human rights

At least 39 people who used Right to Information law have been murdered over the last decade

Records show that more than 250 Indians have been intimidated so far for using the law. Existing mechanisms to protect those who file RTIs are clearly failing.

A day after the tenth anniversary of the implementation of the Right To Information Act in India, on June 21, a retired college professor and his adult daughter were accosted close to their home in the Burdwan district of West Bengal by a local ward councillor and his associates.

The group beat up the elderly man, hit and molested his daughter, broke her phone, and stole the memory card inside it. After the two managed to flee and barricade themselves inside their home, a mob of almost a hundred people surrounded the house, threw stones and broke their windows, shouting threats of rape and murder.

Their assailants made the reason for their violence clear to them: the RTI application that the professor had filed at the Burdwan municipality enquiring about three illegal constructions being built adjacent to their home.

During the terrifying hours in which his family was barricaded inside their home, with the mob outside, the young woman repeatedly called the police control number, but there was no response. She was then forced to call her colleagues and friends in Kolkata, who notified the police. Despite having later filed an FIR with the police, the family lives in fear, while their attackers are roaming free.

The daughter described the incident on her Facebook page and wrote about it on another site as well. She sent Scroll.in a copy of the FIR.

The police has made no arrests. The investigating officer on the case declined to speak to this reporter. Both the superintendent of police and the chief inspector of Burdwan were unavailable for comment despite repeated attempts to reach them.

Vulnerable citizens

Cases of harassment, violence and even murder directly linked to the filing of RTI requests have become a regular occurrence in India. Just a few days before the attack in Burdwan, on  June 13, an RTI activist named Guru Prasad, in Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh, was murdered by the village Pradhan, Trilokinath, because he had sought information on the development of the village, according to a news report. Guru Prasad had been threatened by the Pradhan for daring to question his authority. Prasad had sat in dharna for five days, and was killed at night after he returned home.

The Indian Express reported on July 5 that 17-year-old college student Yallalinga Kuruba was found dead one day after he had filed an RTI application on the implementation of development programmes in his village, Kanakapura, in northern Karnataka. The police are currently investigating the role of local Congress leader Hanumesh Nayak in connection with Yallalinga’s death.

The intimidation is not always physical, but can greatly disrupt the lives of ordinary citizens who are exercising their right to demand transparency and accountability from those who govern in their name. This is because of the lack of safeguards protecting them from powerful organisations and individuals who have a stake in obscuring the information being sought. On the June 5 for instance, a little boy in Hyderabad was rusticated from his school because his father had filed an RTI request about the fees charged by the institution.

Failing mechanisms

While there has been some discussion on the number of RTI requests piling up and the delay in filling the vacancies at the Central Information Commission, the vulnerability of ordinary citizens using the RTI Act often gets little attention. The Whistleblower’s Protection Act, which was passed on May 9, 2014, is yet to become operational.

Existing mechanisms to protect those who file RTIs are clearly failing. Although a division bench of the Calcutta High Court ruled in 2013 that an RTI request could be filed anonymously, by only using a post box number instead of a name and address, Kolkata-based RTI activist Sabir Ahmed said that all the requests he had filed in this way had not been accepted.

There is no real mechanism to record how many people have filed RTI requests and how many have been targeted because they have exercised their right to file the RTI. However, the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information has been compiling, as far as possible, recorded attacks directly linked to the filing of an RTI request.

As of December 2013, about 250 people had been targeted in some way or another for filing an RTI application. This included harassment, violence, attacks on property and murder. Venkatesh Nayak, coordinator of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Co-Convenor, NCPRI, said that these attacks might have crossed 275 as of June 2015. Out of these, about 39 are murders.

The actual number of attacks may be higher, but it is difficult to determine the full extent since the central government does not collect data about these attacks, relying on individual states to deal with them because they pertain to law and order. There is also no process to ensure that adequate police protection is given to people who are intimidated and attacked following their filing of RTI requests.

In Yallalinga’s case, his death was ruled as a suicide by the police until his mother approached the superintendent of police. In the case of the Burdwan attack, the victims say that they do not have police protection when they leave home, and that a witness who resides in the same neighbourhood had been threatened by the perpetrators of the attacks.

All these attacks have been the direct result of people asking for more information about illegal mining and construction, exposing corruption and illegal activities, exposing police inaction and similar situations in which they have come up against powerful entities with a huge stake in not revealing the information sought.

Human rights defenders

In August 2011, the NCPRI petitioned the department of personnel and training to request the National Human Rights Commission to issue guidelines pertaining to complaints about attacks on RTI users and activists, by treating them as human rights defenders. This is based on the United Nations’ 1998 Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, a measure seeking to protect those who are at risk because they carry out human rights activities.

“The Government of India has no policy on the protection of human rights defenders, and neither do any of India's human rights commissions. The government must act swiftly to protect human rights defenders. It must provide effective protection to them, not just with the posting of police, but by ensuring that the law takes its due course and brings the guilty to book as soon as possible, and without any political bias influencing the judgement,” said Venkatesh Nayak.

To this end, in December 2013, as part of a submission to the Independent People’s Tribunal of the National Human Rights Commission, an NCPRI report describes the ways in which this body can protect ordinary citizens as they exercise their right to file RTIs. “The NHRC must be tasked with taking action on complaints of attacks on RTI users and seeking reports from the concerned police about the progress of investigation in criminal cases that may be filed in relation to such attacks,” it said.

“It may also give suitable directions for ensuring the safety of the victim’s life, family and property,” it added. “As the purpose of the attacks is often to deter the RTI user from making the information public, proactive disclosure of the records and documents in every case of attack will discourage potential masterminds from harming other RTI users in future. It is the certainty of punishment and the taking away of the shield of secrecy that will deter others from launching attacks on RTI users.”

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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.