Showing its willingness to look into the Official Secrets Act, the NDA government has asked all the central intelligence and probe agencies, which have been against amendments to the British-era legislation, to furnish credible reasons for their opposition to any such move.
The OSA, which has never been amended since it was framed by the British in 1923, gives sweeping powers to arrest anybody for endangering national security on mere suspicion. During a recent meeting at the Cabinet Secretariat, secretaries of various ministries expressed their concern over Section 5 of the Act, which provides “wide reaching and ambiguous powers”. Section 5 of the OSA, which pertains to wrongful communication of information, puts government officials under scanner for any leak of information.
The section prohibits any voluntary or involuntary passing of any such information which can put India’s security and integrity under threat. The Act further says, “A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”
The Home Ministry has now formed a sub-committee to examine the OSA for bringing it in harmony with the Right to Information Act. Since the maximum resistance against any changes to the anti-spying Act comes from the enforcement agencies, the government has asked them to specify credible reasons for their opposition.
The government had formed a panel consisting of secretaries of Home, Law and Personnel to examine the purview of the OSA, and it held its first meeting on April 16. After the meeting, a sub-committee headed by a joint secretary was formed, which asked agencies like the CBI, the IB, the NIA, the R&AW to give credible reasoning for not amending the Act.
“Since the maximum resistance has come from the enforcement agencies, we asked them for their comments. We asked them to be specific on why they think that the Act should not be amended or changed. Earlier, all attempts to change the OSA Act were stalled on the suggestions made by these agencies only,” said a senior official.
During the meeting, several officials rued that there were some sets of documents, which can’t be made public owing to the OSA, but were readily available under the RTI Act.
“Several officials brought forth the point that Section 5 of the OSA had wide reaching implications and when it came to transparency in the government, it was a major hindrance,” said the official.
At the meeting the officials also referred to the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) report on the RTI tabled in 2006, which sought repeal of the Act and insertion of a new chapter in the National Security Act to deal with espionage.
During the UPA’s tenure, attempts were made amend the OSA after a group of ministers recommended it, but the Home Ministry had opposed it, saying the Act stood the test of time. The ARC recommendations were forwarded to the GoM headed by Pranab Mukherjee, which accepted 62 suggestions, but rejected repeal of the OSA.