Two days after he claimed in the Supreme Court that documents related to the Rafale fighter deal were “stolen” from the Ministry of Defence, and threatened to invoke the Official Secrets Act and initiate “criminal action” against two publications and a lawyer, Attorney General K K Venugopal did a U-turn Friday, saying the “statement that files have been stolen is wholly incorrect”.
On Wednesday, appearing before the bench of Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and Justices S K Kaul and K M Joseph, Venugopal initially did not name the publications but towards the end of the hearing said “documents in the possession of The Hindu and ANI are stolen documents”. He even said a probe into the theft was underway.
But on Friday, the Attorney General told PTI: “I am told that the Opposition has alleged what was argued (in SC) was that files had been stolen from the Defence Ministry. This is wholly incorrect. The statement that files have been stolen is wholly incorrect.”
He said the application filed by former Union Ministers Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and lawyer Prashant Bhushan, seeking from the court a review of its verdict dismissing pleas for a probe into the Rafale deal, had annexed three documents which were photocopies of the original.
Later, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman tweeted: “Learned AG KK Venugopal told @PTI_News the Rafale documents were not stolen from the Defence Ministry & what he meant in his submission before the Supreme Court was that petitioners in the application used “photocopies of the original” papers, deemed secret by the government.”
The Attorney General’s turnaround came after his remarks were condemned by press groups as “reprehensible… threats” with the “potential of sending out a chilling effect to one and all in the media”.
2. The Learned AG told @PTI_News “I am told that the opposition has alleged what was argued (in SC) was that files had been stolen from the Defence Ministry. This is wholly incorrect. The statement that files have been stolen is wholly incorrect.” #Rafale
— Nirmala Sitharaman (@nsitharaman) March 8, 2019
On Wednesday, when he told the bench that “stolen” documents cannot be relied upon by the court, Justice Joseph even asked Venugopal “suppose there is a corruption complaint, are you going to shelve it under national security?… Is there liberty to commit corruption?”
At a briefing Thursday on Cabinet decisions, Jaitley said “it’s obvious” that “notings” of files of the Ministry of Defence, which are “sensitive interest to this country have been leaked out”. He said “don’t forget, we have a very free press in India, we respect it” and then added “even the framers of the Constitution said national security is an exception” and it has “never been challenged in the last 72 years”. On the proceedings in the Supreme Court, Jaitley said “what goes on in court, let’s leave it for the court to decide”.
On February 8, a report in The Hindu, citing a “Defence Ministry note” of November 2015, stated that the Ministry “raised strong objections to ‘parallel negotiations’ conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) with the French side” in the Rafale deal. ANI released the same note with additional notings.