MUMBAI: The murder of a young Right to Information activist from Bhiwandi was no aberration for a state that has seen the highest number of attacks on RTI activists since the Act’s debut in 2005.
Data gleaned by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) shows Maharashtra has seen 53 attacks on RTI activists, including nine cases of murder, over the last eight years. Gujarat comes second with 34 attacks, including 3 murders. Delhi, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka follow with over 10 reported attacks on RTI activists during the last eight years.
The data points to around 251 cases across India where people were either attacked, murdered, physically or mentally harassed or had their property damaged because of the information they sought under RTI. The data throws up 32 alleged murders and two suicides that were directly linked with RTI applications filed.
While there is no official, countrywide data on the number of people who file RTI applications, or the number of RTI activists assaulted in India, CHRI used publicly available data to gather the information. The organization has appealed to the public to send in any additional data on attacks on RTI activists that have not made it to the English media and are untraceable on the web. CHRI built on data initially collected by Nachiket Udupa of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information.
“Available data shows that Maharashtra receives the highest number of RTI applications every year and so it is statistically possible that the number of attacks are correspondingly higher in the state,” said Venkatesh Nayak of CHRI, adding that there is no data available on the number of RTI applications filed in UP. “It’s possible that, being a largely Hindi-speaking state, attacks on RTI activists may be covered in local language papers which are not accessible over the internet,” he added.
As for the large number of assaults in Gujarat, Nayak says this challenges the establishment’s view of good governance in the state. Incidentally, the Gujarat State Information Commission has never published an annual report on its website since the RTI Act was passed.
While Maharashtra’s Chief Information Commissioner Ratnakar Gaikwad points to the enormous number of appeals under the RTI act that the state receives, virtually equivalent to the number received by India’s central information commission, he hastens to add that the number of attacks on RTI activists is unacceptable for a progressive state like Maharashtra. He wants the state police to protect RTI activists under threat in order to pre-empt an attack.
When it comes to comparing attacks in Maharashtra visa-vise states like Bihar, Gaikwad, who was once election observer for Bihar, points to the nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and the police in the state, due to which the common man in Bihar may be afraid of filing RTI applications. Those who do file RTIs in Bihar may be afraid of taking the application to its logical conclusion, which is not the case in Maharashtra, says Gaikwad.
RTI crusader Shailesh Gandhi says there is a chance that Maharashtra may be more diligent in recording attacks on RTI activists when compared with other states in the country where the law and order situation is a lot worse. He feels the high figures for Maharashtra may not necessarily be a bad thing.
The attacks on people asking questions under the RTI Act are attacks not only on these individuals but on the law itself. This law is one of the rare weapons that citizens have to expose wrongdoing, nepotism and corruption, notwithstanding its misuse. These assaults are an index of state-encouraged disregard for the rule of law. The government needs to address this problem on an emergency basis.