Morally, no citizen can be more entitled to the protection of their constitutional rights than the ‘uniformed’ security personnel, after having protected the sovereignty and constitutionality of the land, with their own lives. Structurally, the ‘uniformed’ personnel are wired to zealously ‘defend/protect’ the land, citizenry, constitutional values and confidential information, with two unique concepts that are fundamentally alien, outside the barracks.
Firstly, the unwritten concept of ‘unlimited liability’ that necessitates that a soldier’s conduct is almost counterintuitive to human instinct, as the soldier often walks voluntarily in the line-of-fire, to ‘defend/protect’ his/her responsibilities and duties.
Secondly, the concept of paying the ‘ultimate price’ to uphold the ‘izzat’ of their cause, in the last fight. This naturally begets a certain popular reverence, trust and faith onto an institution that may not accrue to many other domains — it is a hard earned reputation, that bemuses and even subliminally irritates the political classes, who see themselves as the ultimate leaders of the nation.
Good Reasons for Ensuring Sanctity of Privileged Information on Nation’s Security
The inherent restraint and sense of responsibility is not shed with the proverbial sheathing of the sabre into the scabbard. The veterans view themselves as an extension of the hallowed institution, and are expected to behoove and uphold the sanctity, rectitude, and confidentiality of privileged information, that would have accrued from their service days.
It is what the legendary Scholar-Warrior, Gen James Mattis (former Defense Secretary of the US) invoked as the inviolable spirit behind the French phrase, devoir de reserve or ‘the duty of silence’ — especially outside the proverbial cantonments.
Interestingly, combatants are encouraged to call out any conduct which is unbecoming of men/women in uniform, as indeed, speaking truth to power, even to their superiors, as the cost of silence can be incalculable, given the stakes involved.
But service tenures are privileged experiences, that are expected to be handled responsibly and sensitively — and are not to be a matter of dinner table conversations or for positing in the public domain. There are good reasons for ensuring the sanctity of privileged information on the security of the sovereign, and the service personnel in/out of ‘uniforms’, understand the freight of that necessity, the foremost.
Practical Utility of Restraint On Security Matters
Understandably, there is a need to prevent roguish and individual acts of dereliction, and for that, acts like the Officials Secrets Act 1923 were brought in during the colonial era, to ensure secrecy and confidentiality on matters pertaining to national security. The sharing of official ‘secrets’, unauthorised allusions, classified data etc, are amongst other specificities that come under its purview to ensure the sanctity of reserved information — for the safety and security of the nation.
Despite its intellectual contradiction with the spirit behind the subsequent Right to Information (RTI) Act, the practical utility of maintaining a semblance of restraint on security matters was accepted, adhered, and respected wholeheartedly, by the ‘uniformed’ fraternity.
Why Further Tighten Provisions Beyond Current Official Secrets Act?
The last major uproar in the public domain was with a leading newspaper, which had published documents purportedly pertaining to defence purchases – but instances of individual dereliction and culpability are generally unheard of. However, keeping in mind the progressive moorings of democracies, Section 8(2) of the Central Act now compels the government to disclose information, “if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to protected interest,” even where exempted under the Official Secrets Act.
Like most realms, the issue is not with the inadequacy of laws, but in the judicious application of the same — sometimes, they are simply misused (for example, the infamous Samba Spy case) or lack political purpose (as opposed to functional/constitutional purpose).
From all recent history, there was no need to further tighten provisions beyond the existing framework under the Official Secrets Act, which rightfully insisted that retired officials are disallowed from publishing material which may “prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state” — this seemed perfectly just, reasonable and essential.
However, the latest notification by the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions — conflating individual pensions with ostensible misconduct, as per the Officials Secret Act — seems highly unnecessary from any functional purpose.
Shadow Over Intent of New Govt Notification
Firstly, anyone who compromises the integrity and sovereignty of the nation need not just be penalised by withdrawal of pensions — a far more punitive action would be welcomed — as already provided for in the existing provisions of the Official Secrets Act. But to expand the scope of the same with inherently ambiguous language debarring, retired officials from publishing anything that touches the “domain of the organisation…and expertise or knowledge gained by virtue of working in that organisation” seems highly unwarranted, restrictive and intimidatory — given its potential for interpretative misuse.
The optics, timing and backdrop surrounding the introduction of the new notification points to some clear concerns on ‘intent’ and the larger purpose behind the same.
Put simply, the backdrop is disconcerting. Already there is a growing global perception of illiberal instinct within the corridors of power, that disdains contrarian views, and the same is reflected in the scores of various international indices like the World Press Freedom Index, Freedom House Index, Human Freedom Index, etc.
If the notification is borne out of the same impulse to ‘control’ the opinions of concern expressed by various retired governmental officials, then it is a matter of deep concern.
A Mix Up: ‘Inimical to the Dispensation’ & ‘Inimical to the Nation’
The language of the notification is so sweeping and generic that anything can be construed to be detrimental to the “domain of the organisation, including any reference or information about any personnel and his designation, and expertise or knowledge gained by virtue of working in that organisation”.
It can, effectively, disallow any uncomfortable opinion, by someone who may be an expert on the subject, even without violating the Official Secrets Act.
If only the realm of public information or media were to be rife with instances of retired officials sharing classified information that were ‘secret’ or inimical to the interest of the nation, then perhaps the furor may not have existed — but now it seems to be a case of smallness-of-spirit, at play.
Perhaps, ‘inimical to the dispensation’ has got mixed up with ‘inimical to the nation’ — these are two different things, and the dispensation must demonstrate the grace, maturity, and dignity to differentiate. Equally incumbent on the retired professionals/officials (especially from the ‘uniformed’ fraternity) to uphold the national and constitutional duties, above everything else — as they did with the existing provisions for many decades, without the recent and unnecessary threat of the Damocles Sword of pension-withdrawal in the winter of their lives — surely, they deserve better.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)