New Delhi: The Supreme Court Wednesday unanimously agreed to review its December 2018 judgment against a court-monitored probe into the Narendra Modi government’s acquisition of 36 Rafale fighter jets from France.
The court said the Rafale review petitions will be heard on merit, and ruled that the “sensitive” documents submitted as evidence by petitioners were admissible, dismissing the Centre’s objection to their use.
The date for hearing the review petitions will be decided later.
“We deem it proper to dismiss preliminary objections… and affirm the review petitions will be adjudicated on the basis of relevance of the three documents whose admissibility was questioned by the Centre,” a bench comprising CJI Ranjan Gogoi and Justice S.K. Kaul said. Justice K.M. Joseph issued a separate but concurring judgment.
The apex court had on 14 March reserved its verdict on pleas seeking a review of its December 2018 judgment, where it said the Indo-French deal for the acquisition of 36 fighter jets did not need to be scrutinised. It had agreed to hear the review pleas in open court on 26 February.
One of the pleas was filed by former Union ministers Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha along with advocate Prashant Bhushan, also seeking to initiate perjury proceedings against government officials for allegedly misleading the court on this issue.
The review was tagged with the perjury plea as well as an application filed by the Centre seeking to correct two lines in the controversial paragraph 25 of the court’s 14 December verdict.
The Narendra Modi government has claimed that it was “grammatical errors” that led the top court to “misinterpret” a note filed by it and surmise that the pricing details of the Rafale deal had been shared with the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and the CAG report examined by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament.
“Only a redacted portion of the report was placed before the Parliament, and is in public domain,” the controversial paragraph of the court order had read.
This paragraph is at the heart of the opposition’s contention that the Narendra Modi government sought to mislead the court on the Rafale controversy by suggesting that the CAG report had been placed before the PAC when it hadn’t been.
As the court takes up the review pleas, it will also examine the selection of industrialist Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence as an offsets partner in the Rafale deal since Sinha, Shourie and Bhushan had pointed out alleged irregularities and favouritism in the decision.
What the Centre said
The Modi government had taken exception to certain documents attached with Shourie, Sinha and Bhushan’s plea, saying the classified documents were sensitive to national security as they related to the war capacity of combat aircraft. The Centre claimed that the documents had been procured through unauthorised “photocopying”.
Attorney General K.K. Venugopal, representing the Centre, said the petitioners were using documents accessed without authorisation with “the intention to present a selective and incomplete picture of internal secret deliberations on a matter relating to national security and defence”.
The Centre also invoked sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and claimed privilege, suggesting that the documents didn’t fall within the purview of public scrutiny.
‘No scrutiny needed’
In December 2018, the top court had thrown its weight behind the decision-making process of India’s deal with France for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft and dismissed all pleas challenging it.
“…Country can’t afford to be unprepared in matters of fighter aircraft,” a bench headed by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi had said.
“We can’t go into wisdom of purchasing 36 in place of over 100 aircraft under the last [UPA] deal… Don’t even need to go into pricing.” he had added.
The order came on a batch of petitions seeking a court-monitored probe into the Narendra Modi government’s controversial purchase of Rafale fighter jets from French firm Dassault Aviation.
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