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The ‘national secret’ excuse

Government officials hide behind RTI exemptions to hold back information from citizens. Neelesh Misra examines.

india Updated: May 20, 2008 02:01 IST
Neelesh Misra

What do government officials in India do when they want to keep information from citizens? They wrap it up in intrigue and call it a national secret.

When a Hindustan Times reporter asked the government who all were at a 1999 Cabinet meeting headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee during the Kandahar hijacking, the government’s reply was: it is a national secret. How long did the meeting last and what were the minutes? Revealing that under the Right to Information apparently threatens national security as well.

According to India’s Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah this is a violation of the law. “Once the action decided upon at a Cabinet meeting has been completed, papers can be disclosed,” Habibullah said.

The Cabinet Secretariat rejected an RTI application by a Hindustan Times reporter seeking information about the Cabinet meeting that decided to send the then-foreign minister Jaswant Singh to Kandahar. Three militant leaders — Maulana Masood Azhar, Omar Saeed Sheikh, and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar — travelled on the plane with Singh and were released in exchange for the passengers.

The Cabinet Secretariat said it could not give the information, as it was exempt under Section 8 of the RTI. These exemptions cover “information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State”.

In Kerala, a petitioner was refused details of a Cabinet meeting decision regarding the setting up of a high court bench in Thiruvananthapuram, and even a copy of a letter from the state law minister to the central law minister was deemed a national secret. In Manipur, public information officers denied so many applicants under the ‘national secret’ clause that the state’s chief information commissioner RK Angousana publicly denounced the practice.

The Maharashtra government recently refused to reveal details of an agreement with a multinational chemical firm, saying it would affect the integrity and sovereignty of the nation. Punjab’s forest department used the secrecy clause to refuse information about internal details of a land law.

In Rajasthan, the government’s Bureau of Investment Promotion cited similar concerns while refusing to give an applicant the details of a meeting headed by the chief secretary. That decision was overturned by the state’s chief information commissioner.

Even the Irrigation & Waterways Department of West Bengal quoted the clause to deny information. In Jalandhar, the senior superintendent of post offices invoked Section 8 in denying information about how its officials had allegedly violated the Income Tax Act. Similarly, the chairman of a nationalised bank in Andhra Pradesh refused information about alleged corruption in one of its branches.

RTI campaigner and Magsaysay Award winner Arvind Kejriwal said the government was wrongfully shielding information. “Denial of information on names of the people present at a Cabinet meeting — or the minutes of the meeting, or details of who dissented — do not affect the security of the country,” he said.