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Disclosure of Defence Forces’ Joint Operational Doctrines in 7-year old RTI case sought


By Venkatesh Nayak* 
Earlier this week, the Central Information Commission (CIC) directed the HQ, Integrated Defence Staff (HQ-IDS), Union Ministry of Defence to disclose the following Joint Operational Doctrines under The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act):
1) Joint Doctrine for Perception Management and Psychological Operations; and
2) Joint Doctrine for Land and Air Operations.
Readers may remember that in June 2010, the then Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee and Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal P. V. Naik, had released these operational doctrines. However, the text of these doctrines was not available in the public domain. Now after seven years, since I sought the information under the RTI Act, the CIC has directed the HQ-IDS to make the complete text of these doctrines public within 15 days.

Unlike military strategies and tactics, military doctrines should be publicly accessible

Official records containing details of military strategy and tactics are usually covered by exemptions relating to national security in RTI laws which are based on internationally recognised good practice standards. Military doctrines, on the other hand, contain broad-brush information such as: what does the military service perceive itself to be, what is its mission, how is the mission to be carried out (without revealing the actual operational strategies and tactics), how has this mission been carried out in the past, etc. NATO’s Glossary of Terms and Definitions (2017 edn.) defines doctrine as: “Fundamental principles by which the military forces guide their actions in support of objectives. It is authoritative but requires judgement in application.” So military doctrines must be accessible to any citizen without having to ask for it.
In 2010, the official website of the HQ-IDS had displayed the Joint Doctrines of the USA, UK and France apart from some older doctrines developed by India. The 2017 Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces was posted on the HQ-IDS website on 1st October, 2018 i.e., the date of the hearing in my RTI case. Publishing military doctrines also helps reassure the citizenry about its own safety. It is also a requirement under Section 4(1)(c) and 4(1)(d) of the RTI Act.
According to the Press Note released in June 2010, the Joint Doctrine on Perception Management and Psychological Operations provides guidelines “for activities related to perception management… in an internal environment wherein misguided population may have to be brought in to the mainstream.” Some media reports published at that time indicated that this Joint Doctrine might be used to counter the influence of Left Wing Extremist Groups in some States. Clearly there is enormous public interest in making this document publicly accessible.

The RTI Intervention

In September 2010, after waiting for more than two months for the defence establishment to make the text of the two Joint Doctrines public (from the date of the press release), I sent an ordinary letter requesting the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of HQ-IDS to proactively disclose them under Section 4(1) of the RTI Act. I also requested them to repair the broken link on their website which mentioned the Report of the Group of Ministers containing Recommendations to Reform the National Security System. This report had been prepared in the aftermath of events such as the Kargil War and the armed militants’ attack on Parliament. The CPIO did not bother to send any reply to this letter.
Later, in November that year, I sought a copy of the two Joint Doctrines and the text of the Recommendations of the Group of Ministers through a formal RTI application. The CPIO of HQ-IDS rejected the request for the Joint Doctrines stating that they were classified with the label “Restricted” and therefore were covered by Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act. Readers will recollect that Section 8(1)(a) contains at least seven grounds for rejecting an RTI application but does not include the reason mentioned by the CPIO. The CPIO denied knowledge of the Report of the Group of Ministers stating that the HQ-IDS was not a repository of that document.
Subsequently, I submitted a first appeal. The First Appellate Authority reiterated the CPIO’s reply and stated that an unclassified version of the Joint Doctrine relating to perception management may be prepared in future without indicating any time limit. He refused to direct the disclosure of the Joint Doctrine for Land and Air Operations and threw up his hands regarding the link to the Report of the Group of Ministers on National Security.
Subsequently, in 2011, I filed a complaint case against the HQ-IDS and also the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). I requested that the MHA be made a party because the CIC had in 2009 rejected my request for the Manual of Departmental Security Instructions (MoDSI) which contains the criteria and procedure for classifying official documents as “top secret”, “secret”, “confidential” and “restricted”. So I argued that without a copy of the MoDSI, I would not be able to contest the correctness of the classificatory label of “restricted” given to the Joint Doctrines. I also argued that according to the Government of India Guidelines for Official Websites it is the webmaster’s responsibility to ensure that all links to external websites are kept alive and broken links are repaired (for the Report of the Group of Minsters). I also sought the CIC’s directions for creating a system of deferred access to official records as the RTI Act does not contain such a provision.
Unfortunately, the complaint case went into cold storage for the next six years. The file was reconstructed at my request in 2017 and the hearing was held after a year. As the complaint case had been filed in 2011, ten months before the Supreme Court distinguished between the complaints and appeals procedures under the RTI Act (Chief Information Commr. & Anr. vs Manipur vs State of Maniour & Anr., December 2011) I also prayed for a conversion of the complaint into an appeal case. As I had already filed a first appeal with HQ-IDS already, this request for conversion did not pose any difficulty.
During the hearing the CIC perused the two Joint Doctrines which the representative of the HQ-IDS had brought along. The CIC has now ruled in favour of disclosure, rejecting the plea of HQ-IDS as unconvincing and “laboured”. However, the CIC refused to allow my plea for disclosure of MoDSI as it was not included in the original RTI application. The HQ-IDS’s plea that they did not know who holds a copy of the Report of the Group of Minister on Reforming National Security was also accepted. I did not press the CIC otherwise as this requires a separate RTI intervention involving the National Security Council Secretariat which is excluded under Section 24(1) of the RTI Act from ordinary obligations of transparency. I also did not press for a direction on deferred access to official records as I wanted to wait for the CIC’s decision on the core requests. Perhaps this issue is better taken up in another appropriate case.
Whether HQ-IDS will comply with the CIC’s direction and disclose the Joint Doctrines or challenge that decision in the Delhi High Court remains to be seen. Meanwhile I am keeping my fingers crossed.

*Programme Coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi

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