The Centre’s submission before the Supreme Court that the documents published by the media pertaining to Rafale fighter jet deal were stolen from the Defence Ministry reflects a disturbing trend of dubbing any questioning of the government’s decisions as criminal activity. The threat of criminal action against the media for carrying the details is highly deplorable. Any attempt to use the Official Secrets Act as a tool to target journalists for raising questions amounts to undermining media’s freedom and independence. A leading media group had published a report last month citing a Defence Ministry note from 2015 that has raised objections over the alleged parallel negotiations by the Prime Minister’s Office with the French aircraft maker Dassault Aviation for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets. While seeking dismissal of a petition challenging the apex court’s earlier verdict giving a clean chit to the government over the procedures followed in the deal, Attorney General KK Venugopal chose to invoke national security plank to make a bizarre attack on the media. This is highly reprehensible. To say that the media accessed those documents illegally is to question the basic tenets of journalism. The larger issue here is about how a binary narrative is being built around the government’s policies and how its critics are swiftly branded as anti-nationals. The question is certainly not about the efficacy of Rafale aircraft to meet the needs of the Indian Air Force but about the transparency of the negotiation process. It is about the allegations of inflated costs and of favouring Anil Ambani’s company, which is the main offset partner in the deal.
While the Supreme Court had, in December last year, dismissed pleas seeking a judicial probe into the deal, the recent petition alleged that the government had concealed crucial facts regarding the agreement. It is ridiculous to argue, as is being done by some senior ministers in the NDA government, that the deal should not be a subject of judicial process because it is a matter of national security. Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s formulation that those questioning the Rafale deal were playing into the hands of Pakistan is problematic in a free and democratic country like India. Equating critics of the government as sympathisers of the enemy is a dangerous trend that must be curbed. Using the ‘nationalist versus traitor’ binary to silence the critics and subdue the opponents would derail legitimate debate that is essential for a healthy democracy. The country had witnessed similar disturbing tendencies in the past when critics of former Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were routinely dubbed as enemies of the nation and a draconian Defamation Bill was also contemplated before being withdrawn following massive outrage.