By Venkatesh Nayak*
One more RTI activist has paid the price for demanding transparency with his life in Gujarat. On 9th March, 2018, Nanjibhai Sondarva (35) a resident of Manekwada village in Kotada Sangani taluka of Rajkot district was allegedly clubbed to death by six persons. The deceased’s father has claimed that the attack occurred soon after Nanjibhai filed an RTI application demanding transparency about funds spent on the construction of a road in his village. This was not the first time Nanjibhai had been attacked. He and other members of his family were allegedly assaulted one and a half years ago, by the village Sarpanch who was said to be furious at Nanjibhai for using RTI to expose financial irregularities in the developmental works undertaken in the village. Meghabhai, Nanjibhai’s father, is said to have named the Sarpanch in the complaint submitted to the local police, regarding the latest incident.
So far 11 RTI activists have lost their lives for questioning the “Gujarat Model of Development”
With the latest incident, the number of citizens and activists who used RTI to question the “Gujarat Model of Development” has risen to 11. There are at least 16 cases of assault on other RTI activists in Gujarat reported in various media sources since October, 2005 when the RTI Act was operationalised.
With this latest incident, the total number of victims, allegedly murdered for seeking information under RTI, across the country has gone up to 67. Details of these incidents as reported by the media are accessible on the Hall of Shame where we are Mapping Attacks on RTI Users across the country.
The attack occurred 3 months after NHRC directive to the Gujarat Government to protect RTI activists
Readers will remember, in October, 2015, a day before the Central Information Commission organised a National Convention to celebrate 10 years of the RTI Act and which was inaugurated by the Hon’ble Prime Minister, another 30-year old RTI activist- Ratansinh Chaudhary was murdered for exposing financial irregularities through RTI in Banaskantha.
Soon after the RTI fraternity in Gujarat alerted me about this 2015 incident, I filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission in New Delhi. The NHRC took cognizance of the complaint and followed up on this case for two years. In December 2017, while closing the case upon being satisfied that the police had acted in accordance with the law by sending the murder case up for trial, the NHRC issued a directive to the Government of Gujarat as follows:
1) that the family of the Late Ratansinh Chaudhary be provided security; and
2) the Government must ensure freedom of expression of RTI activists and HRDs (human rights defenders) and give them necessary protection as per law.
As the letter was addressed only to the District Superintendent of Police, Banaskantha, I alerted the NHRC’s Focal Point for HRDs about the urgent necessity of sending a similar letter to the State Government itself. The DSP, Banskantha would not be able to do much about ensuring security for RTI activists outside his jurisdiction. The HRD Focal Point promised to look into this discrepancy in the final action of the NHRC. Even as I wait for action taken by the NHRC on my further request, another murderous attack has occurred in Gujarat.
Are attacks on RTI activists a violation of the Hon’ble PM’s latest call to “Act Rightly”?
While inaugurating the CIC Bhawan- the newly constructed premises of the Central Information Commission at New Delhi- five days ago (6th March, 2018), the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India highlighted the efforts made by various Central Government Departments and agencies to bring more transparency in the implementation of social development programmes across the country. He underlined the importance of “informing people” in order to “empower them” and ensure their participation in governance.
Towards the end of his speech he also talked about the need to pay attention to “Act Rightly” just as much as RTI was getting widespread attention. He pointed out the need to link “rights”, particularly “fundamental rights” to “fundamental duties” mentioned in Article 51A of the Constitution. While Article 51A is not enforceable in courts, the spirit of 11 clauses that list out a range of duties, link in many ways to the endeavours of RTI users and activists across the country. By demanding transparency and accountability, they are upholding constitutional values, namely, the rule of law, social justice and corruption-free governance and also safeguarding public property by monitoring the use of public funds.
So when such conscientious and well-meaning citizens are attacked for “acting rightly”, is the State Government “acting rightly” by not doing enough to safeguard them? Does the Gujarat Government need an 11th wake-up call after 10 RTI users and activists have already been murdered in the State?
While true blue human rights activists must question this linkage of rights with duties, this is not the first time that such a connection made at the national level has come with links to Gujarat. In 1948 when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Mahatma Gandhi said:
“I learned from my illiterate mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved from from duty well done. Thus the very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship of the world. From this one fundamental statement, perhaps it is easy enough to define the duties of Man and Woman and correlate every right to some corresponding duty to be first performed. Every other right can be shown to be a usurpation hardly worth fighting for.”
This statement was reported on the front page of several English language dailies published in December 1948. Readers may like to visit the microfilm holdings of the Teen Murti Museum and Library to access these news reports.
Dr. B R Ambedkar’s scathing criticism of the caste system in India which has survived for more than two millennia by linking duties to social and ritual status to the detriment of every person born in the “lowest” castes (published in his celebrated but undelivered speech later published as Annihilation of Caste) adequately demonstrates the dangers of making such connections.
In the 21st century, who determines what is right? For a public official intent on hiding his or her corrupt activities, RTI interventions of citizens to expose them may not be an example of “acting rightly”. Even more dangerous is a majoritarian Government deciding what is “acting rightly”, inside or outside Parliament or through a stony silence, by allowing hardliner groups that run amok to determine and regulate citizen or group behaviour that is neither illegal nor illegitimate.
Is attacking people for eating beef or transporting cattle, attacking inter-faith weddings in the name of “love jihad”, preventing the freedom of expression by claims of hurt to sectarian sentiments and setting a bounty on the heads of artistes and cine actors, murdering members of political parties whose ideologies one opposes, or vandalising statues, or disrupting Parliamentary proceedings day after day, “acting rightly”? The “act rightly” exhortation needs serious debate across the country before it becomes a meme.
*Programme Coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi