During the ongoing Supreme Court hearings challenging the Aadhaar programme, the central government has shifted positions on the issue of making Aadhaar mandatory for mobile connections. In late April, HuffPost India published a story about the Lokniti Foundation, a “secretive organisation” that had filed a petition seeking “100% verification of the mobile phone subscribers.” The story noted that Lokniti had filed multiple public interest litigations in the Supreme Court to elicit governmental reforms. New evidence, obtained through a Right to Information request, reveals that ten of Lokniti’s 17 founding members are civil servants. The discovery raises important questions about the organisation’s relationship with the government, and the circumstances surrounding its petition.
The Lokniti Foundation filed the PIL in 2016, citing grievances with telecom companies’ customer-verification processes and claiming that making Aadhaar mandatory for mobile SIMs would be a boon for national security. In February 2017, the Supreme Court issued an order disposing of the petition without issuing any explicit directions, but “complimenting the petitioner” for filing it. The following month, the government cited this order and issued a circular that directed cellular providers to “re-verify all existing mobile subscribers … through Aadhaar based E-KYC process.” But in April this year, the Supreme Court bench hearing the Aadhaar cases told the counsels representing the central government, “In fact there was no direction from the Supreme Court, but you took it and used it as a tool to make Aadhaar mandatory for mobile users.” In a subsequent hearing, the attorney general, KK Venugopal, argued that the circular was nonetheless based on the February 2017 order, in which the court had expressed its “hope and expectation” that the verification would be completed within a year.
The RTI response provides the names and occupations of the 17 individuals who requested to form the Lokniti Foundation when it was registered by Delhi’s registrar of societies in 2008. The HuffPost report quotes Sharad Goel—the secretary of the Lokniti Foundation—who said the organisation was “the brainchild of Shatrujeet Singh Kapoor,” a senior IPS officer serving in Haryana. It further noted concerns expressed by retired members of the Indian Administrative Service, who questioned the propriety of civil servants approaching the Supreme Court through PILs while they are still working in the government.
In addition to Shatrujeet Kapoor (spelled “Kapur” in the RTI response), the response lists nine other members with the occupation of “public servant.” The names listed in the RTI response corresponded with the names of several civil servants whose details I was able to find online. These include RP Upadhyay, the Delhi Police’s special commissioner of police (crime); Mahendra Ranga, a commissioner with the goods and service tax intelligence in Delhi; Ishwar Singh, an inspector general with the Punjab Police; Rajvir Singh, a director general with the Comptroller and Auditor General of India; Yogpal Singh, an Indian Revenue Service officer currently serving with the Enforcement Directorate; and more.
One of the members of the Lokniti Foundation explained, on the condition of anonymity, how the foundation came to be formed: “Actually, we all trained together”—as civil servants. “We are the same batch; all are friends. So we decided to get this NGO registered and take up causes which are important from a national-security point of view, or public-service point of view.” The identification of these ten founding members and their governmental affiliations significantly expand the scope of what we know about the Lokniti Foundation and its potential areas of influence.
Rajvir Singh, an Indian Audits and Accounts Service officer of the 1991 cadre, who is currently a director general posted with the Comptroller and Auditor General, was one of the few founding members who agreed to discuss the Lokniti Foundation. He said he had resigned from Lokniti “long back,” but could not recall when he left the organisation. Singh said all the civil-servant members of Lokniti had disclosed to the government that “we are part of this NGO” and the nature of work it would be undertaking. But he added that the members would like to remain “in the background” and “behind the curtain” because government departments could ask them to stop being involved with the organisation.
According to Singh, Lokniti’s work was necessary because the government “is very slow,” and departments often do not move in unison. But PILs, he said, “can speed up” the process of enacting change. He told me that the organisation had prepared a response to the HuffPost story, which challenged, among other points, the story’s claim that Lokniti was “secretive” and “controversial.” He insisted that the Lokniti Foundation was “not advancing government’s agenda.” Singh even said that the Supreme Court’s February order “has not said that Aadhaar should be linked” with mobile connections. The telecommunications department, he said, “may have read into” the order “as per their convenience.” He continued, “Do you think we are responsible for this? No.”
