Monday, February 23, 2009

Challenging Cabinet Secretariat's decision on 1971 spy related records

The second 1971 CIA spy-related case has now gone to the Central Information. After the Cabinet Secretariat refused to release records and information having a bearing on the matter on the ground that doing so "would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India," I filed an appeal with the Joint Secretary & First Appellate Authority at the Cabinet Secretariat -- which is located in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

I waited for a reply, and when it was not forthcoming, I filed an appeal with the Central Information Commission. It would seem the matter would go to Chief Information Commission Wajahat Habibullah.

The appeal to the CIC implores them to direct the Cabinet Secretariat to disclose the following information:
1. Did the Prime Minister call any meetings of the Union Cabinet or Cabinet Committees from 3 December 1971 to 7 December 1971 on the subject of the ongoing war with Pakistan?

2. If yes, please provide photocopies of the complete minutes/record of all such meetings. Also provide the names of ministers and officials who attended these meetings.

3. Photocopies of all records, if any, to the effect that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi received inputs from the Research and Analysis Wing about the identity of the minister who leaked out information to the CIA during the 1971 war. For your information, in 1988 a Mumbai newspaper Independent had alleged that as per a R&AW communication to the PMO, former Deputy Prime Minister Yashwant Rao Chavan, and not Shri Desai, was the alleged spy.
The grounds for the prayer are:
The public interest in disclosure in this case outweighs the harm to the protected interests. My RTI request pertains to a case where a CIA agent operating out of the Union Cabinet betrayed the nation during the 1971 war. Declassified US government records clearly establish this fact. So, to withhold any information which might advance understanding on the matter will not be in the public interest. For example, the people of India have a right to know whether or not the Government of India knows who this minister was. I also submit that the United States, the only friendly foreign nation to be affected by any such disclosures, has already declassified most of their records -- including those originating from the intelligence agencies.
Copies of the appeal have been sent to the CPIO and Joint Secretary & First Appellate Authority at the Cabinet Secretariat.

Now, the CIC might seek clarification from the Cabinet Secretariat. The idea that the government can reject RTI requests over matter of public interest in one liners -- such as those that I have got from both the MEA and Cabinet Secretariat -- is passé now. If they are going to keep some records secret, they must give out cogent reason for that.

In fact, this is what the Central Information Commission feels. Maybe I should quote from an order the full bench of the commission gave out in 2007 over a case my friends and I had over classified records on Subhas Chandra Bose.
Earlier, a public authority could bar any information from disclosure under the Official Secrets Act, simply by classifying the information as secret or top-secret. That option has been effectively excluded by the RTI Act. Any decision to withhold information from public access is to be justified rationally, under the provisions of the Act. The decision to bar an information from disclosure can no more be arbitrary. It will need to pass the Commission's scrutiny.

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