Supreme Court shocks Centre on Rafale deal papers

New Delhi: In a huge setback to the Narendra Modi government, the Supreme Court on Wednesday decided to examine the decision-making process in the Rafale deal on the basis of stolen documents published in the media on alleged irregularities in the deal.

A three-judge bench of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and K.M. Joseph, in two unanimous judgments, dismissed the preliminary objections raised by the Centre questioning the maintainability of the review petitions on the basis of the documents which were photocopied and allegedly stolen from the defence ministry, leading to their publication in the media.

The Centre claimed “privilege” and immunity under the Official Secrets Act, and asserted that the documents could not be relied upon for evidence.

The CJI, in his separate verdict for himself and Justice Kaul, rejected the Centre’s stand and held that the review petitions will have to be adjudicated on their own merit by taking into account the relevance of the contents of the three documents.

Attorney-general K.K. Venugopal, on behalf of the Union of India, raised a preliminary objection on the maintainability of the review petition. He contended that the review petition lacked in bona fides inasmuch as three documents unauthorisedly removed from the office of the ministry of defence have been appended to the review petition and relied upon by the petitioners.

It was contented that the alleged unauthorised removal of the documents from the custody of the competent authority of the Centre and the use thereof to support the pleas urged in the review petition was in violation of Sections 3 and 5 of the Official Secrets Act 1923.

The CJI, writing the main judgment, said: “The three documents which are the subject matter of the present controversy, admittedly, was published in The Hindu newspaper on different dates in February 2019. One of the documents was also published in The Wire. The fact that the three documents had been published in The Hindu and were thus available in the public domain has not been seriously disputed or contested by the respondents.”

The bench pointed out that no question had been raised with regard to the publication of the documents and the right of such publication would seem to be in consonance with the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.

No law specifically barring the publication of such documents on any of the grounds mentioned in Article 19(2) has been brought to our notice, the bench added.

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