Official Secrets Act


  • On 14th September, 2020, a Delhi based journalist was arrested under Official Secrets Act for passing on information such as the deployment of Indian troops on the border to Chinese intelligence officers.

About Official Secrets Act (OSA)

  • The first Indian official secrets act was enacted in 1889 to suppress the voice of nationalist publications, which were opposing the British Government’s policies.
  • It was amended during the time of Lord Curzon(1899-1904) in 1904.
  • Finally, 1904 act was replaced by The Indian Official Secrets Act of 1923 which brought within its ambit all matters of secrecy and confidentiality in governance in the country.

Scope of OSA

It broadly deals with two aspects:

  • Spying or espionage, covered under Section 3.
  • Disclosure of other secret information of the government, under Section 5.(The information could be any reference to a place belonging to or occupied by the government, documents, photographs, sketches, maps, plans, models, official codes or passwords).

Prosecution and Penalties

  • If found guilty, a person may get up to 14 years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both.
  • A person prosecuted under this Act can be charged with the crime even if the action was unintentional and not intended to endanger the security of the state.

Significance

  • The law, applicable to government servants and citizens, provides the framework for dealing with espionage, sedition, and other potential threats to the integrity of the nation.

Criticism of OSA

In Contravention with Right to Information Act (2005)

  • For classifying a document, a government Ministry or Department follows the Manual of Departmental Security Instructions, 1994, not under OSA.
  • Also, OSA itself does not say what a “secret” document is. It is the government’s discretion to decide what falls under the ambit of a “secret” document to be charged under OSA.
  • It has often been argued that the law is in direct conflict with the Right to Information Act, 2005.

Misuse by Authorities

  • Due to its unclear definition of “secret” documents or information, government authorities can misuse the Act by branding certain information or documents as official secrets as they deem fit.

Suggestions for Amending OSA

  • In 2006, the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) recommended that OSA be repealed, and replaced with a chapter in the National Security Act containing provisions relating to official secrets.
  • Further, in 2015, the government had set up a committee to look into provisions of the OSA in light of the RTI Act.
  • It submitted its report to the Cabinet Secretariat on June 16, 2017, recommending that OSA be made more transparent and in line with the RTI Act.

Recent Cases where OSA has been invoked

  • The most recent conviction under the Act came in 2018, when a Delhi court held former diplomat Madhuri Gupta, who had served at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, guilty under the OSA. She was sentenced to jail for passing on sensitive information to Pakistan’s intelligence.