincial police reports that are probably not available anywhere else. In the fall of 2005, an M.Phil. candidate from Delhi University saw staff at the Tamil Nadu State Archives in Chennai hanging a clothesline on the archives' verandah. Why? It was being used to dry out historical papers soaked during a monsoonal deluge. And in 2008, staff at the West Bengal State Archives in Kolkata chose to go on a month-long strike after an Ivy League professor made a routine request for a document.

These three instances hint at glaring problems in the ways that Indian archives and libraries are managed. In order for there to be any hope for the long-term survival of India's sources of history, the Union and State governments need to urgently bring about real and lasting changes.

The most necessary change is also the simplest. These institutions need to be housed in proper facilities. In 21st century India, it is absolutely absurd that records and collections continue to be housed in Raj-era structures that have hardly been modernised since they were built. This is tantamount to condemning documents to 19th century preservation methods. In order for old documents to be preserved, they need to be kept in sealed, temperature-controlled environments where the elements, humidity, insects, and animals are kept at bay. The new director of the Maharashtra State Archives is pushing the State government to build such a structure for her institution. She needs support.

At the same time, new buildings must conform to the highest standards. The National Archives' annexe was inaugurated in 1991 but its construction is of such substandard quality that its roof is leaking, its window panes have fallen off, and its storage facilities are a veritable magnet for dirt and dust. Our history deserves better than this.

Secondly, these institutions need highly qualified directors and staff. There are now some encouraging developments. The National Archives, which was left rudderless for several years, now finally has a director general. He has brought about visible and commendable change in his two years on the job, helping modernise the facility and improve standards of preservation and recordkeeping. The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, the leading storehouse of non-official documents, is busy reviewing existing practices and upgrading skills and techniques. Here too, a new director is working with other experts to effect changes.

Dearth of staff

But qualified directors, alone, cannot institute real change. There is a glaring dearth of trained archivists and librarians in institutions across the country. In spite of the real talent that India yearly produces in these fields, most archives, museums, and libraries have a shockingly high number of empty posts. The reasons are not difficult to discern. It can take anywhere from two to three years for the Union Public Service Commission to clear an applicant's file for a vacancy. During that period of time, most candidates will have found another job; any remaining candidates will be deterred by low pay scales and the promise of a poor work environment. As one archival official told me, the Indian government looks upon its archivists and librarians as “dignified clerks.” It is a miracle that, in spite of everything, many central and state institutions retain a core of dedicated, professional staff.

The critical shortage of trained staff has had one very destructive consequence. Methods and technologies of preservation have greatly lagged behind what is practised elsewhere in the world. I have been dismayed to see archivists across India use technologies that were abandoned in the West decades ago. For example, the preservation technique of lamination — whereby brittle documents are pasted in between thin sheets of paper — is still widely and indiscriminately used. This technique, as archivists in the British Library inform me, is no longer commonly practised there due to adverse long-term consequences.

I have seen these consequences first hand: Gandhi's earliest surviving letter to Naoroji is no longer legible due to lamination. Without more qualified preservationists, institutions in India are unable to keep up with international best practices or even review their own preservation policies, assimilating tried-and-tested techniques with new methods.


In order to facilitate the hiring and retention of India's best talent, and in order to put an end to decades of neglect and destruction, certain institutions, such as the National Archives, should be granted a degree of autonomy. The National Archives desperately needs more qualified staff in order to assist in projects for preservation, catalouging, and upkeep. At present, the director has limited powers even to repair those broken windows that daily let in dust, mosquitoes, and hornets into the room where I work: all repairs must go though the Central Public Works Department, adding a completely unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.

The Ministry of Culture, which oversees so many of India's cultural treasures, must provide the right conditions for allowing India's best historians, librarians, and archivists to give Indian heritage the dedication and care it deserves. The Nehru Library, which has a degree of autonomy, provides an interesting model of an institution that has fared better than most.

Indian libraries and archives have enormous potential. They are home to some of the world's greatest and most important collections of historical documents. With qualified directors, better staff, and proper facilities, these institutions can take their rightful places as internationally-recognised centres of scholarship. They can help restore India's pride of place as a global hub of learning and culture. Will the government help give India's history the future it deserves?

(Dinyar Patel is Ph.D. candidate, Department of History, Harvard University. dinyar.patel@gmail.com)

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