However, the other founding members of the Lokniti Foundation were not as forward as Singh. Mahendra Ranga, an IRS officer employed with Delhi’s directorate general of goods and services tax intelligence, claimed he “did not have any information” about Lokniti and hung up within seconds. Yogpal Singh, another founding member from the 1991 civil-service batch, also cut the call without a word after I asked him about the Lokniti Foundation. Ishwar Singh, an IPS officer of the 1993 batch, who is currently the inspector general of police heading the Punjab police’s NRI Affairs and Women Welfare wing, too, hung up immediately upon being asked about the organisation.
Three other public servants were listed as founding members of the organisation—RP Upadhyay, an IPS officer of the 1991 batch, Shyam Bhagat Negi, an IPS officer from the 1990 Himachal Pradesh cadre; and Dwijendra Nath Singh, an Indian Forest Service officer from the 1987 cadre, who was posted as director in the department of defence production in 2011. I was unable to reach any of them for comment. The final two names listed as public servants are “Shalender Singh” and “Ravindra Nath Singh”—I was not able to find any civil servants with corresponding names online.
There are seven founding members who are not listed in the RTI response as public servants—of these, five are described as having careers in “business,” one in “medicine” and one as an “advocate.” All seven are also listed as members of the Lokniti Foundation’s “Governing Body, to whom the management of Society is entrusted.” Jagdish Solanki, a Delhi-based doctor, is listed as the “vice president” of Lokniti, but I was unable to reach him for comment. I was also unable to trace the identities of Raj Kumar, Baljit Singh and Deepak Gupta—all of whom are listed as businessmen, and identified as the general secretary, the treasurer and an executive committee member of the organisation, respectively.
AR Takkar, a Chandigarh-based advocate, is listed in the RTI as an “executive committee member” of the Lokniti Foundation. Takkar told me he was “not an active member” of the organisation. “I don’t even know what’s going on.” He added that when it was being formed, “I was told that this is an organisation for the welfare of people—for implementing traffic laws and all that, for rules and to help public at large.” But, according to Takkar, nobody approached him after he joined the society. When I asked him whether he thought it was appropriate for civil servants to be part of efforts such as Lokniti’s, Takkar responded: “To my mind, anybody—whether it’s a civil servant or anybody—they’re doing a good job, how does it matter?”
In mid April, I met Sharad Goel, the secretary of the Lokniti Foundation, who told me he was “personal friends” with many of the organisation’s members. Civil servants, he said, “can’t hold any position” in the Lokniti Foundation—they can only be members—because there might be “chances to misuse their position.” Goel also mentioned that Lakshmi Narain Yadava, who is listed as the organisation’s president, is now “ineffective because he’s very old,” and no longer manages Lokniti’s functioning.
Goel said that the members of the Lokniti Foundation “entrusted me to hold the position”—of secretary—“because I’m experienced in holding the position of NGOs.” He told me that he also leads an NGO called “Nature International”—the website for which lists the same address and phone number as those listed for the Lokniti Foundation. Nature International is not the only entity listed with that address—in fact, the Registrar of Companies lists that Sharad Goel has been a director in 11 different companies, three of which had been listed with the same registered address.
In late March, I spoke with Ashok Dhamija, a Supreme Court advocate and a former IPS officer who worked with the CBI, who said he had worked with the Lokniti Foundation on several occasions. Dhamija told me that Lokniti’s primary work is to elicit “system reforms” through PILs. He said the organisation had filed “a total of five PILs in the Supreme Court,” and that he had drafted all of them, including one seeking reforms to increase the transparency of recruitment processes for aspiring police officers. Dhamija added that the Lokniti Foundation is currently working on some additional petitions, though he declined to discuss their contents.
One of Lokniti’s older PILs, filed in 2012, appears to hold as much influence as the mobile-linking petition. It calls for the DNA profiling of certain individuals, particularly of unidentified bodies, to match them with old cases of missing persons. Dhamija described the petition, in effect, as a request that the government follow through on a 2007 proposal to bring a similar law. Filing the PIL, he said, was effectively telling the government, “Five years have passed and you’re not doing anything, so kindly expedite it.” In early May, while a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court was hearing Lokniti’s petition, the centre announced that it would be introducing the Human DNA Profiling Bill in the monsoon session of parliament this year. In light of this disclosure, the bench disposed of the case.
I asked Rajvir Singh if he thought the public had a right to know about the members constituting the Lokniti Foundation, given the nature of its influence. He answered, “When we are doing something bad, they have every right to know who we are.” But “if we are doing some good things, I think there is no need.”