On December 27 last year, when the Right to Information (RTI) applicant, Yashwant Shinde, alleged that a senior Mumbai Police officer hit him in the latter’s office, his case merely added to the already high number of complaints of assaults on RTI applicants in Maharashtra. While the highest number of RTI applications filed each year in the country is in Maharashtra, the state also records the most number of murders and assaults on, and threats and harassment of, RTI applicants since the inception of the RTI Act, 2005.
The Common Wealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), a rights body that monitors ‘right to access of information’ in India, compiles attacks on users of the ‘Sunshine Act’ in four different categories. These are ‘killings’, ‘assaults’, ‘threats and harassment’ and ‘suicides’ of RTI applicants. Till date, Mahararshtra tops the list in all the categories.
“While Maharashtra is known to receive most RTI applications, there is no justifiable reason why it should also see most people getting attacked,” said Venkatesh Nayak, program head, access to information program, CHRI.
He added, “No accountability for wrongdoing is also making RTI activists vulnerable to such attacks.”
“RTI activists are detrimental to the government. The ruling party always tries to demotivate them. Now, instead of making laws to protect users, they are instead diluting the Act itself and creating a picture that RTI activists are not bona fide persons but crooks. It has been ten years, but the investigation is not over in my brother’s case,” said Sandeep Shetty, brother of activist Satish Shetty who had used the RTI to expose land scams before he was killed by unknown attackers in Talegaon in January 2010.
Shailesh Gandhi, former central information commissioner, said a “negative narrative” is compounding the problem for RTI activists. “A strong ‘negative narrative’ has been made that RTI activists or users are blackmailers, trouble makers and extortionists. The feeling is that you can hit them because they are bad. This is leading to people feeling justified when they hit them. BMC has issued circulars in the past calling them names, and sadly, even the Chief Justice of India said something wrong on RTI users,” said Gandhi.
RTI experts and activists say the best way to avoid such attacks is for all departments to put up information on their respective websites as part of suo motu disclosures and implement the Whistleblowers Protection Act. “They need to put information on their websites so that the issue of harassment and misuse does not arise. Simultaneously, they need to also implement the whistleblowers law so that people are protected,” said RTI activist and convenor of Mahiti Adhikar Manch, Bhaskar Pabhu.