Skip to main content

Murder of RTI user in Mumbai: Urgent need for debate to protect RTI activists






By Venkatesh Nayak*

A few days ago, the media reported yet another gruesome instance of murder of an RTI user in Mumbai. The Mumbai Police are said to have arrested two suspects, including an ex-Corporator, during their investigation of this incident. Scores of RTI users have lost their lives for seeking information of public interest. Hundreds have been attacked, assaulted, harassed and threatened. Not all of them were seasoned RTI activists. Some were seeking information for the first time. So we have categorised them all as RTI users (to differentiate them from other information seekers in general) who have suffered at the hands of vested interests. Our preliminary findings are given below.

Hall of Shame: Main findings

In a country where the national motto is “satyameva jayate” (truth alone shall triumph), we have found media reports of more than 311 instances of attacks on or harassment of citizens who sought information under The Right to Information Act (RTI Act). Our database covers the period- 12 October, 2005 to 17 October, 2016. The attacks on RTI users have not ceased despite directions from several Information Commissions and State Governments to protect them from harm.
Enough is enough. It is time to showcase this disturbing phenomenon in a Hall of Shame – a virtual space where the instances of attacks on RTI users from harm are displayed prominently. CHRI is developing an online Google Map-based platform, to plot these media reports of attacks on RTI users, geographically. We are aiming to launch this platform in December.

Alleged murders of RTI users

Since the RTI Act came into force fully, at least 56 individuals are said to have paid the price of their lives for demanding transparency and accountability in government. Media reports indicate at least 51 murders and 5 suicides that can be linked to the victims’ use of RTI to seek information in public interest. Maharashtra tops this list with 10 alleged murders and at least 2 suicides (12 deaths) followed by Gujarat with 8 alleged murders and 1 suicide (9 deaths), Uttar Pradesh with 6 alleged murders and 1 suicide (7 deaths), Karnataka and Bihar (5 alleged murders each), Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand (3 alleged murders each), Madhya Pradesh (1 alleged murder and 1 suicide (2 deaths) Odisha (2 murders) and Delhi and Rajasthan (1 alleged murder each). 17 of the RTI users attacked or harassed are women. One woman died while trying to save her RTI-activist father-in-law from a murderous attack in Haryana during this period.

Alleged attacks or assaults on RTI users

The media has reported at least 130 instances of attacks or assaults including attempts to murder RTI users during this period. The total number of persons attacked or assaulted could be more than 150 because more than one person was attacked in some incidents. Again Maharashtra tops this list with 29 incidents, followed by Gujarat (15 incidents), Delhi (12 incidents), Karnataka (10 incidents), Odisha and Uttar Pradesh (9 incidents each), Haryana, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir(5 incidents each), Rajasthan (more than 4 incidents) Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Assam (4 incidents each), Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Goa (2 incidents each), Meghalaya, Manipur, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Daman and Diu (1 incident each).

Alleged harassment of or threats to RTI users

There are at least 125 reported instances of alleged harassment or threatening of RTI users across the country during the last 11 years. Here too, Maharashtra figures at the top of the list with 24 reported incidents, followed by Gujarat (15 incidents), Delhi (10 incidents), Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh (8 incidents each), Karnataka, Haryana and Bihar (7 incidents each), Meghalaya (6 incidents), Tamil Nadu (5 incidents), Punjab, Rajasthan and Manipur (4 incidents each), Odisha, Goa and Chhattisgarh (3 incidents each), Jammu and Kashmir and Madhya Pradesh (2 incidents each) and Telangana, Nagaland and West Bengal (1 incident each). In at least 9 cases across the country, media reports reveal alleged foisting of false cases on RTI users by the police.

Years of Shame

We have not come across reports of attacks on RTI users during the first three months of the implementation of the RTI Act in 2005. Attacks on RTI users were reported in all subsequent years. 2011 witnessed the most number of instances of attacks (83 reported incidents). 48 incidents were reported in 2012. In 2010 more than 47 incidents were reported. 36 incidents were reported in 2013, 26 incidents in 2014, 21 incidents in 2015, 15 incidents in 2009, 13 incidents in 2008 and 7 incidents in 2007. 14 incidents have been reported so far in 2016. We could find only one incident reported in 2006.

