Gifts given by Prime Minister a top-secret: Foreign ministry

Bandra resident Austin Fernandes filed an RTI application asking for the list of presents given by the PM to heads of state on his visits abroad, but he was denied the information; the ministry of external affairs said that disclosing the details could affect India’s relations with other countries

It is public knowledge that Prime Minister Narendra Modi gifted a copy of the Bhagwad Gita to Japanese Emperor Akihito during his visit to the country in September last year.

During his visit to Australia in November 2014, Narendra Modi presented a memento to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott at the Melbourne Cricket Ground a replica of Mahatma Gandhi’s charkha with three cricket balls signed by Modi and World Cup-winning Indian captains Kapil Dev and M S Dhoni. Pic/Getty Images
During his visit to Australia in November 2014, Narendra Modi presented a memento to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott at the Melbourne Cricket Ground a replica of Mahatma Gandhi’s charkha with three cricket balls signed by Modi and World Cup-winning Indian captains Kapil Dev and M S Dhoni. Pic/Getty Images

But, when a Bandra resident filed an RTI asking for the list of gifts that the Indian PMs between May 2009 and November 2014 had given to the heads of state during their visits abroad, his application was turned down.

Austin Fernandes
Austin Fernandes

In its reply, the Ministry of External Affairs stated that disclosing the information would prejudicially affect India’s relations with the concerned foreign states. This, even though the Ministry itself publishes the lists of gifts received by ministers and officials on its website.

The RTI was filed by Austin Fernandes on December 8, and the reply from the MEA, which reached him on December 26, said, “This is to state that the Prime Minister of India presents gifts, as per the laid down norms, to various foreign dignitaries during his official visits abroad.

Information sought by you relates to details of gifts presented during the period mentioned above. However, disclosure of this information may prejudicially affect India’s relations with the concerned foreign states.

Exemption is, therefore, sought under section 8(1) a) RTI Act, 2005, wherein no such information as may prejudicially affect India’s relations with a foreign state need be disclosed.”

Seeking logic
Earlier this month, Fernandes, who was unhappy with the MEA reply, wrote back to the ministry. In his appeal to the ministry, he has said, “The Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) had thus claimed a blanket exemption under Section 8(1)(a) for all information without any application of mind as to the applicability of exemption in each individual case and has thereby sought to frustrate my application.

The reply of the CPIO is illogical, since the Ministry itself maintains a list of gifts received by officials in Toshakhana and regularly publishes the same on the website (http://mea.gov.in/disclosureofgiftsreceivedintoshakhana.htm). Going by the CPIO’s logic, publication of such a list would then prejudicially affect India’s relations with foreign states, which is surely not the case.”

His letter goes on to say, “Many countries, like the United States, maintain lists of gifts given to their officials by foreign officials, which are published on the internet. For example, the US state department website has a list of gifts federal employees have received from foreign government sources http://www.state.gov/s/cpr/c29447.htm The list for 2011 (http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/210473.pdf) includes on page 12 a gift received by President Barack Obama from Dr.

Manmohan Singh, then Prime Minister of India viz. A 20’’ octagonal white marble table top with design of inlaid blue and yellow flowers, and octagonal stand decorated with blue and red flowers. Rec’d—11/18/ 2011. Est. Value $1,375.00.

If the foreign recipients of gifts from the Prime Minister of India are pleased to disclose the nature of gifts without any fear of prejudicially affecting relations with India, this surely contradicts the CPIO’s blanket claim of exemption on this ground.”

'Just curious'
When mid-day contacted Fernandes, he said, “The reason I filed the RTI was that there was so much hullabaloo over the PM’s visit and he had, in one of his interactions, publicly acknowledged that he had gifted the Gita to the Japanese Emperor.

Hence, out of curiosity, I filed the RTI to find out the other gifts given by him and the previous PM in the May 2009-November 2014 period.” mid-day sent a detailed email to the spokesperson of MEA, Syed Akbaruddin, asking him why Fernandes’ request was turned down. We did not receive a reply.

Expert speak
“The details of these gifts do not spoil the relationship between two countries and should be given. The gifts are bought with money from the exchequer and, hence, information about them should be in the public domain,” said Bhaskar Prabhu, Co-Convenor, National Campaign for People’s Right to Information.

Exemption clause
Section 8(1) in The Right To Information Act, 2005 states: Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act, there shall be no obligation to give any citizen (a) Information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence

Sandalwood gift sparked flurry of RTIs
PM Narendra Modi’s gift of 2,500 kg of sandalwood to the Pashupatinath Temple in Nepal in August last year had become the subject of one of the highest number of RTIs to the MEA. The questions included the place where the trees had been chopped from, the cost of the 2,500 kg of sandalwood and whether the gift was legal, considering that export of sandalwood is prohibited.

Shawl for Sharif’s mom
Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam had gushed on Twitter about this shawl that Prime Minister Modi had sent for his mother after the Pakistan PM attended Modi’s swearing-in ceremony last year. “Thank u v much PM @narendramodi for the beautiful shawl for my grandmother. My father personally delivered it to her,” she wrote.

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