OSA has its roots in the British colonial era. The original version was The Indian Official Secrets Act, 1889. This was brought in with the main objective of muzzling the voice of a large number of newspapers.
Amended and made more stringent in the form of The Indian Official Secrets Act, 1904, during Lord Curzon.
In 1923, a newer version was notified. The Indian Official Secrets Act was extended to all matters of secrecy and confidentiality in governance in the country.
It deals with two aspects —
- spying or espionage, covered under Section 3, and
- disclosure of other secret information of the government, under Section 5. Under Section 5, both the person communicating the information, and the person receiving the information, can be punished.
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.
Section 22 of the RTI Act provides for its primacy vis-a-vis provisions of other laws, including OSA. However, under Sections 8 and 9 of the RTI Act, the government can refuse information.
Effectively, if government classifies a document as “secret” under OSA Clause 6, that document can be kept outside the ambit of the RTI Act, and the government can invoke Sections 8 or 9.
- In 1971, the Law Commission became the first official body to make an observation regarding OSA. it observed that merely because a circular is marked secret or confidential, it should not attract the provisions of the Act, if the publication thereof is in the interest of the public and no question of national emergency and interest of the State as such arises”. The Law Commission, however, did not recommend any changes to the Act.
- In 2006, the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) recommended that OSA be repealed, and replaced with a chapter in the National Security Act containing provisions relating to official secrets. ARC referred to the 1971 Law Commission report that had called for an “umbrella Act” to be passed to bring together all laws relating to national security.
- In 2015, the present government set up a committee to look into provisions of the OSA in light of the RTI Act. It submitted its report in 2017, recommending that OSA be made more transparent and in line with the RTI Act.
- (1985) Coomar Narain spy case,
- the ISRO spy case (1994) targeting scientist S Nambi Narayann accused of passing on rocket and cryogenic technology to Pakistan for illegal gratification.
- (2018) when a Delhi court sentenced former diplomat Madhuri Gupta, who had served at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, to three years in jail for passing on sensitive information to the ISI.