The Centre on Wednesday told the Supreme Court that petitions seeking a review of the earlier verdict on the Rafale deal should be dismissed because they are based on documents “stolen” from the Defence Ministry. An investigation was under way into the stolen documents, the government claimed.
In December 2018, the top court had dismissed the need for a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the India-France fighter jet deal. In February, The Hindu published multiple revelations about the deal that were unfavourable towards the government. The reports were based on government documents accessed by the newspaper.
Attorney General KK Venugopal told the court that The Hindu had committed an offence under the Official Secrets Act by publishing details from such confidential documents, Bar and Bench reported. He also said it was contempt of court.
Justice KM Joseph, however, asked during the hearing whether evidence, even if stolen, should not be looked into if it happens to be relevant. Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi cited the scenario of an accused using stolen evidence to prove his innocence. “[If] the document clearly shows he is innocent, should the judge not admit the document?” Gogoi asked. However, Venugopal insisted that even then, the source of the evidence was important.
Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul said that even if Venugopal’s arguments were accepted, some issues deserve to be heard if they “shock the conscience of the court”, reported Live Law.
Venugopal also claimed that seeking a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the Rafale deal would do damage to the country. He cited the recent air skirmishes between the fighter jets of India and Pakistan, and said the purchase of the Rafale fighter jets was essential for national security.
Venugopal said the Rafale deal had political impact, as anything about it would be used by the Opposition to destabilise the government.
Earlier, petitioner Prashant Bhushan had told the court that the previous judgement had relied on a lot of erroneous facts that were given by the government in sealed cover notes, Live Law reported. He said the government officials should be punished for perjury.
The pleas were being heard by a bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and KM Joseph. The bench said it would not hear one of the review petitions – the one filed by Aam Aadmi Party MP Sanjay Singh – as the petitioner had made derogatory comments about the previous judgement.
The court will hear the petitions next on March 14.
The Hindu’s findings
On February 13, the newspaper reported that the deal signed by the Narendra Modi government was not “on better terms” compared to the offer negotiated by the Congress-led government. The newspaper quoted from a dissent note written by three senior defence ministry officials who were the domain experts on the seven-member Indian negotiating team.
On February 8, the newspaper reported that the Ministry of Defence had in 2015 objected to “parallel negotiations” conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office with France when the two countries were discussing the deal.
In February, the court had said it will hold an open hearing of the review petitions. One of the petitions that was rejected in December was submitted by former Union ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie and lawyer Prashant Bhushan. The court had said there was “no occasion to doubt the Centre’s decision-making process in the deal”.
In their review petition, the petitioners, Sinha, Shourie and Bhushan, had alleged that the judgement “relied upon patently incorrect claims made by the government in an unsigned note given in a sealed cover”. The plea also sought perjury proceedings against officials of the central government for allegedly submitting “false or misleading” data about the Rafale jet deal.
The petitioners had also said that apart from relying on incorrect facts presented by the Centre, the court did not consider a letter that retired bureaucrats had written to the Comptroller and Auditor General, protesting that there had been no CAG report on the deal even though three years had passed since it was signed.
Correction plea by Centre
The court will also hear a plea filed by the Centre seeking a correction in two sentences of the December judgement.
The Centre had filed the correction plea after it was observed that the Supreme Court judgement cited a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India that did not exist then. The Congress had alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party had submitted incorrect information to the court and demanded that it apologise to the top court for misleading it.
The report by the Comptroller and Auditor General was tabled in Parliament in February. The report said the deal signed in 2016 by the Narendra Modi government to buy 36 fighter jets from France was 2.86% cheaper than the offer made to the previous government in 2007. The Congress had dismissed the report, calling it an “eyewash”.