Soldier on trial for 27 years for a ‘secret’ that never was
He lived in fear for decades of being convicted as a traitor after the CBI booked him in 1988. But almost 30 years down the line, retired lieutenant general Nirmal Puri found the “classified” information he allegedly leaked was freely available under the Right to Information Act.
Even the Supreme Court was astonished by the revelation on Friday while hearing a CBI appeal against a Delhi high court order asking a trial court to reconsider its decision to charge Puri in the wake of the new evidence.
“These secret documents are of 1988. And now he gets an official copy of it under the RTI. If this information can be given under the RTI then anybody can get the document. You (government) only let out the information,” the top court bench said.
Additional solicitor general Pinky Anand, representing the CBI, said the new evidence should be considered at the trial stage but the SC declined to interfere with the HC order.
The 86-year-old Puri was arrested along with a defence contractor in 1988 under the Official Secrets Act, three years after he left the army. The CBI alleged during an income tax raid at the contractor’s offices and residence.
Puri’s hand-written notes were recovered. It contained details of the procurements the Indian army intended to make.
As he battled it out in courts, Puri also filed an RTI application before the defence ministry and the army asking if the Central Bureau of Investigation consulted them before registering a case. Both refused to divulge details, compelling the ex-army man to move the Central Information Commission, which ordered them to respond.
In its reply, the army said it told the CBI the documents were mere jottings of a retired senior army officer and did not contain any information that could be classified as secret – a stand Puri has been taking since his arrest.
The colonial-era law has triggered controversy as the term “official secrets” isn’t defined, leaving it open to misuse.
Once used by the British Raj to target freedom fighters, the act was retained after independence as the Indian state realised it needed to protect its secrets. But in recent years, activists have said the provisions of the law are draconian and run contrary to the principles of the Constitution.