The Official Secrets Act
The Official Secrets Act, OSA in short, has its roots in the British colonial era. Its predecessor law, The Indian Official Secrets Act, 1904 was enacted during the time of Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905.
It was an amended and more stringent version of The Indian Official Secrets Act (Act XIV) of 1889, brought in at a time when a large number of powerful newspapers had emerged in several languages across India. Fearless editors opposed the Raj’s policies on a daily basis, building political consciousness among the people, and facing police crackdowns and prison terms to uphold their mission and convictions. One of the main purposes of the Act was to muzzle the voice of nationalist publications.
In April 1923, a newer version of the Official Secrets Act was notified. The Indian Official Secrets Act (Act No XIX of 1923) replaced the earlier Act, and was extended to all matters of secrecy and confidentiality in governance in the country.
The Act’s Ambit
The secrecy law broadly deals with two aspects — spying or espionage, which is dealt with in Section 3 of the Act, and disclosure of other secret information of the government, which is dealt with in Section 5. The secret information can be any official code, password, sketch, plan, model, article, note, document or information. Since the classification of secret information is so broad, it is argued that the colonial law is in direct conflict with the Right to Information Act.
Under Section 5, both the person communicating the information, and the person receiving the information, can be punished by the prosecuting agency.
Use of the Act
The most recent conviction under the Act came in 2018, when a Delhi court held former diplomat Madhuri Gupta, who had served at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, guilty under the OSA. She was sentenced to three years in jail for passing on sensitive information to Pakistan’s ISI. In another high-profile case, then Kashmir Times journalist Iftikhar Gilani was arrested in June 2002 and charged under the OSA for allegedly possessing secret documents relating to the deployment of troops in the Valley. The state later withdrew the case. In 2017, journalist Poonam Agrawal was charged under the law for conducting a sting operation on an Army official who criticised the sahayak system in the Army.