Protecting RTI users from harm

Some votaries of transparency have dismissed the phenomenon of attacks as insignificant (300+ instances), given the large number of citizens who use this law (1.75 crore RTI applications received since 2005). CHRI, along with other like-minded citizens and civil society actors, believes that every life is precious and adequate efforts must be made to prevent such attacks and to bring the culprits to face the consequences in law.
While inaugurating the new premises of the Uttar Pradesh State Information Commission in Lucknow in July, 2016, the Hon’ble Vice President of India, Shri M. Hamid Ansari, highlighted the phenomenon of attacks on RTI users in the following words and called for exemplary action against those found guilty:
“Fourth, the person demanding information under the RTI should be emboldened and secure. Of late, there have been reports of attack and assault on information seekers. This is disquieting and needs to be taken seriously and prevented. Even if the number of such reported cases is small, this shows the vulnerability of information seekers. Police authorities in States have to be sensitive to this and take effective steps to prevent the occurrence of such incidents. Exemplary punishment of the perpetrators would send a strong message around.”
The RTI Act is not geared to make the life and limb of an RTI user secure, perhaps because the phenomenon of attacks was not foreseen at the time of its drafting. Several civil society actors have called for the urgent implementation of the Whistleblowers Protection Act, 2011 (enacted in 2014) in order to protect RTI users who are attacked. With due respect to their views, I must say that this law is also not equipped to protect RTI users.
Under the whistleblower protection law, a citizen will be treated as a whistleblower only if he or she makes a complaint to the competent authority such as the Central Vigilance Commission, about a case of corruption or any offence committed by a public servant. In a large majority of cases listed in the database, the attacks, assaults or harassment occurred soon after the victim sought information in public interest, even before he or she obtained that information, let alone act on it. The obvious purpose of each attack is to discourage the victim from pursuing the RTI application to its logical conclusion. So in its present form, the Whistleblower Act cannot come to the rescue of RTI users.
Rather than create a new mechanism for protecting RTI users, the Information Commissions must be empowered to work in sync with other public authorities such as the police, the courts, the Human Rights Commissions, Vigilance Commissions or Lokayuktas to protect RTI users from harm at every stage. RTI users who are attacked for demanding transparency and accountability are indeed human rights defenders. The State and its specialised agencies listed above are duty bound to ensure the safety of every human rights defender. Wherever there are reports of the police foisting false cases on RTI users, such cases must be inquired into by independent agencies and the guilty officials must be proceeded against in accordance with the criminal law and the disciplinary rules applicable to them.
However, instead of paying urgent attention to this phenomenon, efforts are on to dilute the whistleblower protection law. The entire set of exemptions to disclosure listed under Section 8 of the RTI Act have been imported into the whistleblower law to prevent almost every kind of whistleblowing. Using national security as an excuse, the Cabinet Note attached to this amendment Bill bluntly implies that citizens cannot have an absolute right to blow the whistle on wrongdoing in government.
The Lok Sabha has already approved the Whistleblower Amendment Bill which also allows for the prosecution of whistleblowers under the draconian Official Secrets Act, 1923. The amendments are pending in the Rajya Sabha. There is an urgent need for crafting a credible and effective mechanism to protect both RTI users and whistleblowers from harm. The RTI Act and the Whistleblowers Protection Act must be interlinked in an innovative manner for this purpose. There is an urgent need for initiating a debate across the country on the best way of making such a linkage to protect RTI users and whistleblowers from harm.

Caveats regarding the database

We came across a database of attacks on RTI activists, first on Wikipedia, in 2011. Later this database was updated offline by Mr. Nachiketa Udupa for the National Campaign for Right to Information (NCPRI). 2012 onwards, CHRI has begun compiling such media reports building upon earlier work. In December that year, we made a submission to the Independent People’s Tribunal about this phenomenon and the kinds of information requests that proved dangerous to the RTI users.
I would like to draw the attention of readers to the following caveats while using this database:
1) This database is sourced from online media reports published in the English language only. We have not yet found a convenient method of accessing similar reports published on the local language news websites. So there could be many more instances of attacks and harassment reported in the local language media which we have not been able to capture in the database. I request readers to send us details of cases that we may have missed. Please send scanned copies of media reports of such attacks. Please send a summary translation of the news report indicating the name of the person(s) attacked or harassed, the date of the event and the name of the village or town and the district and State in which the incident occurred. It would also be useful to know the current status of the criminal cases, if registered by the police.
2) We have used Google news alerts as the primary means of sourcing information for updating this database. It is quite possible that Google alerts may have missed several media reports of such attacks from websites that may not be optimised for Google search. I request readers to send us weblinks of incidents of attacks on RTI users that we are missing from this database.
3) In the course of updating this database, we discovered, several weblinks for stories of attacks on RTI users had become inactive. While we have found alternative sources of information for many of them, there are a handful of cases whose live weblinks are not traceable through Google search. I request readers to send us scanned copies of news clippings of such stories that are missing from the database.
As soon as our Google Map-based platform is ready, readers will be able to access all the media reports of such attacks at one source.
To download the updated database created by CHRI on attacks on RTI users, click HERE

