Case pertains to alleged recovery of secret government documents in 1998

A sessions court here has ordered that charges be framed against Reliance Industries Limited and three of its veteran lobbyists in a 13-year-old case of alleged recovery of secret Indian government documents from the possession of RIL Group president V. Balasubramanian alias Balu during a search of the company's office premises in Delhi.

A.N. Sethuraman, then vice-president at RIL and now Group president of the Anil Ambani-owned Reliance ADA Group, and Shanker Adawal, then general manager (Corporate Affairs) and now believed to be Mukesh Ambani's point man here, will also be put on trial.

On the role of the Ambanis, the court said the prosecution “appears to have not made any effort to investigate” whether one of the documents allegedly faxed to them, “actually reached” the brothers, besides noting that there was no evidence that they acted upon the information “in case the document actually reached them.”

Four “secret” documents were allegedly recovered on October 28, 1998, from Mr. Balu's locked office-table drawer, which had to be broken open in the presence of witnesses.

The first document (D-7) was on the subject “Core Group on Economic Matters – Challenge of Economic Sanctions against India.” The second document (D-8) was a copy of a page of the first document but was allegedly marked to some very important people within the RIL hierarchy. The third document (D-9) was on the subject “Minutes of the 37 meeting of the Core Group of Secretaries on Disinvestment” convened by the Cabinet Secretary on September 21, 1998, regarding disinvestment in PSUs. The fourth document (D-10) was a letter from the Secretary, Petroleum and Natural Gas Ministry, on proposals for “Rationalisation of Customs and Excise Tariff Rates for the Hydrocarbon Sector,” but the court concluded that this was not a “secret” document.

Paving the way for trial, Additional Sessions Judge Narinder Kumar said: “From the material available on record, prima facie it can be said accused No:4, Reliance Industries Limited, had vested interest in having the information contained in the three documents (D-7, D-8, D-9) to know what was going on at the level of the government on the subjects to which they pertain, and to take appropriate steps for the benefit of the company, which is an association of persons and having a juristic personality in the eye of the law.”

Expert's conclusion

A handwriting expert opined that Mr. Adawal endorsed D-7 to Mr. Sethuraman and D-8 to Mr. Anil Ambani. The expert also felt that it was Mr. Sethuraman's handwriting, marking D-7 to Mr. Balu after receiving it from Mr. Adawal. Thus Mr. Balu, Mr. Sethuraman and Mr. Adawal were indicted for receiving/communicating the secret document. But the prosecution was silent on who communicated the document to RIL.

“There is nothing to suggest that any of these accused lodged any protest with each other, or with the person who communicated the same, as to why this official secret information contained in the document had been collected or communicated to each of them,” Mr. Kumar said adding this “attributes the requisite essentials of voluntariness, knowledge, and connivance to each of them.”

While RIL and the three lobbyists were charged under Section 5(2), read with 15 of the Official Secrets Act, the three lobbyists are also to face trial for criminal conspiracy in wrongfully receiving/communicating the secret documents.

Interestingly, Mr. Sethuraman was recently called to depose as a prosecution witness in the 2G spectrum scam case in which three Reliance ADA Group executives and Group company Reliance Telecom have been arraigned as accused.

On D-8, the judge said that based on evidence on record, it appeared prima facie that Mr. Adawal communicated “D-7, complete in all respects to Anil Ambani,” then Managing Director of RIL.

“It also appears that on receipt of entire D-7, Anil Ambani, sent relevant portion thereof (D-8) to four officers concerned of the company,” Mr. Kumar said. “Anil Dhirubhai Ambani is not one of the accused before this court.” (The charge order names the four officers to whom D-8 appeared to be sent as Mukesh Ambani, then the MD and vice-chairman of RIL, accused No.1 (Balu), Accused No.2 (Sethuraman), and one MM (abbreviation nowhere explained.)

Mr. Kumar said R. Rajendaran, Documentation Officer at RIL, had faxed D-9 to Mukesh and Anil. “However, there is no material to suggest that this document reached Mukesh and Anil Ambani on having been faxed by Rajendaran. Prosecution appears to have not made any effort to investigate whether this document, on being faxed, actually reached the two managing directors. There is also no evidence as to what was written, said or done by these two managing directors, in case the document actually reached them, so as to attribute them requisite voluntariness, knowledge, and connivance. Therefore, in respect of D-9, prima facie case is certainly made out only against Accused No.1 [Balu].”