Nowadays, Shiv Sena and its leaders have gone crazy, they have crossed all the boundaries of decency. They think that inking the faces of people will give them much needed publicity. However, sometimes that doesn’t work. Today, Shiv Sena had sacked the workers who assaulted and blackened the face of a Right to Information (RTI) activist at Latur in Marathwada region, after he “exposed” an illegal construction case. The activist Mallikarjun Bhaikatti, through an RTI query, revealed that around 14,000 square feet illegal construction was carried out in a four-storeyed building and boy’s hostel on the Latur-Nanded road. Bhaikatti had addressed a press conference at Latur on Thursday to “expose” the illegal construction. The Sena workers brought Bhaikatti to the college premises when around 4,000 students were present and assaulted him with an iron rod, before blackening his face. The injured RTI activist has been admitted to a hospital in Latur.
Earlier this month, Sena workers had blackened the face of Sudheendra Kulkarni, chairman of the Observer Research Foundation, in an ink attack ahead of the launch of ‘Neither a Hawk Nor a Dove: An Insider’s Account of Pakistan’s Foreign Relations’ authored by former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri. The Sena was opposed to a Pakistani politician coming to India and launching a book. Under pressure from the Shiv Sena a concert by Ghulam Ali was also cancelled in the city. The Sena’s actions have been criticised by many social think tanks and even common public.
In this country, RTI activist always risked their lives. Maharashtra ranks top in the number of attacks against, and murder of RTI activists. This indicates unholy nexus between corporates and politicians. No attacks are reported against RTI activists in Kerala and West Bengal. However, some of the data given below may not be authentic because in the name of RTI activists many people also undertake blackmailing business. Also all the charges of killings may not be true. 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.
RTI activists are vulnerable human rights defenders (HRDs) in India. Unlike other HRDs, a majority of the RTI activists are not part of an organisation; they often act alone, moved by anger at corruption and other illegal activities. RTI activists are vulnerable because they live in the same areas as public authorities and political leaders who do not want information about their activities to be disclosed. For the most part, human rights defenders receive media attention only when killed or seriously injured. When complaints are made by RTI activists, law enforcement personnel (who often work with corrupt officials) do not take appropriate action. The Right to Information Act, 2005 provides inadequate protection to whistleblowers. The Central Information Commission and the State Information Commissions are not mandated to deal with such threats or attacks or to provide protection when needed.
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. While Maharashtra’s Chief Information Commissioner 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. When it comes to comparing attacks in Maharashtra vis-a-vis states like Bihar, 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.
The attacks on RTI activists are actually attack on law itself. This is the only law by which common citizens can expose corruption, nepotism. Though it is an open weapon in the hands of common citizens it is also misused by many to blackmail. 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. There is a need to amend the RTI Act to provide the protection to those seeking information under the Act. The Asian Centre for Human Rights recommends that a separate chapter, “Protection of those seeking information under the(RTI) Act”, be inserted into the Act. Protection measures should include (a)mandatory, immediate registration of complaints of threats or attacks against RTI activists on the First Information Report and placing such FIRs before the magistrate or judge of the area within 24 hours for issuance of directions for protection of those under threats and their family members, and periodic review of such protection measures; (b)conducting inquiry into threats or attacks by a police officer not below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police/Assistant Commissioner of Police, to be concluded within 90 days; and (c)trial of the accused within six months. Further, concerned Public Information Officers, First Appellate Authorities and those directly related with the information sought under the RTI Act should be presumed to have abetted the offenses against the RTI activists unless evidence proves otherwise.