K.K. Venugopal, India’s Attorney General, found himself in the news quite a few times this week. He told the Supreme Court Wednesday that the Narendra Modi government was considering “criminal action” under the Official Secrets Act against unnamed persons who accessed confidential Rafale documents. Venugopal was also in the limelight Thursday when he insisted senior advocate Anand Grover call senior advocate Indira Jaising his “wife” and not “Ms Jaising” in the Supreme Court.
By Friday evening, Venugopal was back in the news again with a volte-face.
He told the PTI that he had not meant what he had told the SC bench in the Rafale matter about secret documents being stolen and used by the petitioners.
“I am told that the opposition has alleged what was argued (in the Supreme Court) 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. He also claimed that he had actually meant to say that the petitioners had used photocopies of the secret files.
These incidents drew strong criticism against K.K. Venugopal, the 15th Attorney General of India and the oldest ever to take up the position.
Official Secrets Act
On Wednesday, Attorney General Venugopal said that secret Rafale deal details were “stolen” from the Ministry of Defence and used in the media.
He threatened persons allegedly responsible for the “stealing” and subsequent publication of the demining reports with serious charges. Venugopal said that The Hindu and ANI had used “stolen documents” in their stories about the controversial Rafale deal. He stressed that it had put national security at risk and jeopardised India’s relations with other countries.
The Official Secrets Act is a colonial-era law that provides a framework to identify and punish espionage, sedition and other threats to national security.
Many, including The Editors Guild of India, criticised the move as trying to curb media freedom and intimidate journalists.
Not a wife
During the hearing on the contempt petition against Prashant Bhushan by Attorney General Venugopal Wednesday, the latter again found himself in the spotlight.
Indira Jaising refused to stay silent when Venugopal made the ‘wife’ remark, saying she was “a person in my own right” and an individual first. She asked Venugopal to withdraw his statement.
The role of the Attorney General
In both cases, K.K. Venugopal seemingly did a disservice to the Constitutional post that he holds.
The Attorney General represents India and not the government. His/her main job is to assist the court to uphold the Constitution and not to be the government’s defender in the courtroom. The Attorney General guides the government and ensures that it is not in breach of any constitutional principles while dealing with important matters of the state. Constitutional morality should flow from his/her office to the seat of government.
Many Attorney Generals have upheld their oath to the Constitution and even criticised the government of the day.
For instance, Soli Sorabjee questioned the same government that had appointed him. In fact, Sorabjee’s decision to side with the judiciary versus the government on some key issues even led to Ram Jethmalani being asked to resign from the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.
But quite a few eyebrows have been raised already about Venugopal’s actions.
He used a very specious logic to initiate contempt of court proceedings against activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan for accusing him of making a “wholly false statement” in court in the case about the appointment of the interim CBI director during the Alok Verma saga.
Bhushan admitted Thursday that he had made a mistake in tweeting what he did. Incidentally, at an earlier hearing, Venugopal, trying to show grace, had offered to withdraw the contempt plea, but his colleague, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, stressed that Bhushan deserved to be punished.
One only hopes that Venugopal, an illustrious lawyer with over six decades of experience, will make the office of the Attorney General stronger in a perceptible way.