Official Secrets Act Blocking Democracy

On the 10th of March 2003, 50 MPs (Members of Parliament) wrote a petition to the (then) deputy Prime Minister, Shri. L.K.Advani, directing his attention to the unwarranted arrest and detention of Iftikar Gilani, the Chief of Bureau of Kashmir Times under the ‘draconian’ Official Secrets Act, 1923. The journalist had been unjustly imprisoned for 7 months without any substantial proof until finally released when the court ruled that there was no case against him. The petition also highlighted the large number of cases registered under the same Act (there were 31 cases in Delhi alone that year) and the expressed a concern over the Act being misused by Government officials.

And they were right. This is only one of the numerous instances of the power of the Official Secrets Act falling into injudicious hands. In 1988, an award winning naval scientist, Dr. Buddhi Kota Subbarao was kept in prison for 5 years on the charge of smuggling important documents containing the defence and atomic secrets of India out of the country under the Official Secrets Act. After long drawn out sojourns in and out of the Courts, the scientist was released as it was finally found that the documents really were his Ph.D thesis. His only crime had been that he had dared to stand against a few powerful personalities of the scientific world by proposing a Selection Committee to overlook the BARC (give full form to the abbreviation) to Rajiv Gandhi.

Similarly in 1988, the Gujarat Government clamped the Official Secrets Act in 12 villages for almost 5 months due to the rising upheaval against the Sardar Sarovar Dam. The leader of the Narmada Bachao Aandolan, Medha Patkar, claimed that the Government was quietly raising the height of the dam, hence endangering the homes and livelihood of the surrounding villagers. She was immediately booked under the Official Secrets Act for having leaked State secrets to the public. This outrageous action by the Gujarat Government drove the media into a frenzy resulting in her release the subsequent day.

As the British left India in 1947, they left behind a legacy of laws that had been introduced only to suppress the voice of the Indian people, the most controversial being the Official Secrets Act of 1923. Ironically, as India took its governance into it own hands and became a democracy, the same Act was kept intact-the Act that violates the very principles of democracy. Even though the Government justifies the Act by maintaining that it is required to safeguard the secrets of the State, many argue that it is just being used as a cover-up for illegal activities, blocking the people of the country and, more importantly, the media out.

What is ironical is the fact that even though the British introduced the law, they amended it in 1989 to bring more accountability and transparency into the governance. India and Pakistan, however, still adhere to the outdated law and there doesn’t seem to be any possibility of its amendment in near future. All is not lost, however. The judiciary is fast taking matters into its own hands and is examining cases lodged under the OSA very closely. In fact, in February 2009, a Delhi High Court ruled that making public a document merely labelled ‘secret’ will not make a journalist guilty of violating the Act which serves as a huge boost for the freedom of press and expression.

As the law is in direct contrast to the RTI (Right to Information) Act, there is an immediate need to repeal the law or amend it so that it only safeguards the information that could put the security of the country in jeopardy. Currently, the OSA can hold an RTI application null and void, which needs to change quickly. Only then will democracy and accountability move forward.

Prerna Vohra