By Venkatesh Nayak*
Readers may remember recent news reports of the alleged murder of 19-year old Rajesh @ Raju Sondharva a resident of Manekwada village in Rajkot district of Gujarat. Rajesh who belongs to the Dalit community was fighting for justice in a criminal case involving the murder of his father, the Late Nanjibhai Meghabhai Sondharva. In March 2018, Nanjibhai was allegedly murdered for exposing corruption in the construction of a road in his village through his RTI interventions.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has recently registered my complaint pressing for a thorough inquiry into the murder of Rajesh Sondharva. Last year, based on my complaint, the NHRC had sought reports of action taken by the Rajkot Police to investigate the circumstances leading to Nanjibhai’s murder. However the NHRC closed its inquiry into my complaint after the murder case was committed for trial.
According to media reports, Rajesh was attacked because he was trying to draw the attention of the trial court to the fact that one of the murder accused had violated the conditions of the bail granted to him. The latter was roaming around freely despite being barred from entering Rajkot district by the court.
Although Rajesh was not an RTI activist himself, this is the 14th instance of murder in Gujarat with an RTI connection. Since October 2005, media reports have linked at least 13 murders to citizens’ RTI interventions aimed at exposing corruption and wrong doing in the administration- the second highest after Maharashtra (17 alleged murders, so far).
The country-wide tally now stands at 83 reported cases of alleged murder and at least 165 cases of assault, 180 cases of harassment or threats- all targetting RTI users and activists. At least six cases of death by suicide have also been linked to RTI-activism of the victims. Click here for The Hall of Shame where we map and document instances of attacks on RTI users.
Rajesh Sondharva’s alleged murder is a glaring instance of impunity
In a country whose national motto is “satyameva jayate” (truth alone shall triumph), engraved at the foot of the national emblem, minted on every coin and printed on every currency note, the corrupt and the wicked who seek to silence the voice of people like the Sondharvas are increasingly triumphant.
Not only does the rule law fail the whistleblowing citizen again and again, the indifference of public functionaries mandated to deliver on this constitutional promise, makes seeking justice a nightmarish experience for the victim’s family.
Soon after Nanjibhai Sondharva was allegedly clubbed to death, in March 2018, for using RTI to expose corruption in a road construction project in his village, I submitted an online complaint to the NHRC seeking its urgent interventio. By virtue of his anti-corruption activities, Nanjibhai was a Human Rights Defender (HRD) in UN parlance.
The NHRC has a Focal Point to receive and inquire into complaints of attacks on or threats to HRDs. The mere act of NHRC seeking reports of the Government’s response into such cases makes a difference in the police investigation of such cases. Not only are the culprits sent to trial, the identity of conspirators is also unearthed in some cases.
However, as a matter of policy, the NHRC closes its inquiry into such complaints after the case is committed to a trial court. This is when the wheels of justice start going downhill as it happened in the case of Rajesh Sondharva. With the local police not doing enough to monitor and report to the trial court instances of violation of bail conditions by the accused, alleged murderers have a free run threatening and attacking the victim’s family.
Instead of ensuring foolproof protection for Rajesh Sondharva who was fighting for justice, the indifference of the criminal justice system resulted in his life being snuffed out. The absence of independent organisations like the NHRC, as observers at the trial proceedings, creates such an atmosphere of impunity. This is the crux of my latest complaint to the NHRC.
Rajkot Police refuses to upload the FIR on its website
Even more disturbing is the refusal of the Rajkot police to publicise a copy of the FIR relating to the alleged murder of Rajesh Sondharva. Uploading FIRs on the Police’s websites is a mandatory requirement as per the directions of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in the matter of Youth Bar Association of India vs Union of India & Ors.,[Writ Petition (Crl.) No. 68 of 2016, order dated 07 September, 2016].
The barely legible copy of the FIR attached to my complaint to the NHRC was sourced from human rights advocates based in Gujarat. The Rajkot Police has refused to put a copy of this FIR on the website claiming that it is a sensitive matter.
In the Youth Bar Asson. case the Hon’ble Supreme Court made an exception to the rule of proactive disclosure only for FIRs relating to sexual offences, offences under POCSO Act or those relating to terrorism or insurgency. The murder case of Rajesh Sondharva does not fit into any of these categories.
Bureaucratic bungling at the NHRC adds to the problem
In 2015, I had filed another complaint with the NHRC about the alleged murder of RTI activist Ratan Sinh Chaudhary at Garamdi village in Banaskantha district of Gujarat. Here too, the NHRC sought reports from the State Government about action taken by the police to investigate the murder. This complaint was also closed after the murder case was committed for trial.
The NHRC issued a direction to the Government of Gujarat “to ensure freedom of expression of RTI activists and HRDs and give them necessary protection as per law” (Click here for pages 18-22 of the 2nd attachment). However, the bureaucracy at the NHRC sent this recommendation only to the Head of the District Police, Banaskantha.
Soon after receiving a copy of this direction, I reminded the then HRD Focal Point on the telephone that such a direction must be addressed to the Secretary, Home Department and the Director General of Police, who are competent to implement the direction across the State. I did not receive any further intimation of action taken by the NHRC on this request. Now two more lives are lost in Gujarat. This could have been prevented through swift and resolute action by all concerned.
Will the Whistleblowers Protection Act ever see the light of day?
Parliament enacted the Whistleblowers Protection Act (WBP Act)more than five years ago, in February 2014. While the Lokpal Act, 2013 has barely come into force with the appointment of the full team, the WBP Act has not seen the light of day. Instead the Government pushed through the 16th Lok Sabha, a series of retrograde amendments that would have effectively discouraged any potential whistleblower from exposing corruption and wrong doing.
The proposed amendments barred inquiry into complaints if they were covered by any of the exemptions listed in Section 8(1) of The Right to Information Act, 2005 – imported lock stock and barrel into the WBP Act. Thankfully, that Bill has lapsed with the constitution of the 17th Lok Sabha.
Will the Government implement the WBP Act as it stands, without any retrograde amendments? Instead this law must now include strong measures of protection for RTI activists, anti-corruption crusaders and human rights defenders who seek to clean up the corrupt and unjust system that tramples on the human rights of the most marginalised and disadvantaged segments of society.
*Programme Head, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi