When conscientious and well-meaning citizens are attacked for “acting rightly”, is the government “acting rightly” by not doing enough to safeguard them?
Yet another Right to Information (RTI) activist in Gujarat has paid with his life for demanding transparency. On March 9, Nanjibhai Sondarva (35), a resident of Manekvada village in Kotda Sangani taluka of Rajkot district, was allegedly clubbed to death by six people.
The deceased’s father has claimed that the attack occurred soon after Sondarvai filed an RTI application demanding transparency about the funds spent on the construction of a road in his village.
This was, however, not the first time that Sondarva had been attacked. A year-and-a-half ago, he and other members of his family were assaulted, allegedly by the village sarpanch who apparently was furious at Sondarva for using the 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.
Costly to seek information on ‘Gujarat model’ of development
With the latest incident, the number of citizens and activists killed for using the RTI to question the ‘Gujarat model’ has risen to 11. Since October 2005 – when the RTI Act became operational – there have been reports of at least 16 cases of assault in the media on other RTI activists in Gujarat.
Across the country, the total number of those murdered allegedly for seeking information under the RTI has now risen to 67. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative has been mapping these attacks across the country using details available in the media.
The latest attack occurred three months after a National Human Human Rights Commission (NHRC) directive to the Gujarat government to protect RTI activists.
In October 2015, a day before the Central Information Commission (CIC) organised a national convention to celebrate ten years of the RTI Act – inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi – 30-year-old RTI activist Ratansinh Chaudhary was murdered for exposing financial irregularities in the Banaskantha district of the state.
Soon after the RTI fraternity in Gujarat alerted me about this 2015 incident, I filed a complaint with the NHRC in New Delhi. The organisation took cognisance 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 directed the Gujarat government to provide security to Chaudhary’s family and “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 need for sending a similar letter to the state government. The Banskantha DSP would have little luck in ensuring security for RTI activists outside his jurisdiction.
The HRD focal point, in turn, promised to look into this discrepancy in the final action of the NHRC. Even as I wait for an action on my further request, another attack has occurred in Gujarat.
While inaugurating CIC Bhawan, the newly-constructed premises of the commission at New Delhi, on March 6, the prime minister 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 like the RTI Act in our country”. 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? Did the Gujarat government need an 11th wake-up call after ten RTI users and activists had already been murdered in the state?
While human rights activists must question this linkage of rights with duties, this is not the first time that such a connection has been made at the national level with links to Gujarat. In 1947, when the UN was debating 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 1947.
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 the 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.
Venkatesh Nayak is programme coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi.