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Official Secrets Act or a Cage?

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Nasir Ahmad Dar

The sensational revelation by Attorney General of India K. K.Venugopal in the Supreme Court has stunned the entire nation. He has claimed that the documents related to the much hyped Rafale deal have been stolen from the Ministry of Defense. He was answering the Supreme Court during the hearing on the PIL filed by some people including Prashant Bhushan.
The Rafale deal is the biggest defense deal in the history of India and as far as the capabilities of the Rafale jets are concerned this jet could increase the strength of Indian Air Force by multiplying its capability to act.
The IAF has been under the limelight for carrying out air strikes in Pakistan recently however, it has been under the scrutiny by some critics because of its regular mishaps that has seen a number of MIG 21 jets crash during testing or even during confrontation with Pakistan Air Force.
These events have proven the dire need of the inclusion of Rafale Jets into the Indian space as soon as possible. However, this deal has turned out to be a big blot for the ruling government as they have been alleged of holding corruptive methods and dealing with the negotiations as amateurs. This famous deal was first initiated in 2001 by Late Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government. It was further escalated by Dr. Manmohan Singh led UPA government from 2004.
Congress government had almost reached to the agreement with France government and Dassault Aviations up until they felt short of the funds. The former Defense Minister A. K. Anthony has himself admitted that the deal had to be called off for some time as their government felt short of the funds to finalize the purchase of 126 jets.
The deal was once again restarted by BJP led government and the negotiations started to finally reach to some agreement. The deal under BJP government was changed drastically and there were some incredible changes from that of UPA deal. This led to some earlier crises and cries from the Congress started to increase. The first of the many crises’ came forward when the Narendra Modi government left the Hindustan Aeronautical Limited aside and let Anil Ambani sign the deal as the off-set partner with Dassault Aviation. This was just one of the first steps taken by BJP government which raised questions, there were many to follow.
The deal had been seen with distrust by opposition because there was a common view that Narendra Modi was trying to help his old friend Anil Ambani to grab the deal which, according to INC president Rahul Gandhi, would give him a benefit of 30000 crore Indian Rupees.
This amount is huge and if anyways it is proven that the ruling government actually favored Anil Ambani then it could be one of the biggest scams in the history of independent India. This has given a boost to the opposition who are trying their best to surround the ruling government with allegations. However, there have been some other shocking revelations recently which have further escalated the claims of the opposition of a possible corruption in the deal. These revelations were carried out by articles written by N Ram in ‘The Hindu’ daily and by some other writers of other independent media outlets like ‘The Wire’, ‘The Caravan’ and the ‘Scroll’. These articles have proved that there is definitely some corruption involved in the deal and there is a need of an inquiry about the deal.
Some people had filed the PIL in Supreme Court about the possible favoritism by Narendra Modi earlier. However, the SC gave a clean chit to the ruling government by siding itself on a claim that they could not involve themselves in the technical matters of defense. This decision came after the Attorney General of India had claimed in the court that the documents where procured by the CAG properly and the leader of Opposition was well aware about the deal.
However, this lie got busted on the same day when the leader of Opposition Mallikajuran Kharge in a press conference told the media personnel that he was not aware about the deal at all. This led to questioning of the government and they returned with an announcement that there were some grammatical errors in the judgment. This led to another hearing by the Supreme Court. This hearing was held a few days ago and since that hearing happened a new debate has flourished in the country.
This debate started after K. K. Venugopal claimed that the documents of the deal were stolen from the South Block of the Ministry of Defense. He also added that the government has initiated an investigation in the matter and whoever has stolen the documents would face severe punishment as the thief has breached the Official Secret Act of 1923. This act prohibits any private organization or any person from holding or publishing the documents which the government deems “secret”.
This has sent shivers in the media outlets which had published these documents or excerpts from them. However not all the media outlets have come forward in support of the Hindu editor N Ram and there has been only one national news channel NDTV which came forward openly in support of these brave editors and media outlets for speaking the truth. This situation has given birth to a new debate in the nation and raised some serious questions.
Q1: Can the media channels leak such secretive documents on the name of investigative journalism?
Q2: Why aren’t the other news channels coming forward in support of the aforementioned news outlets?
