Preserving India’s archives

The National Archives is the primary repository of documents on India’s past. The last time it was in the news was in 2016 when digital copies of files relating to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose were made publicly accessible. The imminent demolition of its annexe by the Government of India has brought the institution to public attention once again. A petition by leading Indian and foreign scholars is in circulation demanding that the government show greater openness in the proposed demolition of the National Archives annexe and the safe storage of its contents since “several centuries of India’s history lie in the documents that make up the National Archives of India”. The petition said: “The archival records include 4.5 million files, 25,000 rare manuscripts, more than 100,000 maps, treaties, 280,000 premodern documents and several thousand private papers... The loss or damage of a single object or archival record would be an irrevocable loss.”

The annexe also houses the cartography section and 1,50,000 oriental records in Persian, Arabic and Urdu. The birch bark and clay coated Gilgit Manuscripts in the National Archives are, according to UNESCO, “the oldest surviving manuscripts in India”. These include “canonical and non-canonical Buddhist works that throw light on the evolution of Sanskrit, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Mongolian, Manchu and Tibetan religion-philosophical literature”.

Poor shape

The National Archives is in poor shape. A series of articles published in The New York Times in March 2012 by the historian Dinyar Patel laid bare the parlous state of the National Archives. He noted, among other things, that “letters penned by Mohandas K. Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, Gopalkrishna Gokhale, and other eminent Indian nationalists have suffered from exposure to humid weather, staff negligence and mishandling, and improper preservation methods.” Things have improved since then, but not enough. Writing in The Telegraph Online, of May 30, 2021, Sana Aziz, Assistant Professor of History at Aligarh Muslim University, pointed to lack of expertise to manage acquisitions which has led to “the locking up of some of the rare documents in Persian, Urdu, Arabic, Sanskrit, Prakrit, Tamil, Malayalam, and Modi (records from Maharashtra)”.

Moving the collections in the National Archives annexe needs careful planning and execution. Few know this better than The British Library. Its guide from its Preservation Advisory Centre, titled ‘Moving Library and Archive Collections’, is succinct and comprehensive, covering every aspect of shifting an archive. A significant point it makes is that “the order in which the collection is to be moved and unpacked must be carefully considered and mapped. In the long term, it is cheaper to put items into their correct place straight away, rather than being rushed into a random storage arrangement.”

Moving contents

Those who are protesting the demolition of the annexe include scholars holding important positions in some of the best institutions. They have access to the finest archival expertise in the world. They are best placed to produce a detailed report on how to move the contents of the National Archive annexe and share it with the government giving names of institutions and experts willing to help. Not just the National Archives, but those of the States too are in poor shape. A case in point is the Goa archives, one of the oldest in the country. It contains material relevant not just to India but also to the rest of Asia, Europe, Africa and South America. While making their proposal, these scholars would do well to recommend an integrated national approach to archival management bringing together State archives too. The private sector could be brought in to construct a world-class building within the next two years as part of CSR and have the annexe collections shifted there. Such a project will do a lot of good for India’s image rather than all the protests from a “community of concerned”, which , incidentally, is all of us.

Uday Balakrishnan teaches at IISc Bengaluru. Views are his own

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Printable version | Jul 25, 2021 12:15:40 AM |

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