Why the Indian Army should not be exempt from the Right to Information Act
This blog is a strong advocate of ensuring that budgetary allocations match the multifarious challenges that India’s armed forces are required to face. It has been The Acorn’s case that India can achieve far higher growth rates and improve its human development indicators by embracing free-market economics than by simply cutting down defence expenditure, as some liberal critics would argue. India’s military capabilities — from C4ISR, weapons platforms down to equipment carried by individual soldiers — do not yet match up to its geopolitical ambitions or even basic future needs. While blueprints and doctrines have been discussed and adopted by the Army, Navy and Air Force, a more fundamental long-term strategic review of India’s defence in the twenty-first century has been long overdue. Procurement scandals and political over-reactions in response have helped make such a review a political minefield that no government dares venture into.
There is no reason why the armed forces should be exempt from the same levels of transparency that are expected of any other arm of government. Secrecy of military information is not sufficient a reason to wholly exempt them. If anything, giving citizens the right to information compels the armed forces to compartmentalise the secret from the routine and then better secure the sensitive portion. India’s newly legislated Right to Information (via Law and Other Things) takes into consideration the need to ensure the nation’s military secrets are adequately protected. It is incumbent on the armed forces to now make available to the citizens everything that they are entitled to know. The Indian Express reports that Gen J J Singh, India’s chief of army staff, has directed the army not to release information requested under the act until the government decides on the requests for exemption sought by the armed forces. (update: since withdrawn, via Ravi Mutyala) This may be a reasonable step to take in the interim — for the Government of India could well decide to accede to their request. But should the government reject the exemption requests, which it should, then the armed forces would do well to fully comply with the law. This would have an exemplary impact — no government department will be able to hide behind the excuse of national security if the armed forces themselves have put their files in the open.
More importantly, given the need for transformational investments in India’s defence capabilities over the next several years, it stands to reason that the armed forces must demonstrate a much higher degree of transparency and openness than now, and in comparison to other government bodies. If there is an urgent need for the depoliticisation of defence planning, procurement and expenditure, that need cannot be satisfied if the armed forces remain hidden behind a veil of secrecy. How the army selects, promotes, pays, rewards and punishes its personnel is not necessarily ‘sensitive’. The first step to transform India’s armed forces is perhaps preparing them to operate in a world where there is a surplus of information.
Update: The Indian Express argues that the armed forces must be exempt from the provisions of the act, on account of national security, and because they ‘do a very difficult job’. DNA on the other hand, jumps to the other extreme arguing that the armed forces should not be above the law. Both miss the point: it’s not about putting battleplans in the open, and it’s not about the army trying to be above the law. It’s about many of the same things that occur in government departments across the country — procurement, personnel, adminstration etc. Not everything in the armed forces is a national secret.