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Compiling A Public Archive

Sukumar Muraleedharan

By Teesta Setalvad
Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2015, pp. x 278, Rs. 450.00


In a lecture titled ‘What is a Nation?’, delivered in the late 19th century, the ideologue of the French Empire Ernest Renan laid out a survey of the bonds that weld a people together. Among the more im­portant of these, he said, was the bond of shared memory. Equally important, Renan underlined, was shared forgetting. ‘All indi­viduals’ in a nation, he said, ‘have many things in common and they have also for­gotten many things’. For instance, every French citizen was obliged to have ‘forgot­ten the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, or the massacre that took place in the Midi in the thirteenth century’. As Benedict Anderson has pointed out in his widely read and cited book on nation­alism as an ‘imagined community’, this is a curious formulation, which reminds citizens of all they are obliged to forget in order to be loyal to the nation. Renan in fact, went further, insisting that ‘forgetfulness, and I would even say historical error, are essential in the creation of a nation’. Nations fight their identity battles on the terrain of historical scholarship. And the artefacts of memory are a part of this struggle for memory. Public archives which preserve what is valuable and relevant to a nation’s self-understanding, are part of this construc­tion of identity. And the choice of docu­ments to archive and those to discard—the constant struggle between memory and for­getting—is a deeply political activity. In May 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a Party that claims its political pedi­gree from an ideological construct of Hindu identity, achieved a majority for the first time in India’s lower house of parliament. Among its first consequential decisions after taking office was to clear out official records from various administrative ministries. The pro­cess started on June 5, within ten days of the government being sworn in. The large-scale destruction of records was portrayed in the zeal of the newly anointed government, as part of its effort to restore neatness and order within the precincts of administrative departments.Others were not quite so sanguine. Two well-known campaign­ers for social justice and transparency in gov­ernment filed requests under the right to information law for full details of the docu­ments consigned to the bonfire. The first response was received well over a month af­ter the relevant request, insisting that all norms had been ...

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