This article is an edited excerpt from SP Gupta Judgement

It is obvious from the Constitution that we have adopted a democratic form of Government. Where a society has chosen to accept democracy as its credal faith, it is elementary that the citizens ought to know what their government is doing. The citizens have a right to decide by whom and by what rules they shall be governed and they are entitled to call on those who govern on their behalf to account for their conduct. No democratic Government can survive without accountability and the basic postulate of accountability is that the people should have information about the functioning of government.

It is only if people know how government is functioning that they can fulfil the role which democracy assigns to them and make democracy a really effective participatory democracy.

“Knowledge” said James Madison, “will for ever govern ignorance and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of obtaining it, is but a prologue to a force or tragedy or perhaps both”. The citizens’ right to know the facts, the true facts, about the administration of the country is thus one of the pillars of a democratic State. And that is why the demand for openness in the government is increasingly growing in different parts of the world.

Demand for openness in the government

The demand for openness in the government is based principally on two reasons. It is now widely accepted that democracy does not consist merely in people exercising their franchise once is five years to choose their rules and, once the vote is cast, then retiring in passivity and not taking any interest in the government. Today it is common ground that democracy has a more positive content and its orchestration has to be continuous and pervasive.

This means inter alia that people should not only cast intelligent and rational votes but should also exercise sound judgment on the conduct of the government and the merits of public policies, so that democracy does not remain merely a sporadic exercise in voting but becomes a continuous process of government – an attitude and habit of mind. But his important role people can fulfil in a democracy only if it is an open government where there is full access to information in regard to the functioning of the government.

There is also in every democracy a certain amount of public suspicion and distrust of government, varying of course from time to time according to its performance, which prompts people to insist upon maximum exposure of its functioning. It is axiomatic that every action of the government must be actuated by public interest but even so we find cases, though not many, where governmental action is taken not for public good but for personal gain or other extraneous considerations. Sometimes governmental action is influenced by political and other motivations and pressures and at times, there are also instances of misuse or abuse of authority on the part of the executive.

Now, if secrecy were to be observed in the functioning of government and the processes of government were to be kept hidden from public scrutiny, it would tend to promote and encourage oppression, corruption and misuse or abuse of authority, for it would all be shrouded in the veil of secrecy without any public accountability. But if there is an open government with means of information available to the public, there would be greater exposure of the functioning of government and it would help to assure the people a better and more efficient administration.

There can be little doubt that exposure to public gaze and scrutiny is one of the surest means of achieving a clean and healthy administration. It has been truly said that an open government is clean government and powerful safeguard against political and administrative aberration and inefficiency.

The Franks Committee of the United Kingdom

Franks Committee of the United Kingdom also observed to the same effect while pleading for an open government. It said in its report at page 12:

A totalitarian Government finds it easy to maintain secrecy. It does not come into the open until it chooses to declare its settled intentions and demand support for them. A democratic Government, however, though it must compete with these other types of organisations, has a task which is complicated by its obligations to the people. It needs the trust of the governed. It cannot use the plea of a secrecy to hide from the people its basic aims. On the contrary it must explain these aims:

it must provide the justification for them and give the facts both for and against a selected course of action. Now must such information be provided only at one level and through one means of communication? A government which pursues secret aims, or which operates in greater secrecy than the effective conduct of its proper functions requires, or which turns information services into propaganda agencies, will lose the trust of the people.

It will be countered by ill-informed and destructive criticism. Its critics will try to break down all barriers erected to preserve secrecy, and they will disclose all that they can, by whatever means, discover. As a result matters will be revealed when they ought to remain secret in the interests of the nation.

Justice Mathew in Raj Narain Case

So also we find observations in the same strain by Mathew, J. in State of U.P. v. Raj Narain: (SCC p. 453, para 74)

In a government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing. The right to know, which is derived from the concept of freedom of speech, though not absolute, is a factor which should make one wary, when secrecy is claimed for transactions which can, at any rate, have no repercussion on public security.

To cover with veil secrecy, the common routine business, is not in the interest of the public. Such secrecy can seldom be legitimately desired. It is generally desired for the purpose of parties and politics or personal self-interest or bureaucratic routine. The responsibility of officials to explain and to justify their acts is the chief safeguard against oppression and corruption. The need for an open government where there is access to information in regard to the functioning of government has been emphasised and the arguments in support of it have been ably and succinctly summarised in the following passage from the book of Dr. S. R. Maheshwari on Open Government in India at pages 95 and 96:

Administrative India puts the greatest weight on keeping happening within its corridors secret, thereby denying the citizens access to information about them. Such orientations produce deep contradictions in the large socio-political system of the land which itself is in a state requiring nourishment and care. As the latter is still relatively new and in its infancy, its growth processes inevitably get retarded for want of information about the government, which means from the government. Over concealment of governmental information creates a communication gap between the governors and the governed, and its persistence beyond a point is apt to create an alienated citizenry. This makes democracy itself weak and insecure. Besides, secrecy renders administrative accountability unenforceable in an effective way and thus induces administrative behaviour which is apt to degenerate into arbitrariness and absolutism.

This is not all. The government, today, is called upon to make policies on an ever-increasing range of subjects, and many of these policies must necessarily impinge on the lives of the citizens. It may sometimes happen that the data made available to the policy makers is of a selective nature, and even the policy makers and their advisers may deliberately suppress certain viewpoints and favour others. Such bureaucratic habits get encouragement in an environment of secrecy; and openness in governmental work is possibly the only effective corrective to it, also raising, in the process, the quality of decision-making.

Besides, openness has an educational role inasmuch as citizens are enabled to acquire a fuller view of the pros and cons of matters of major importance, which naturally helps in building informed public opinion, no less than goodwill for the government. This is the new democratic culture of an open society towards which every liberal democracy is moving and our country should be no exception. The concept of an open government is the direct emanation from the right to know which seems to be implicit in the right of free speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a).

Therefore, disclosure of information in regard to the functioning of Government must be rule and secrecy an exception justified only where the strictest requirement of public interest so demands. The approach of the court must be to attenuate the area of secrecy as much as possible consistently with the requirement of public interest, bearing in mind all the time that disclosure also serves an important aspect of public interest.


SP Gupta v. Union of India (1981)