*Programme Coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), New Delhi. Kuwar Singh, a student at Symbiosis International University, Pune, and Su Rao, a student of McMasters University, Canada, have helped update the database during their internship at CHRI

Comments

TRENDING

Constitution day makes us remember and rethink the values that India stands for

By Dr. Kapilendra Das*  India, also known as Bharat, was liberated from British rule and gained Independence on August 15, 1947. So every year on 15th August we celebrate Independence Day throughout the country. The Indians felt the taste of freedom, but there were no rules and regulations to govern the country for which British rules were effective up to January 25, 1950. To govern India, the draft constitution was prepared by the Drafting Committee which was published in January 1948, and the same was finally adopted by the Constituent Assembly on 26 November 1949, the day of an important landmark in India’s journey as an independent, Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic, Republic. The constitution so adopted came into force on 26 January 1950. To memorize 26 January, every year we observe Republic Day throughout India. To mark rethinking and remembrance of the day of adoption of the constitution of India, 26 November has been celebrating as “Constituti

Seventh most vulnerable nation, effects of climate change can be seen in Bangladesh

Mashrur Siddique Bhuiyan*  From November 6–18, 2022, Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt is hosting the 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This two-week climate conference is critical for the globe because it occurs at a time when nations are coping with a global energy crisis, the conflict in Ukraine, rising inflation rates, and dwindling funding for climate adaptation. It also has great significance for Bangladesh, as the country's ability to maintain its economic growth depends on raising the necessary finances for urgent climate action and mitigation. This year’s theme is "Delivering for People and the Planet," which aims to hasten global climate action by lowering greenhouse gas emissions, fostering resilience and preparing for climate change's unavoidable effects, and increasing the flow of climate finance to developing nations. The goals of COP27 are based on the outcomes of COP21, which was held in Paris in 2015

Unsung, tens of Morbi youth of local fishing community saved many, many lives

By Rajiv Shah  It was indeed a treat to listen to Bhavik Raja, who spoke at a meeting of the Movement for Secular Democracy the other day in Ahmedabad. Speaking in chaste Gujarati, Raja recalled his childhood days in Mobi when he and his friends would often go to the town's Jhulto Pul (Hanging Bridge) in free time. I listened to him online. The bridge, which should have been given a heritage status, was handed over to the owners of a watch-making tycoon for repair. The repair was carried out so shoddily that it broke down in less than a week after it was opened for general public, leading to the death of more than 140 persons, many of them children. Raja, who formed a group of three-person activists' team on a fact-finding mission to Mobi, said, what isn't taken note of is how tens of youth, belonging to the local Muslim fishing community, jumped into the river and saved many, many lives. It's a marshy river, and to navigate in there is an extremely difficult exercise.

Zakir Naik tumult, Catholic Church power abuse: will Anwar Ibrahim save Malaysia?

Anwar Ibrahim By Jay Ihsan*  Anwar Ibrahim, a hardcore reformist who took a punch to his eye in 1998 from then inspector-general of police, Rahim Noor, has finally been given the mandate by Malaysians to serve as the nation's 10th prime minister. Anwar knows too well the burden of staying true to both trust and faith the people have in him requires every once of commitment and dedication. The question is will he be apologetic for his transgressions enroute to "rebuilding" Malaysia? In his overzealousness to get the job done, Anwar, 75, needs to safeguard every bit of gumption to address prickling issues plaguing the safety of the nation especially those involving communal sensitivities. For one, dare Anwar get rid of terrorist hate preacher and fugitive Zakir Naik for inciting religious unrest in Malaysia? In November 2016, India’s counter-terrorism agency filed an official complaint against Naik, holding him responsible for promoting religious hatred and unlawful activi

Ukraine war revitalizes silent competition between China and Russia in Central Asia

