The Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government on Wednesday, March 6, informed the Supreme Court that documents related to the controversial Rafale fighter jet deal have been stolen, possibly by public servants, from the Ministry of Defence. The government said that the newspaper that published ministry files had committed an offence and might have violated the Official Secrets Act by publishing details from confidential documents about the Rafale deal.
The apex court was hearing petitions seeking a review of its earlier judgement on December when it had given a clean chit to the government on the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets. The pleas were being heard by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and KM Joseph.
FACE OFF: KK VENUGOPAL AND PRASHANT BHUSHAN
Attorney General KK Venugopal, representing the central government, said that the documents linked to the pricing of the Rafale jets were stolen from Defence ministry files either by former or present employees and given to The Hindu newspaper for publishing. "These are secret documents and can't be in the public domain," Attorney General KK Venugopal told the court.
Venugopal also told the court that a review petition and an affidavit filed by senior advocate Prashant Bhushan contained extracts from the stolen files, and these should immediately be dismissed. Venugopal said that people who accessed the documents were guilty of violating the Official Secrets Act. But Prashant Bhushan argued that there was no infringement, explaining that the information on file notings was open under the Right To Information.
CJI Ranjan Gogoi questioned what action the government had taken. "We are investigating how these papers were stolen," said the government, accusing The Hindu newspaper of relying on these classified documents.
"It is a criminal offence. We are objecting preliminary because secret documents can't be annexed with the petition. Review and perjury petitions must be dismissed," Venugopal said. He further told the court that judicial review of the Rafale case would affect future defence purchases.
RAFALE DEAL CONTROVERSY
On February 13, the Hindu newspaper reported that the deal became more expensive for India because of France's refusal to provide bank guarantees. The newsbreak by N Ram, Chairman of The Hindu Publishing Group, says the deal signed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016 for the aircraft and weapons packages for 36 fly-away Rafale fighter jets was more expensive by around Rs 1,963 crore than the estimated aligned cost of the 126 aircraft deal being negotiated by the previous UPA government.
The Rafale jet deal ran into controversy after the opposition parties led by the Congress alleged irregularities in the signing of the contract with the French firm. Leaders including Bhushan and former Union ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie moved the apex court in 2018 seeking an independent probe into the Rafale deal.