The Supreme Court of India has locked horns with the Government of India on whether or not disclosures in The Hindu newspaper on the Rafale fighter aircraft purchase compromises national security. The newspaper has only published notes on files from the Ministry of Defence which cannot in any manner jeopardise national security. It pertains to commercial aspects of the India-French transaction, especially the price. It does not focus on the combat capabilities of the aircraft. As much as there is a distinction between commercial intelligence and military intelligence, sometimes the two do tend to overlap into the realm of strategic intelligence. Unlike commercial intelligence, military Intelligence pertains to the war waging capability of a nation. But in this case, the demarcation appears to be clear.
The French aeronautics major Dassault Aviation earlier sold the Rafale aircraft to Egypt and Qatar and its price in each case is clearly mentioned in the company’s annual report. Therefore, keeping the price secret in the Indian context does not make sense. Such information would certainly not interest either of India’s hostile neighbours, which would be focused on operational information about Indian military capabilities.
Countries conduct air shows to showcase military fighter and transport aircraft, avionics and allied systems to potential client nations. It is a public event where pilots display their flying skills and aircraft capabilities through aerobatic displays. These demonstrations of precise maneuvers are meant to advertise the operational capabilities and potential of these aerial platforms. Therefore, the characteristics of fighter aircraft are not secret information. Moreover, the Military-Industrial Complex-driven economies of the West are export-oriented and therefore have to market their armament systems and cannot afford to withhold information about their products.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) itself publicizes several instances of techno-military developments from time to time. For instance, it has publicized the integration of the Brahmos and Astra missiles with the Indian Air Force’s Sukhoi-30 MKI fighter aircraft. Also, the in-flight refueling capabilities of the Sukhoi-30 were showcased to the media. Similarly, the MoD has shared the successful firing of Beyond Visual Range missiles fitted on the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft with the press. Do these mean that the government has compromised national security?
This tussle between the Supreme Court, government and The Hindu newspaper over interpretation of national security is reminiscent of the Pentagon Papers in the US. On June 13, 1971, The New York Times began publishing a series of articles based on a study which had been classified as “top secret” by the federal government. After the third daily installment appeared in the Times, the US Department of Justice obtained in a US District Court a temporary restraining order against further publication of the classified material, contending that further public dissemination of the material would cause “immediate and irreparable harm” to US national defence interests.
The Times along with The Washington Post, which also was in possession of the documents, fought the order through the courts for the next 15 days, during which time publication of the series was suspended. On June 30, 1971, in what is regarded as one of the most significant prior-restraint cases in history, the US Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision freed the newspapers to resume publishing the material. The court held that the government had failed to justify restraint of publication.
The notes on files leaked to The Hindu do not have to have emanated exclusively from the MoD itself, but could have come from any of the ministries/departments connected to the members of the Cabinet Committee on Security. This includes the Prime Minister, Minister of Finance, Minister of Defence, Minister of Home Affairs and Minister of External Affairs. As for the Official Secrets Act, 1923, it aims to protect the officials rather than secrets.
Due to military illiteracy that prevails in the country the political leadership was able to accord “holy cow” status to acquisitions of armaments — such as artillery guns, fighter aircraft, battle tanks, warships or submarines — earlier from the former Soviet Union and now from the Western industrial democracies. The absence of compulsory military service in the country is among the reasons for such military illiteracy.
Student enrolment in the National Cadet Corps (NCC) in colleges post-1962 partially bridged this gap between people and the military establishment. Moreover, the media in the first four decades of nationhood never really reported on the military establishment, except for the Bofors scandal in the late 1980s. Gradually, with the advent of television in the 1990s and the Kargil hostilities in 1999, the “holy cow” status accorded to military matters withered away.
The Government of India chooses to classify sensitive information in whatever manner it likes, with nomenclature that ranges from “Top Secret”, “Secret” and “Confidential” to “Restricted”. It suits the government of the day to do so to arbitrarily to withhold inconvenient information from the public domain. This trend appears to be a commonality between democracies and other forms of authoritarian governance. Apparently, this need to chain information has to do with that ambiguous expression “national interest”, which in reality is synonymous with the political party’s interest.
According to a former Central Information Commissioner, M Sridhar Acharyulu, “Papers containing vital information which cannot be disclosed for reasons of national security are classified as ‘top secret’, and these must not be disclosed to anyone for whom they are not essential. Such papers include references to current or future military operations, intending movements or disposition of armed forces, shaping of secret methods of war, matters of high international and internal political policy, ciphers and reports derived from secret sources of intelligence”.
(The writer is a Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies at Christ Deemed to be University, Bengaluru)