The answer to these two questions determines the present situation in India and the authority the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi has set up in the country. Before we answer the two questions here are some of the questions which should have been raised by the national media after the sensational revelation by the Attorney General of India.
The Attorney General himself claimed that the documents were stolen from the Defense Ministry. This claim should have raised some serious questions. How can such important documents be stolen from possibly the most secure place in the nation? Is the government not able to secure the most important documents in the history of Indian Air Force? Is country truly in safe hands or is it just another jumla in the name of votes? Who are the people responsible for the leak and what has the government done in order to trace them up until now after three months since the first such documents came into public domain?
The second and the most important question should have been the question related to an evident corruption. K. K.Venugopal’s acceptance that the documents which were produced in the Hindu or other news outlets were stolen establishes their legitimacy. This means that the documents were true and everything claimed by these media outlets was cent percent correct.
Remember the Hindu had claimed that a parallel negotiation was carried out by the Prime Minister’s Office while bypassing the defense team which was selected to conduct the negotiations. This is huge and such a thing has never happened in the entire history of independent India. There were other questions worth asking which include the scrapping of no-corruption guarantee and selection of Anil Ambani as the off-set partner of Dassault Aviation France. These are some serious allegations. These questions can determine the future or Narendra Modi if the media assembled some guts and asked these questions. But unfortunately the entire lobby of the corrupted media kept quiet and surprisingly started to question the opposition for allegedly stealing the documents.
Now let us try to answer the two questions above which will pave a way for the current happenings in India and the role of media in it. The first question is about the authority the Indian media holds. The question whether any news portal can leak such secretive documents and while they leak these documents are you compromising the national security? The answer is simple Indian government has a law Official Secrets Act, 1923 to deal with the possession and publishing of the secret data. But the thing is that government is yet to produce a proper definition of a “secret” document.
The government can deem anything secret without any backlashes. This power gives government an impeccable authority to decide upon the fate of any person or organization that holds such documents. Now did the Hindu and other news portals breach the law? The answer is a big “NO”. This is because of the lack of a proper definition of Official Secrets Act. This law has always been under debate and most of the people want it to be removed forever as they consider it to be a hangover of the British raj. This law is around 96 years old now and it stands still without any major alterations to its name or procedure. This steady posture of this old statute raises many questions about its validity. Moreover after the RTI act was passed some constitutional experts have claimed that now OSA is illegitimate.
But the government has still not taken any concrete steps to revoke the law. Thus people may still contest that no matter what but the Hindu and N Ram along with other journalists are surely going to be convicted under the OSA and they are surely going to face the jail term. This, however, is not true because the details released by these newspapers is not technical its only about the pricing and negotiation process which should have been made public by government itself. We must remember that N Ram is the same journalist who leaked the Bofors papers to find a scam in it which was eventually proven in court and this case was against Congress party. Thus one thing is sure that N Ram is not a part of any election plank and whatever he is doing he is doing in the interest of the nation.
It should also be noted that the government of India has not filed any FIR for more than three months now since the Hindu published excerpts from the documents. This proves that the government is claiming theft in a state of desperation and trying to pressurize these news outlets.
The fact also remains that these news channels haven’t released everything mentioned in the documents and now the K. K.Venugopal’s order of investigation into the matter can be seen as a gimmick to engulf these news outlets in fear and try to sabotage them from releasing further documents which, possibly, have some more huge scams hidden beneath them. Thus we should not be surprised at all if the government files an F. I. R. against these news outlets very soon just to cage them.
However, the apex court came up with a strong statement when they told Venugopal that you can’t hide behind the curtain of National Security always if there is a certain scam involved. This statement should prove enough to encourage such leaks. Here we must understand one thing. The OSA is there to avoid espionage and black marketing but in this case neither espionage nor black marketing happened. These news outlets simply revealed the clauses which proved that there was corruption going on in the deal and Narendra Modi had involved himself in the deal just to get his friend Anil Ambani as an off-set partner.
All this was done while MoD had absolutely no idea about it. This raises the questions about the authoritative government that Narendra Modi is leading today in India. His office bypassed the entire Defense Ministry and a certain selected team of negotiators without even being caught or without taking into consideration the national security or the pride of the nation which could become a joke if the case of bypassing is proven in court. Moreover the authority that Narendra Modi holds in India today can be understood by the fact that the even his government can steep to any low to defend him. This was seen when the Attorney General of India lied in the Supreme Court not only once but twice. Although KK Venugopal came back with a correction in his statement to the court yesterday by saying that these documents were not stolen rather copied by the assistance of photography, however, it still proves every argument against the government and this won’t hide the fact that Venugopal did lie to the court.
