The Indian armed forces made yet another pitch for blanket exemption from the Right to Information Act or RTI in March this year. The proposal, on the grounds of security, was put across by the Ministry of Defence on behalf of the armed forces but was opposed by the stakeholder ministries because soldiers’ grievances related to pensions and other service matters would be adversely affected. Last year, too, the Department of Military Affairs under then Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, had given a similar proposal citing national security.
During the conceptualisation of the RTI Act and soon after its enactment, the armed forces had strongly argued for absolute exemption and to be included in Schedule 2 under Section 24 on grounds of security. However, it was rejected. Veterans have vehemently opposed the exemption because the RTI Act is the primary route to information for any redressal of grievances from an obsessively security conscious organisation.
What is the reality? Is the security of the armed forces being compromised by the RTI Act? Why are the armed forces seeking the blanket cover of Section 24(2) when adequate safeguards are provided in Section 8?
A tool for veterans and soldiers
The armed forces have an elaborate system of classifying documents and information—restricted, confidential, secret and top secret. Almost all personal information is classified as ‘confidential’. While in service, an individual can access most documents to seek redressal. However, there is a tendency to invoke security when retired personnel seek access to documents. The RTI Act has ensured that documents are available to all military personnel for seeking clarifications or redressal through the Armed Forces Tribunal. Prior to this, the only remedy was through the civil courts resulting in monumental litigation.
Apart from excessive security consciousness, the military’s organisational culture also impinges on the Right to Information. In majority of the cases relating to pay, pensions, disability, promotions and legal matters, RTI Act is the only option to obtain the necessary documents. This has resulted in a marked reduction in litigation in civil courts and clearing misconceptions, thereby avoiding cases even in the Armed Forces Tribunal. A case in point is the fact that medical documents marked ‘confidential’ were not provided to soldiers. Their availability through the RTI Act ensured that thousands of soldiers have been able to get disability pension and medical care. Ironically, this is an indirect fallout of the RTI Act, which was primarily meant “to promote transparency and accountability” and not be a grievance redressal tool. However, the legal provisions to provide information have ensured welfare by default.
The armed forces account for nearly 15 per cent of India’s annual expenditure. The RTI Act is a precious tool in the hands of citizens to keep a check on corruption in procurements, constructions and defence deals. A blanket exemption from the provisions of the RTI Act will adversely affect the welfare of soldiers and make the armed forces unaccountable when it comes to the defence budget.
Fig leaf of security
The armed forces already enjoy the protection of Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act – “Information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence.” Section 10 further amplifies that – with respect to any information that is exempt from disclosure, only the part not exempted needs to be provided.
The armed forces have tried to make a case for exemption due to vested interests seeking indirect disclosure of information through the RTI Act. Last year, General Rawat said, “There have been instances of the RTI Act being misused to obtain inside information at the behest of inimical elements. We may not give out the number of soldiers deployed in a sector in response to an RTI query. But then we get queries on quantities of ration, fuel and vehicles. Responses to such questions can help those elements calculate backwards.” This year, “The armed forces are learnt to have cited instances where RTI applications were filed simultaneously across various military bases/ agencies and were assessed as attempts at Intelligence gathering.”
The above arguments of the armed forces do not withstand critical scrutiny. The very fact that the armed forces were able to detect these illegal acts despite thousands of applications on various other subjects, defeats their case for blanket exemption. As per their own data, “…an analysis of 57,000 RTI applications received between 2017 and 2020 found that only 986 were rejected which sought information on operational equipment, border encounters, movement of troops and operational details of internal security.” The rejected RTI pleas account for only 1.7 per cent of total applications.
As per the data published by the Central Information Commission (CIC), the defence forces accounted for just over a third of the nearly 71,000 RTIs the Ministry of Defence received in 2019-20. Most of these were about recruitment, promotions, transfers, disciplinary proceedings and other service-related matters filed by serving or retired personnel. Exemptions to protect national security and defence interests were invoked in only 0.22 per cent of the RTIs processed during this period.
It is clear from the minuscule number of applications that invoked the security exemption that the armed forces must continue to be covered by the RTI Act for the welfare of soldiers, accountability for their functioning, and defence expenditure. Why then are the defence forces seeking blanket exemption?
An attempt to keep up with the Joneses
In my view, the only reason why the armed forces are seeking blanket exemption is to keep up with Joneses – in this case, the 26 intelligence, Central Armed Police Forces and investigative organisations notified by the government under Section 24(2). More so, when adequate security safeguards are available under Section 8.
The RTI Act, 2005, enacted 239 years after Sweden had done it, placed India in the unique league of nations that provide their citizens the right to seek information from various public authorities in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority. This was commensurate with the spirit of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. “We the people of India…give to ourselves this Constitution” and we have the fundamental right to know what the government has been doing in our name.
Indeed the exemptions provided under Section 8 on account national security and other universal norms are justifiable, but the ‘blanket exemption’ provided to a large number of organisations, albeit with the exception of violation of human rights and corruption, which are also violated with impunity, stand out like a sore thumb in the noble act. Under Section 8(2) public interest can override security for disclosure of information but, no such exception exists under Section 24. Organisations listed under Schedule 2 also exploit the ‘blanket exemption’ rider to deny information not covered by security but otherwise permissible under the act.
It is a shame that the armed forces in complete disregard of their traditions and ethos are seeking shelter from the RTI Act at the cost of transparency and welfare of their soldiers. Specify the information that can’t be divulged on grounds of security under Section 8 but do not try to use security as a fig leaf to seek absolute exemption under Section 24—an aberration in the RTI Act that our Parliament and Supreme Court must get rid of.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.