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Experiencing the Indian Archives

Archives, where public records are preserved, are indispensable for a healthy dialogue between the "past" and the "present". But unfortunately, the Public Record Act of 1993 is a piece of legislation without meaning because the government neglects its role in preserving records. Across the country, government archives are in poor shape and few institutions are taking an interest in preserving records. This article, based on personal experiences with the archives, appeals to the larger public and the academic community to come together and save the documental legacy of India.



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preservation and maintenance of the

Experiencing the

immeasurable documents that are being churned out by them on daily basis. The Indian Archives art of conserving, classifying and weeding out of documents remains largely unknown to us. The colonial state, indeed, Shilpi Rajpal had a better sense of maintaining records

Archives, where public records are preserved, are indispensable for a healthy dialogue between the “past” and the “present”. But unfortunately, the Public Record Act of 1993 is a piece of legislation without meaning because the government neglects its role in preserving records. Across the country, government archives are in poor shape and few institutions are taking an interest in preserving records. This article, based on personal experiences with the archives, appeals to the larger public and the academic community to come together and save the documental legacy of India.

Shilpi Rajpal ( is a research scholar at the department of history, University of Delhi, Delhi.

t was my doctoral research that brought me face-to-face with the reality of the Indian archives. By archives, I mean the repositories where public records that are primary sources – viz, letters, reports, notes, memos, books and all sorts of data that are largely historical in nature – are preserved. I am working on the history of madness; it meant a mad chase for all sorts of documents that concerned the everyday working of lunatic asylums during the British raj. My expedition started in the air-conditioned National Archives of India, New Delhi. The collection is rich and the “procure-ability” is comparatively easy. But soon one came across the problems that the National Archives faced regarding the arrangement, preservation and availability of staff.

Public Record Act of 1993

First I need to briefly discuss here the Public Record Act of 1993 which will help to throw light on the existent state of affairs related to the maintenance of the public records in the government sectors. The Public Record Act, passed in 1993, regulates the management, administration and preservation of public records of the central government, union territory administrations, public sector undertakings, statutory bodies and corporations, commissions and committees constituted by the central government. Unfortunately, various governmental departments have little clue regarding the

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than the Indian republic. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Indian republic has no clue as far as the maintenance of its public records is concerned.

When compared with the rest of the world, the National Archives of India in New Delhi is admittedly far behind in terms of facilities and e-technology. It is nevertheless comparatively better organised than the other archives in the country. Thus, leaving its confi nes and making a visit to the National Medical Library in Delhi gave a severe shock to my historical sensibilities.

The National Medical Library, I found, had an excellent collection related to medical history, but the condition of the records was (and continues to be) more or less pathetic. The condition of the books is so bad that often one has to use surgical gloves and a mask in order to protect oneself from various types of allergies. The library authorities are aware of the condition of the older books but ignore it as in their understanding historical records make no sense when one is more concerned about the forwardlooking world of medicine and science. My visits to other libraries and archives in different states such as Patiala, Chandigarh, Amritsar, Lucknow and Agra also gave me a serious jolt.

Every place has a story of its own. Undoubtedly, some of these state archives exist only in name as the condition of the archival material available is pitiable. The Lucknow secretariat building has a separate section for archival records.


With enthusiasm and fervour to search for something new and smell and feel the old, I visited the secretariat building. Soon I discovered that the building was not open to a common researcher, although no valid reason was offered for this sort of prohibition. On persistence enquiries and requests I was given entry to the building. The librarian sounded cynical as he claimed that it was eight years since someone had last come to work there. There was no light or place to sit and work. The condition of the library was horrendous because some years ago, some “forward-looking” people of the secretariat library had decided to dump the “obsolete records”. They had tied these old books and stuffed them in a truck in order to dispose them off.

Luckily, the mishap was put to a stop because the news spread and some offi cials intervened. The entry of scholars to this section of the secretariat was closed thereafter reportedly in order to cover up the blunder. Nevertheless, intervention did not mean preservation as the records are still lying there in the same condition. In a similar manner, the jail records of the United Provinces lying in the Amir al-Dawlah Government Public Library of Lucknow had been eaten up by termites. The library is in a shameful state. It is in a state of ruins and might come down any time. It has plenty of old records and is indeed a historian’s treasure.

A visit to the Patiala State Archives was equally shocking. The archives are in a pitiable condition because of a change in its location. The archives had been shifted because the old building had been transformed into a heritage hotel by the Punjab government! One can understand that in this age of commercialisation heritage hotels are more important than archives since the government wants to make money from historic objet d’art. The Chandigarh State Archives was better-off and well-equipped, especially in comparison to some of the other state archives. The Amritsar Government Medical College is among one of the oldest medical institutions in India. It has a rich collection of books and other documents related to medical history.

The college library has more than 5,000 books. But the collection is in a state of decay and the college authorities are more than eager to destroy it. In fact, the staff, on enquiry, actually stated that they are in the process of getting a final order for the destruction of these records.

