RTI Fighters

Any good deed and law will face bad politicking. The Right to Information (RTI) act is not an exception. The recent killing of Amit Jethwa in Gujarat is one among the many youngsters who lost their spirit and life to RTI killers. The Government which brought the law has the prime duty to protect its torchbearers.

Antara Dev Sen writes in The Deccan Chronicle

Earlier this week, Amit Jethwa was shot dead in front of the Gujarat high court. He was in his thirties, a caring, law-abiding citizen, committed to the environment, humanity and animal life. And like most dedicated souls, he believed that he could stem the rot in the system and make a difference by diligently using democratic tools of empowerment. He relied heavily on the Right to Information (RTI) Act to plug the holes in the system. Till the holes got him.

Amit Jethwa was fighting against illegal mining in the Gir forests, which hosts the world’s last Asiatic lions.

But he was up against the mining mafia, the forest department and politicians involved in the racket. Not an easy fight for a lone ranger. Besides, he had made enemies by campaigning against corruption. He had even got a Lokayukta placed in Gujarat.

But he was losing faith in civil society. Barely a week before he was gunned down he had told a reporter about his disenchantment. “I know how risky it is for me and my family to wage a war against the mining mafia”, he lamented. “Without the support of people nothing is possible.”

Which is precisely where the power of the RTI lies. In the hands of the masses, it is a potent tool to chisel democracy with. But in the hands of a lone passionate soul, it may be a dangerous weapon ready to explode in your face.

Information is power only when you are allowed to use it. It works wonders in a free society, where people have justiciable democratic rights, where governance has not failed as miserably as in our country.

The right to information can be a human right only where there has been a certain level of development, where certain democratic freedoms are protected. If the state cannot protect your right to life, it’s best not to exercise your right to information too much.

Are we shocked that Amit Jethwa was killed in public, in broad daylight, in front of the highest seat of justice in the state? Yes. But should we be? The state is Gujarat, where human rights are routinely violated, where you could be killed for convenience. Even as this activist was being gunned down, the Chief Minister, Mr Narendra Modi’s close aide, Mr Amit Shah, the junior home minister accused in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case, was audaciously dodging the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation). This is also the state where thousands were killed in the name of religion, and investigations into the murders so mired in corruption that the Supreme Court had to shift some cases out to other states for a fair trial.

So maybe we should not be shocked that Amit Jethwa, an activist who fought powerful people for the right and the good, was killed so brazenly in front of the Gujarat High Court. We should be shocked at our own impotence. At the way certain states can function as barely veiled banana republics, denying democratic rights and freedoms to Indian citizens.

But Gujarat, drowning as it is in the depths of deprivation, is not the only state to deny democratic rights and freedoms to citizens. Killers with political clout routinely go free everywhere in India. And RTI activists have been killed, attacked, and hounded around the country ever since the national RTI Act was passed in 2005.

Let’s look at some of the cases this year. In January 2010, Satish Shetty, 39, was hacked to death in Maharashtra. The activist had been battling land scams and government corruption, had received death threats and asked for police protection — which he didn’t get — and was killed while taking his morning walk.

In February, also in Maharashtra, RTI activist Arun Sawant was shot dead near the Badlapur Municipal Office in Thane for fighting administrative corruption. Meanwhile in Bihar, RTI activist Shashidhar Mishra was gunned down in front of his home in Begusarai. A tireless crusader against corruption in welfare schemes and the local government, he was called “Khabri Lal” for his dedication to information. Meanwhile in Gujarat, Vishram Laxman Dodiya, who had filed an RTI petition regarding illegal electricity connections by Torrent Power, was murdered.

In April, RTI activist Vitthal Gite, 39, was killed in Maharashtra for exposing village education scams. And in Andhra Pradesh, Sola Ranga Rao, 30, was murdered in front of his home for exposing corruption in the funding of the village drainage system.

In May, Dattatray Patil, 47, was murdered in Kolhapur, Maharashtra. A close associate of activist and RTI guru Anna Hazare, his fight against corruption had got some of the area’s top policemen removed and action initiated against local municipal corporators.

Besides murder, there are failed murder attempts, violent threats and fake police cases. Take Maharashtra.

In March, environmentalists Sumaira Abdulali and Naseer Jalal were ruthlessly attacked by a politically backed sand mafia in Raigad, and survived only because journalists accompanying them used their influence and mobile phones. None of the accused were arrested. In April, Abhay Patil, advocate and RTI activist, had a mob clamouring for blood at his door.

Apparently, they wanted him to withdraw all complaints of corruption against MLA Dilip Wagh. When his wife, a police constable, called the cops for help, they asked her to come to the police station and lodge a complaint. Later, she faced fake charges and was suspended, allegedly at the behest of home minister R.R. Patil.

Then in July, Ashok Kumar Shinde was attacked for his RTI and Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against a corruption racket in the Public Works Department linked to the Bombay high court.

Worse than physical assault is abusing the law to attack activists. Take the case of E. Rati Rao, senior scientist, activist and journalist, in Karnataka. In March she was charged with sedition and attempting to cause mutiny or communal discord for protesting against “encounters” and atrocities on dalits, tribals, Muslims and other minorities.

Meanwhile, in distant Orissa, another activist-journalist, Dandapani Mohapatra, was targeted by the police, his home raided and his books and magazines confiscated without a warrant. He was labelled as a suspected Maoist.

Activists fighting for our rights cannot win without our muscle. Once an RTI activist is killed, civil society must force the police to investigate not just the murder but all that he was unearthing. Only then will we be able to stop this murderous silencing of activists.

By not protecting RTI activists, by allowing cases of harassment they file to be closed without punishing the perpetrators, the state is failing to uphold the spirit of the RTI Act. And weakening the spirit of democracy.


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