By John P. Ruehl  At the recent Commonwealth for Independent States (CIS) summit held on October 14 in Astana, Kazakhstan, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon expressed previously inconceivable remarks. His public admonishment of Russian President Vladimir Putin to treat Central Asian states with more respect showed the growing confidence of Central Asian leaders amid Russia’s embroilment in Ukraine and China’s expanding regional influence. After coming under Russian imperial rule in the 18th and 19th centuries , five Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan— emerged independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. While these countries remained heavily dependent on Russia for security, economic, and diplomatic support, China saw an opportunity in their vast resources and potential to facilitate trade across Eurasia. Chinese-backed development and commerce increased after the Soviet collapse and expanded further after the launch of China’s Belt an

Adequate attention not paid on changing human life to realize climate change aim

By Bharat Dogra  Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our times. It has to be checked as a matter of highest priority. Despite this adequate attention has not been given to how human life must change to realize this objective. We know that fossil fuels must be phased out and replaced by renewable energy. But is renewable energy capable of meeting the present day massive energy requirements, along with the increase taking place? Even if it is, what are the implications if renewable energy has to be scaled up to this level, and at such gigantic level won’t renewable energy also have very adverse consequences, although of a different kind? Such questions make the situation more complicated, but these have to be faced. So let us try to approach the issue in a somewhat different way. Since the daily consumption of various goods and utilities involves the use of fossil fuels in various ways, if all excessive, wasteful and harmful consumption can be given up, this will also lead

Integrating biodiversity for poverty removal still not binding for this UN body

Reacting to a statement of the executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity ( CBD ), United Nations, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, on the occasion of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, which fell on October 17, well-known Thiruvananthapuram-based ecologist S Faizi has objected to the CBD’s plan for “effective integration of biodiversity for poverty eradication”. *** I compliment you for issuing this statement . However, I am disappointed to see that the CBD COP's output on poverty and biodiversity, namely the Chennai Guidance is not even referred to in your statement, particularly so since the 12th COP has asked the Executive Secretary to "continue the work requested by the Conference of the Parties in decisions X/6 and XI/22, for the effective integration of biodiversity for poverty eradication and development, taking into account also the related decisions of the Conference of the Parties at its twelfth meeting" and to promote the Chennai

Much like earlier meetings, COP 27 fails to find real solution to overcome climate crisis

By NS Venkataraman* COP 27 in Egypt was organized with much fanfare and expectations, similar to COP 26 at Glasgow that was organised in 2021. While nothing significant was achieved in combating the climate crisis subsequent to the Glasgow Meet, one thought that COP 27 would be more productive and would find some real solutions to overcome the climate crisis. Leaders and representatives from most of the countries participated in the COP 27 including the President of USA, Prime Minister of UK and so many others. Cosmetic speeches were made by the leaders, committing themselves to save the world from global warming and noxious emissions. Finally, resolutions would be adopted after representatives of all countries put their heads together . With no tangible agreement about the fundamental issues, the resolutions would inevitably end up as face saving documents. During COP 27, the UAE President clearly said that the UAE would not reduce production of crude oil and natural gas. In t

Bangladesh to import diesel from India: Win-win situation amidst economic turmoil?

Kamal Uddin Mazumder*  Bangladesh and India had been sharing friendly and warm relations since 1971. Both of the countries have been kith and kin through crisis moments. Bangladesh has witnessed India’s support from the liberation war to the Covid-19 pandemic. As now the world is facing the repercussions of the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war through the economic crisis and the energy crisis, India is still with Bangladesh through a cooperative framework. The government of Bangladesh had decided to cut down its fuel consumption to keep up with the global energy crisis. It was necessary to import fuel at the cheapest possible rate to mitigate the crisis. Some talks had been initiated with countries like Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Brunei but India came forward first. The geographical proximity and the longest shared border had ushered multidimensional ways of cooperation and collaboration in many areas. The import of diesel from India through the pipeline is one of the prime example

Maldives migrants' death: Govt bodies haven't done enough for workers' safety, security

By Kirity Roy*  We have been notified by the media that a hazardous fire, which erupted in a cramped neighborhood of Maldivian capital Male, has killed 10 migrant workers including 9 Indians. We are much aggrieved by this incident, and sending our heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims. Many are missing. Almost half the population in the Maldivian capital constitutes of migrant workers, and out of them many are Indians. During the COVID-19 pandemic it was reported by many media outlets that due to the cramped and unsuitable living conditions, the disease spread more rapidly among the foreign workers than anywhere else in the country. This brought the light upon the serious housing problem for the migrant workers in the country. The current incident shows that the Government bodies have not done enough to ensure safety and security for the workers. While the United Nations have established the rights of the Migrant workers through the International Convention on the Prot