An investigation into the theft is on, the attorney-general said on a day the newspaper published another article on the fighter deal.
New Delhi: The government told the Supreme Court on Wednesday that documents related to the Rafale deal had been stolen from the ministry of defence and threatened The Hindu newspaper with action under the Official Secrets Act for publishing articles based on them. The newspaper reacted saying that documents related to the Rafale deal were published in the public interest and nobody would get any information from The Hindu on the confidential sources who had provided them.
Those who put documents on the Rafale deal in the public domain are guilty under the Official Secrets Act and had committed contempt of court, attorney-general K.K. Venugopal said before a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi. An investigation into the theft is on, the attorney-general said on a day the newspaper published another article on the fighter deal.
The bench, which also included Justices S.K. Kaul and K.M. Joseph, was hearing a batch of petitions seeking a review of its December 14 ruling dismissing all the pleas against the deal for the warplanes which India procured from France.
Former Union ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie and advocate Prashant Bhushan, who had jointly filed a petition, alleged that the Centre had suppressed crucial facts when the court decided to dismiss the batch of PILs against the Rafale deal in December.
When Mr Bhushan referred to an article written by senior journalist N. Ram in The Hindu, Mr Venugopal said the write-ups were based on stolen documents.
An FIR had not been registered so far into the theft of the documents pertaining to the Rafale deal, he added. He said the first write-up by Mr Ram appeared in The Hindu on February 8, and Wednesday’s edition had another article which he said was aimed at influencing the court’s proceedings. This amounted to contempt of court, he said.
Reacting to the issue, the chairman of The Hindu Publishing Group, Mr N. Ram, said: “The documents were published because details were withheld or covered up.”
He added: “You may call it stolen documents... We are not concerned. We got it from confidential sources and we are committed to protecting these sources. Nobody is going to get any information from us on these sources. But the documents speak for themselves and the stories speak for themselves.”
The newspaper published the documents by omitting the word “secret” on top, he said, seeking a dismissal of the review petitions and raising objections to Mr Bhushan’s arguments based on The Hindu’s articles.
The bench sought to know from the Centre what it has done when it alleges that the stories are based on stolen material. Advancing his arguments on behalf of Mr Sinha, Mr Shourie and himself, Mr Bhushan said the court would not have dismissed the plea for an FIR and probe had critical facts not been suppressed.
Mr Venugopal said the documents relied upon by Mr Bhushan were stolen from the defence ministry and an investigation into the matter was under way. At this point, the Chief Justice said hearing Mr Bhushan did not mean the court was taking on record the documents on the Rafale deal. He also asked Mr Venugopal to tell the court what action was taken on theft of the documents on the aircraft deal. The A-G submitted that the documents relied on by the petitioners were marked “secret” and “classified” and there was therefore a violation of the Official Secrets Act.
The attorney-general also told the Supreme Court that the Rafale case pertains to defence procurement, which cannot be reviewed judicially. Referring to the aerial combat with Pakistan last week, he said the nation needs the Rafale jet to defend itself “from F-16 fighter planes that recently bombed us”.
“Without Rafale how can we resist them?” he asked, and added that two squadrons of Rafale fighters were coming in flyaway condition. The first will come in September this year, Mr Venugopal said.
The bench, which will hear the review petitions further on March 14, was told by Mr Venugopal that every statement the court made in the Rafale case may be used to destabilise either the government or the Opposition and therefore court should refrain from making it.
The high-voltage hearing saw the bench posing several tricky questions to the A-G, who was insisting that the stolen materials could not be relied to revisit the ruling dismissing the pleas and it was necessary to determine the sources who had provided the sensitive documents.
The bench asked Mr Venugopal “if an act of corruption is committed in the Rafale deal, will the government take shelter behind Official Secrets Act? ... I (CJI) am not saying it is committed, but if it is then the government cannot take shelter behind the OSA.”
It further said it had been has settled in several rulings that even if stolen documents are cited, and if they are found relevant, the court could look into them.
Opposing the plea for a CBI inquiry into the Rafale deal, Mr Venugopal said any order to that effect would be damaging to the country as recent incidents have shown how vulnerable is the scenario in which the country was trying to meet its defence requirements.
However, the bench said the issue of national security did not arise in the case as the allegations were of the grave crime of corruption. The attorney-general went on with his submissions and said “certain issues are outside the purview of judicial review.,, Do we have to come to the court to justify when we declare war, when we declare peace? Do we have to come and seek permission of the court every time?” he asked.