The second question and its answer determine everything that is happening in India. Every question raised by N Ram was legitimate and the government was bound to answer it. These questions should have been raised by every media channel and the pressure exerted would have seen the government come forward with honest accountability. However this was not the case. When the Attorney General threatened action against these news outlets most of the news channels kept quiet and some of them even alleged opposition instead of questioning the government for the misdeeds. Among all the national news channels only NDTV came out openly in support of N Ram and among writers’ association it was the Editors Guild which put out a statement in support of N Ram. Imagine your country is on a verge of the biggest ever scam that could be worth 125000 crores and which could compromise the national security yet the national media kept silent and instead started questioning the dignity of the opposition for producing the documents which were allegedly stolen. The TV Channels like Republic, Zee News and India TV started a campaign against these news portals and asked for the action against them. Such a shameless media! But why did they do it? These media channels are referred to as “godi media” by Ravish Kumar. He calls them corrupt openly and asks people to even shut their TV for a few months to seek peace in their lives. The problem with these channels is that they portray Narendra Modi as some giant hero who is impeccable and infallible. The PR policy of Modi is such that he keeps his image at the highest level against anyone else. These news channels help him boast that image. They have been doing this for many years now. This is a sorry state for the nation. This is because the media of a nation is supposed to help the opposition raise legitimate questions to the government but it seems that these channels raise more questions to opposition than they do to the ruling party. I don’t know if it is the money or PR which drives them crazy enough to encourage Modi’s most stupid and heinous policies like Demonetization.
They even accept his unconstitutional stand. They kept quiet when CBI Director was axed during night without any major explanations, they defended Modi’s BJP when they tried to opt for horse trading in Karnataka, they stood by him when he brought his mother to stand in a queue of an ATM to take out money (I feel sorry for the sanity of a person who believed that the mother of the Prime Minister of India who wears suits worth 10 lakh has no money for his mother) and they even called the resignation of B. S. Yeddyurappa a masterstroke even though he may have been chosen as CM unconstitutionally. Narendra Modi has been following a trend since he became the Prime Minister; he has never attended any press conference and whatever sessions he took part in were scripted. This is a strict policy followed by him just to avoid any uncomfortable questions which the Indian media is known for.
The PM of any country is supposed to have two-way communication with his citizens; however, Narendra Modi follows just one way of communication with the help of ‘Mann ki baat’ and some certain announcements. Thus his image is dependent upon these media channels. They would do anything to portray him as the hero of the nation. This was seen recently during the escalations between India and Pakistan. They made him a messiah of the nation and thought that he would destroy Pakistan. They left no stone unturned to credit Narendra Modi for the airstrikes even though it is not good to seek votes for the acts carried by army and that is why Election Commission of India had to come out and release a statement prohibiting parties from using posters of military personnel in election campaigns.
N Ram and other news outlets took a huge risk but they did it all in the interest of the nation. They did it to expose the Modi government in one of the greatest scam ever in the history of modern India. Thus they should be appreciated for it. They haven’t crossed any limits because they simply exposed the deal not the technical qualities of the Rafale Jet. All the news channels must come forward in their support. Although there is a certain fear in the media but if the intentions are true there is no one to be afraid of not even the present head of the government.
The sooner the Indian people and media understand this the better it would be for the nation and future of the democratic set up of this country. And at the end I would also like to request everybody to please stop watching news channels if you want peace of mind and if you truly want to know the current affairs of the world then switch to independent media channels likes ‘The Wire, The Scroll and The Caravan’. These are the last hope for the nation and only they seem to put the news the way it is rest are all corrupt and they have been given just a few tasks by the BJP led government and these tasks include clichéd journalism, misrepresentation of facts, misinterpretation of stats, misquotation of speeches and misleading of general public.

(The writer is the member of youth parliament of Jammu and Kashmir and is currently a research scholar in International Peace and Rehabilitation. The writer can be mailed at [email protected])

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