The Official Secrets Act, 1923 : What is it?

The Official Secrets Act 1923

A draconian law, one of the not so useful legacy of the British Raj… as the colloquial saying goes…the British left India, but left behind laws which questions the independence of the country and its citizens. Every instance the Government needs to crush down on its citizens…out comes another draconian law from the legacy of the Raj!

journalist was arrested by Mumbai's Railway Police
Source: Satish Acharya

The Official Secrets Act, 1923 is an British era anti espionage act which is still active in India. The law states that citizens of our country cannot inspect, approach or pass over areas prohibited by the government. If found guilty or charged under this Act, the punishment ranges from 3 to 14 years imprisonment. Through the years and usage of this law, it has been seen that the Official Secrets Act, 1923 is a direct infringement on the rights of the people of the country. This colonial law protects the Government from the public, whereas in a democracy the public is the Government…”for the people…of the people.” Working against the fundamental freedom to right to speech, expression and to know, this law protects the government from disclosing official information to the public. Forget about the “classified information” or information involving the security of the nation, the Official Secrets Act (a security which the government uses) empowers the government not to disclose any information regarding the disposal of your sewage in your city.

Official Secrets Act, 1923
Source: India Today

The passage of the Right to Information Act should have overruled this outdated Act but as always…contradictions makes life much easier for the ones in power, so both the laws prevail with equal gusto…and we the people who live the dream of belonging to the greatest democracy, continue to do so. In the year 2002, journalist Iftikar Gilani was arrested for violating the Official Secrets Act only to be released after the withdrawal of the case in the year 2004 wherein the data he had access was termed to be available in public. In 2009 another case involving a journalist Shantanu Saikia and the publication of a cabinet note in the Financial  Express was also dismissed which further diminished the powers of this Act. Since 2014 around 50 cases of violation of this Act has been reported and the latest doing the rounds being the statement of the Supreme Court Attorney General against the Hindu newspaper for the publication of the Rafale fighter jet deals.

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The Editors Guild of India has condemned the statement of the Attorney General saying that the use of the Official Secrets Act against the media is as “reprehensible” as asking the journalist to disclose their sources. In a case involving a journalist of “The Guardian” and violation of the Official Secrets Act known as the “Shayler Case” – the Lord Bingham has explained very clearly why the freedom of expression exists and has also explained the role of the press in exposing the malpractice of the government officials….

“….government of the people by the people for the people. But there can be no government by the people if they are ignorant of the issues to be resolved, the arguments for and against different solutions and the facts underlying those arguments… there can be no assurance that government is carried out for the people unless the facts are made known, the issues publicly ventilated….”

Do we as the greatest democracy need these draconian laws of the Raj??