By Venkatesh Nayak*
The print and electronic media have reported the recent murder of right to information (RTI) activist Ratansinh Chaudhary, aged 30, in Garamdi village in Suigam taluka of Banaskantha district, Gujarat, on October 17, 2015. This is the eighth instance of murder of an RTI activist in Gujarat, second only to Maharashtra in this dubious distinction. Four residents of the village are said to have accosted him and his son while he was walking in his farm and hit him on the head repeatedly, with stout sticks, resulting in his death. Registering an FIR on the basis of the complaint the deceased’s father, the police has identified all four perpetrators and is investigating the circumstances in which the murder occurred.
According to media reports, Ratansinh had demanded information from the District Collector and the District Development Officer (DDO) about the manner of distribution of flood relief package in his area recently. Suspicion of irregularities in relief distribution due to the alleged nexus between local politicians and bureaucrats is said to have triggered the RTI intervention. The murder is said to have occurred even before the information was supplied to the the Late Ratansinh.
Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP) team has proceeded to the village to ascertain details of the case, in particular the RTI interventions attempted by late Ratansinh Chaudhary in a bid to demand proactive disclosure and widespread dissemination of all information sought by the deceased.
Ironically, less than 24 hours before the ghastly incident took place, Prime Minister of India declared that citizens should not only have the right to get access to information from public authorities, but also have the right to question the administration. He was speaking at the inaugural session of the Annual Convention of the Central Information Commission organised in New Delhi (October 16-17, 2015) to commemorate the completion of 10 years of implementation of the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act). Little did he, or his audience, or the numerous viewers who watched the live telecast of the inaugural session, expect a citizen to pay the price of his life for daring to question the Government in the very first week of the 2nd decade of the RTI Act.
Demanding the truth, let alone questioning government action, is increasingly becoming injurious to citizens’ health across India. In a cricket crazed country, Ratansinh’s alleged murder takes the total to the ‘diabolical’ figure of 50 since the implementation of the RTI Act. The Whistleblowers Protection Act, 2014 is stillborn with no plan for its effective implementation at either the Central or the State level. Instead the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government has piloted regressive amendments to this unimplemented law which will discourage many a potential whistleblower from coming forward to expose corruption and wrongdoing in Government. The Lok Sabha has already approved these amendments and they are pending consideration of the Rajya Sabha.
The NDA Government’s rationale for the regressive amendments contained in the Cabinet Note attached to the amendment proposals, revealed under RTI, is that citizens cannot have an absolute right to blow the whistle on corruption and wrongdoing. Meanwhile the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013 intended to create apex anti-corruption institutions at the Central and State level has also remained a dead letter with both the United Progressive Alliance and the NDA Governments successively dragging their feet over its implementation.
Furthermore, the assets disclosure provisions for public servants and their families contained in the Lokpal Act have been challenged before the High Courts by the spouses of bureaucrats claiming privacy. Now that the Supreme Court has agreed that it is doubtful whether there is a fundamental right to privacy guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution and has moved to form a Constitution Bench to decide the matter conclusively, what will happen to these cases, and consequently The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act is anybody’s guess.
That the latest instance of murder has occurred in a state that is most tom-tommed about for its ‘great governance and development record’ comes as no surprise given the controversial nature of these claims. The electoral promise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the largest partner of the NDA Government and which is also in power currently in Gujarat – “sabka saath – sabka vikas” (with all, for the development of all) seems to be leaving out from its scope whistleblowers, RTI activists and anti-corruption crusaders who only demand the practical realisation of India’s national motto- “satyameva jayate” (truth alone shall triumph).
The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) demands an impartial investigation into the alleged murder of Ratansinh Chaudhary under the supervision of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), as the deceased was a human rights defender. NHRC-monitored investigations of such instances in the past have revealed the identity of conspirators behind such murders in addition to the role of the perpetrators.
CHRI also demands that the Gujarat Information Commission immediately seek details of all pending and disposed RTI applications filed by the deceased with the district administration in Banaskantha and ensure that all the information that he sought is disclosed under the provisions of the RTI Act immediately on the websites of the respective departments and on notice boards of the village, taluka and district administration. This action will frustrate the motives of the perpetrators of the crime as their efforts to keep the information under wraps would have gone in vain.
*Programme Coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi