On Friday, the Gujarat High Court overturned an order by the Central Information Commission asking the Gujarat University to produce Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s post-graduation degree.

Not only that, the court imposed a cost of Rs 25,000 on Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who had requested the information commission to disclose this information under the Right to Information Act.

The High Court order is in sharp contrast to the information commission’s order, which said that Modi’s degrees would not be “personal information” and therefore not exempt under the Right to Information Act.

This verdict by the Gujarat High Court comes after a long political tussle over Modi’s education qualifications, with his political opponents alleging that they are fabricated.

How did the case start?

In 2015, a man named Neeraj Saxena filed a right-to-information request asking for information about Kejriwal’s change of address in his voter ID card during the 2014 Delhi Assembly elections.

In response, Kejriwal wrote a letter in April 2016 saying that while he had no problem in making his information public, he had learnt that the commission had refused to make details regarding Modi’s degree public. Kejriwal said that there are allegations that Modi does not have a higher education degree.

As a consequence, he demanded that Modi’s undergraduate degree from Delhi University and postgraduate degree from Gujarat University should be made public. The commission took suo motu cognisance of this letter.

What did the CIC hold?

Subsequent to the letter, in 2016, the Central Information Commission held that the educational qualification of a public authority occupying a constitutional position is not personal information and does not fall under any exception of the Right to Information Act. It directed the public information officers of Delhi and Gujarat University to hand over copies of Modi’s degrees to Kejriwal. It also noted that the information about Modi’s degrees was already in the public domain.

Further, when a chief minister wants to know the information related to the degree of the prime minister, it would be “proper to disclose” it, the commission said.

However, the operation of this order was subsequently stayed by the Gujarat High Court in 2016 and the Delhi High Court in 2017.

A proster at the anti-CAA demonstration in Jantar Mantar, Delhi. Credit: Rohan Venkataramakrishnan.

What did the Gujarat High Court say?

Having put an interim stay in 2016, the Gujarat High Court finally overturned the commission’s order on Friday. The court said that Modi’s graduation degrees fell under the exceptions provided in Section 8 of the RTI Act which say that requests can be denied if the information sought was personal in nature that has no bearing on public activity or if the information is held by the authority in a fiduciary capacity.

Fiduciary relationships are based on trust, where one party is supposed to act to the benefit of the other, such as lawyer-client or doctor-patient.

However, the law also says that this information can still be made public if there is a larger public interest involved.

The court said that “professional records”, such as qualifications and evaluation reports, were personal information protected under the right to privacy. It also said that documents regarding educational qualification are held in a fiduciary capacity by a university. It added that the public’s curiosity cannot be equated with public interest, and that Modi’s constitutional post has no relation to his educational qualifications.

Kejriwal argued that since the Representation of Peoples Act requires candidates to disclose their educational qualifications in an affidavit, the voters have a right to know about it. However, the court said that this disclosure only pertained to mentioning the candidate’s educational qualification and not providing documents for it.

Further, the court criticised the Chief Information Commission’s order. It said that the commission, without any reasoning, held that it was not impacted by exceptions under the Right to Information Act. Further, it was “completely unsustainable” that the information should be given since a chief minister was asking for it.

BJP leaders Amit Shah and Arun Jaitley showing copies of Narendra Modi’s degree certificate in 2016. Credit: PTI.

Why the fine?

The court also argued that the commission relied on “extraneous considerations” while delivering the order. The court said that the manner in which the commission took cognisance of Kejriwal’s oral request constituted “indiscriminate misuse” and “mockery of the...RTI Act”. The law does not empower the commission to take suo motu cognisance of a request, it noted.

It also said that the universities would face difficulty in procuring the degrees. The commission also understood this, the High Court noted, since it did not provide a time limit to furnish the degrees. The law says if a request “disproportionately divert the resources” of public authorities, then a request can be denied.

It further said that Modi’s postgraduation degree was on Gujarat University’s website and that Kejriwal had not disputed the uploaded degree. Taking these factors into account, it imposed a cost of Rs 25,000 on Kejriwal.

What do experts think of the order?

Several right-to-information experts found fault with the Gujarat High Court’s order

Shailesh Gandhi, former Central Information Commissioner of India, said that the order was “legally unsound” as the case did not fall within any of the exceptions as stated by the High Court. “There is no fiduciary relationship between the university and the degree holder,” he said. “The university is not expected to act to a student’s benefit.”

Further, he said that the court had to also examine whether this was a public or a private activity, whether there is any invasion of privacy and would a person give this information to the Parliament or not since the law states that any information that cannot be denied to the legislature cannot be denied to any person as well. “They have not done any analysis of this issue,” he said.

Gandhi continued, “It is sad that the exceptions under the RTI Act are expanded to go beyond what Parliament wanted it to be.”

Jagdeep Chhokar, co-founder of the non-governmental organisation Association for Democratic Reforms said that there was actually an element of public interest relating to the prime minister’s educational qualifications. “The Supreme Court has held that the voter has the right to know the antecedents of the candidates,” he said. “These things are submitted by a candidate in a sworn affidavit and put on the Election Commission of India’s website.”

Chhokar continued, “It has been reported that Amit Shah disclosed these degrees in a press conference. So when the Home Minister talks about something in the public domain, it becomes public, what is there to prevent the university from giving a copy of it?”