Importance of Medical Records

My visit to other medical institutions in the country brought me closer to the harsh reality of the crisis that public records are facing today. Visits to several mental hospitals made me aware about how much we seem to hate our past. Senior members of the medical institutions ridiculed the very idea of the preservation of records. For them the “past is past” and has no relevance today. On being asked how in the absence of medical records could one retrospectively analyse the changing understanding and diagnosis of any particular disease over a period of time, an uneasy silence prevailed. Some doctors displayed their deep ignorance regarding the significance of medical records. In the medical profession, where case histories play an imperative role in understanding and conceptualising diseases, this widespread ignorance cannot be forgiven. This state of unawareness reflects the ever-widening gap between the sciences and the social sciences.

Making Mockery of the Law

Medical records are not the only ones that are facing a crisis. The predicament is all-pervasive as the condition of records is pitiable in all the other sectors of the government as well. Only a few government sectors have their proper archives – although the Public Record Act of 1993 clearly states that every government body should maintain its record (Public Records Act, 1993, Clause 2). Further, the Act affirms that no public record shall be destroyed or otherwise disposed of except in such manner and subject to such conditions as may be prescribed. Whoever contravenes any of the provisions shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with a fi ne which may extend to Rs 10,000 or with both (Public Records Act, Clause 8). Indeed, the Public Record Act was a module on which the State Archives Acts were later on enacted.

april 21, 2012

Unfortunately, the Act has no meaning because the government is playing a negligible role in preserving records. Today, the National Archives of India, the National Mission for Manuscripts and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library are just a handful of institutions that are playing a significant role in the preservation of public records. Other government departments and sectors are not even aware of the Act. Nor has the government made any attempt to spread awareness. In fact, it would not be wrong to state here that the Public Record Act of 1993 has itself become an obsolete fact! Very few of us are aware of this Act and it is used occasionally. Till today the government has not prosecuted any of its segments for not maintaining its records properly.

Not only is the condition of most archives in the country appalling, the motivation of the archivists employed is perhaps worse. Over the years, there has been a constant downgrading in the archivists’ status and their salaries have not increased as compared to that of their counterparts working in the universities. This sort of discrimination is affecting the quality and the quantity of the people interested in working in this sector. The Government of India is aware of this as in 1998, a committee was set up to examine the pay structure of cultural institutions and the university system. The committee, which was set up under the chairmanship of Ajai Shankar, had concluded that there was an urgent need to improve emoluments. But the Sixth Pay Commission evaded the committee’s suggestions and nothing has been done so far to upgrade the pay structure. The committee report has become an archive that is only consulted by archivists in order to put forward their demands related to increase in their salaries. These demands though have not been heeded.

The striking aspect here is that one can, therefore, get people unfit for the job. Take the case of the woman who was in charge of the records at one of the archives I worked in. When asked to provide me with the important files, she felt upset with the sheer number of the fi les requested. Her sensibilities were further offended when I reminded her that in the National Archives at Delhi scholars could request up

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Economic & Political Weekly


to 30 files in a day. On this she reprimanded me and reminded me that she could put a hold on my access to the archives.

There are a few government and private sector institutions that have been maintaining their records properly. For instance, the Ministry of Defence is consciously preserving its records in a number of the repositories associated with the defence establishments. The Marine Archives is a recent creation. An “Archives of Indian Labour” was opened up in 1993 with the help of the V V Giri National Labour Institute. Some of the universities such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Aligarh Muslim University, the Jamia Millia Islamia and the Panjab University, Chandigarh have their own archives. Recently some of the private companies such as the Tatas, the Birlas, and Godrej have opened up their own archives. Newspapers too generally maintain their records. Amongst other organisations, maintaining their


own archives are the State Bank of India and the Reserve Bank of India.


These are, however, the only few laudable examples which one can talk about. The countless other departments have no sense of record-keeping. For instance, the records of municipalities, police railways, medical institutions, technical institutions, universities, colleges, and so on, are in a dismal condition. We are generating innumerable records on a daily basis but the question arises, are we maintaining them? Do we have a sense of record-keeping? If not, then what are the reasons behind this sort of attitude? Do we lack a sense of history? Is the government responsible for the state of records? Or are we, as responsible citizens, to be blamed? Will posterity be able to have access to these documents? It is impossible to answer these questions.


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-But there is little doubt that our attitude does reflect that we lack a sense of history. And we are responsible for this progressive decay of public records.

This article appeals to the larger public and the academic community to come together and save our documental legacy. The past few decades have seen nongovernmental organisations like the I ndian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage joining hands with the government in order to preserve monuments. The same sort of interest should be generated in civil society in order to preserve the old and conserve the new. Scholars from various disciplines, and historians in particular, should take serious steps in order to spread awareness regarding the importance of recordkeeping. Archives are indispensable for a healthy dialogue between the “past” and the “present”. They are custodians of the past and are the proofs of the present.




Economic & Political Weekly

april 21, 2012 vol xlviI no 16

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