Saturday, November 19, 2016

Military and transparency

Image result for right to information
Readers might be interested in the following post on my blog:

Truth never damages a cause that is just, so said Mahatma Gandhi, famously.

In the age of transparency, this rings truer today. It is said that those who have nothing to hide, those who embrace truth, need not be afraid of inquisitive eyes. To clarify, I am referring to the inquisitive eye of the public here. 

The above thought came rushing to me once again when I saw in today’s paper a report on the Central Information Commission’s orders to the Army to provide documents related to the court martial of five soldiers and a related Court of Inquiry to an applicant under the Right to Information Act. The documents were being refused to the said applicant. 

Brings me back to the same question- why hold back when there is nothing to hide?

As soon as the Army, or for that matter, any organisation holds back information, or attempts to block information, the natural reaction of the public is negative- ‘there must be something that they are trying to hide!’ Why should we give this kind of an impression to the public at large? All actions taken by any government organisation are official in nature and law provides adequate protection to sever the parts of such information which might fall within the exceptions provided by the law itself. But those exceptions are to be invoked judiciously in the right spirit behind the said provisions and not by way of artificial hair-splitting. 

Though I am not aware of the facts of this case, and it also seems to be an old issue, it is felt that while the Services Headquarters of the three services are quite open and transparent about their functioning, there is inertia by lower formations related to provisioning of legal documents such as Court of Inquiry proceedings, especially opinion and findings. Often Rule 184 of the Army Rules is cited out of context to refuse such documents. The said rule actually only talks of provisioning statements and documents of a Court of Inquiry, it does not contain any negative stipulation for notproviding the opinion and findings. Moreover, the said rule must yield to Section 22 of the RTI Act which overrides all other laws, including the Official Secrets Act. But it must even otherwise be realized by us that if an action is taken against a person based on the opinion and findings of a Court of Inquiry, then the person most definitely is entitled to the information based on which the action was taken against him or her. More importantly, such information may be required by a Court of law to apply its judicial mind to the proposition as to what went in the mind of an authority before taking any such action. The Constitutional Courts have emphasized time and again that a person needs to be informed of all material and findings against him in order to defend himself/herself, and this is not a luxury or a favour but a cardinal feature of any society governed by the rule of law. The fact that Courts of Inquiry are also open to judicial review was well established by the Supreme Court in Sanjay Jethi’s case. Further that opinions and findings of such inquiries (enquiries) are also to be supplied was well ruled by the Delhi High Court in Col PP Singh’s case. It is the substantive law of the Parliament and the law declared by Constitutional Courts that has to prevail on us, not personal opinions or legal opinions recorded on file. Reminds me again of Veena Kohli’s case wherein death related documents to a mother of an officer who died in Jammu & Kashmir were refused to her under the RTI Act on the pretext that the said Act is not applicable to the State of Jammu & Kashmir, as if the Indian Army based in J&K is a State force and not a Central force! When the Central Information Commission ruled in favour of the mother, the decision was challenged by the system, probably not out of the need for it but out of ego, in the Delhi High Court, which of course ruled in favour of the mother. 

Without taking any particular position, I only wish to say here that the Defence Services are amongst the cleanest institutions in our country, and holding back of such information leads to adverse conclusions and bad press also resulting in embarrassment which does not reflect upon the actual state of an institution which the nation is proud of. The top brass of the defence services is all for transparency, even the RTI Cells at the headquarters of the three defence services are doing an impeccable and admirable job, it is just hoped that the same spirit percolates down to each officer in every military establishment. 

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