In the colonial era, archives received generous support from public and private sources, but after Independence came apathy and neglect, which is leading to the custodial death of Indian history.
Indian archives are in terrible shape. The funds and expertise required to preserve records are seriously lacking. The only hope is to establish a foundation to digitize all records and make them freely available online.
A remarkable aspect of contemporary India is how much we care about our history and how little we do to preserve it. In bookstores, volumes about our past dominate the bestseller lists. But in the archives, records of our past are crumbling away. The irony is profound: We are hungry for knowledge but are starving ourselves of the answers.
In the colonial era, archives received generous support from public and private sources. Many had unique collections and were the pride of their town. With Independence came apathy and neglect. In archive upon archive, collections have steadily thinned: Valuable items have been “lost”, others sent for “restoration” have never returned, and those too troublesome to repair have been “weeded out”. Decrepit facilities have allowed the elements to do their worst, monsoons and floods leaving volumes stamped with the forlorn phrase “this book was drenched”. What little has survived continues to be subject to manmade disasters, none worse than the periodic “reorganisation” that has left many an archive with entirely redundant catalogues.
Tragedy is not all you will encounter in an Indian archive. There is plenty of farce too. There is usually an onerous registration process that leaves access to the discretion of officious employees. Researchers are frequently disallowed from using mobile phone cameras. Instead, they are required to use expensive photocopying “services” that take days to weeks to deliver copies. A few institutions, such as the National Archives of India, provide digital scans, which they then kindly emblazon with a watermark that covers a third of every page. Then there are establishments like the Rajasthan State Archives in Bikaner, which don’t allow researchers to copy more than 30% of a record, presumably because too much knowledge is a dangerous thing.
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The Dutch became the local elites up until the British East India Company overthrew them in 1825 as a result of illegal commerce and the zamindari of three villages. This is the account of how the Dutch East India Company sank as its corrupt officials made their fortunes in Bengal.
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Custodial deaths are only to be expected. Criminals or Criminally minded persons in uniform licensed by the State perform without any regard for respect