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.
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.
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.”