Recently, former vice-president Hamid Ansari, a retired diplomat, called the Official Secrets Act (OSA) “outdated”. We saw this most succinctly last week as attorney-general K.K. Venugopal threatened its use against news organisations that had reproduced official documents that suggested that the Prime Minister’s Office — to the detriment of India’s commercial interests — ran “parallel negotiations” in the process of purchasing the Rafale fighter aircraft, and in doing so undermined the work of the designated Indian Negotiating Team of domain experts.
The next day the A-G withdrew his threat when there was a hue and cry across India, but the arrogant way in which the threat was held out brings home to us the dangers of having the 1923 colonial law on the statute books.
The law was intended to prevent espionage and was to be used against public servants supplying information to the enemy. The background to this was that Britain had just emerged from the First World War (1914-18). But the OSA can be read widely and bring into its ambit non-public servants as well.
In today’s information age, when India has passed the Right to Information Act to enable citizens to see if the State is stepping out of line and hurting their interests, the OSA can hardly be justified in its present form. Journalism has an important role to play in defending the public interest as distinct from the government’s interests. Wilful use of the OSA is an obstacle in this context. The matter should be debated by Parliament to shield from scrutiny only such information that can give succour to the nation’s enemies....