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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Delhi HC stays CIC order directing IAF to disclose details regarding PM’s entourage

The Air Force had filed a petition before high court challenging the CIC order directing it to disclose information relation to flights used by the prime minister for his foreign visits since 2013.

Written by Sofi Ahsan | New Delhi | Updated: December 12, 2020 4:47:07 am
The petition had sought certified copies of SRF-I and SRF-II with regard to each foreign visit of former PM Manmohan Singh as also Prime Minister Narendera Modi from April 2013 onwards. (File photo)

THE DELHI High Court Friday stayed a Central Information Commission (CIC) order directing the Indian Air Force (IAF) to disclose under RTI Act the details regarding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s entourage accompanying him on his foreign visits.

The CIC, in a July 8 order, had directed the Central Public Information Officer of Air Headquarters, IAF to provide certified copies of available and relevant SFR-II (Special Flight Returns – Part II, which contains the flight manifest) to the applicant Commodore Lokesh K Batra (retd) “after severing the names and other relevant identifying particulars of the security/SPG personnel figuring therein”.

The IAF had earlier this week moved the High Court against the order, citing a potential threat to the sovereignty and integrity of India.

On Friday, IAF counsel Rahul Sharma argued that the disclosure will lead to making public the information regarding SPG personnel. Justice Navin Chawla then issued notice to Commodore Batra and asked him to file a reply within four weeks. “There shall be a stay on the operation of the impugned order till further orders,” said the court.

The court earlier observed that passengers may also include officials from the Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Information and Broadcasting or even journalists. “I can understand you don’t give him the security details but you can always give him the details that… there were 50 passengers along with the Prime Minister and maybe one or two you could disclose or you could not disclose,” it added.

However, the court also said that the CPIO will be able to disclose only the number of passengers from SRF-II. “He can’t even disclose to you how many officers or what rank… Let’s say even Ministry of External Affairs accompanied the Prime Minister or the President, how will he disclose that?” observed Justice Chawla.

It also said that it was the job of the CIC to be “very clear” about what information can be disclosed and what can be exempted from disclosure, after Batra’s counsel Prasanna S argued that there are private persons and other people not connected to the security apparatus who accompany the Prime Minister.

“According to me, SPG is already exempted there… names etc have gone. It’s only then the number,” Justice Chawla said. “How does it make any difference? That does not, according to me, affect any state secret.”

The court also said why the rank or designations of officers of other agencies like the MEA should be disclosed and asserted that the applicant at best will get the numbers. However, Batra’s counsel submitted that such information is traditionally disclosed and will reply regarding it.

In June 2018, Commodore Batra, the applicant, had sought the information with respect to the foreign visits undertaken by both Modi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from April 2013, arguing later in appeal that the information requested is concerning “the expenditure of large tax-payers money and thus has a very large public interest”.

In reply, he was told that Singh had undertaken no air travel between April 2013 and May 2014 by IAF aircrafts. PM Modi, he was told, had undertaken three visits in the IAF aircrafts from June 2016 and July 2018.

However, the details regarding the aircraft, aircrew and the entire entourage were denied to him, with the IAF saying that copies of SFR with regard to the foreign visits hold “sensitive details and would prejudicially affect the security of the State”.

The IAF, in its petition before the High Court, argued that the information sought is extremely sensitive in nature since it relates to the official records pertaining to functioning and working of the security apparatus of the Prime Minister. “The information so sought includes details related to the entire entourage, names of Special Protection Group (SPG) personnel accompanying the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India on foreign tours for his personal safety, and the same, if disclosed, can potentially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interest of the State,” the petition said.

Arguing that the CIC completely overlooked the fact that the information sought by the applicant is exempt from disclosure under the law, the IAF also said that the commission ignored the fact that details of the SPG are explicitly exempted from the purview of the RTI Act, 2005.

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