Just when the BJP thought it could breathe long and easy on the Rafale row, which has clung to it like the Bofors stuck to the Congress, the Supreme Court has dismissed the government’s objections against taking cognisance of ‘stolen’ documents while deciding a review petition. The highest court of the land will go ahead with it, despite national security concerns raised by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) that the review would tantamount to putting classified information in the public domain. Firm, the court declared that the test of admissibility of evidence lay in its relevance and there was no provision in the Official Secrets Act (OSA) or any other statute by which Parliament had vested power in the executive arm of the government to ‘restrain’ publication of papers marked as secret, or placing them before a court of law.
Earlier, in December, the SC had dismissed the petition, ruling out ‘commercial favouritism’. Irregularities had been alleged in the Rs 59,000-crore deal sealed by the NDA government in 2016 with France for buying 36 fighter jets. The revelation of three ‘missing’ documents, however, necessitated a review plea. These include an eight-page ‘dissent note’ by three members of the negotiating team and two MoD documents, alluding to ‘parallel negotiations’ by the PMO. The Attorney General’s contention that it was a ‘crime’ under the OSA drew the court’s rebuttal that ‘a public authority is justified in allowing access to information if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm sought to be protected’.
The SC is determined to get to the bottom of it. The government can no longer hide behind gossamer pretexts of privilege, immunity and violation of the secrets Act. Probity in defence deals is not optional. If there was, indeed, transparency, there should be no jitters over what may emerge. Getting hands on sensitive papers is no crime, especially if mala fide is not proven. If at all, it exposes the chinks in the ‘security’ network, in a fashion that makes it a class act of journalism.