15 retired information commissioners have written a letter to the Chief Justice of India highlighting how the high courts are staying the orders of information commissions.
There are many developments in this country that her people should now treat as an alarm and there is no question of hitting the snooze button any more or it will be too late, because slowly, all our rights are being taken away, including the right to ask questions. Some more developments in the last month should actually make people realise what exactly this current Bharatiya Janata Party-led government up to. What is perturbing is that while half of India at least staunchly supported that pathological puller of fast ones, Anna Hazare, none of these supporters have been following the news on the manner in which the Right to Information Act is being blunted. It has gone beyond the stage of dilution.
On Monday, the first Chief Information Officer Shailesh Gandhi wrote that 15 retired information commissioners have written a letter to the Chief Justice of India highlighting how the high courts are staying the orders of information commissions, thereby disallowing the public from being informed. Mind you, it is all within the spectrum of public information and they are being denied this information. Best to keep the masses ignorant, eh?
We are living in times when already our bureaucracy and most of all, the police have become anti-Muslim, anti-activist, anti-Naxal and, to a large extent, anti-woman – one need not challenge the last, because the primitive mindset is still at the primordial stage of evolution – one which can process women walking into a police station and registering a First Information Report without being scrutinised and questioned. Constitutional rights be damned. But this is not just about women. Now, we have the media, judiciary, Reserve Bank and Right to Information Act, which too are being dissolved. All are being over shadowed by the looming ghost of the ‘greatest leader’ of this nation.
In August, a journalist, Saurav Das, filed an RTI query with the department for the promotion of industry and internal trade, wherein he specifically asked for information pertaining to the supply of oxygen. There is already a case underway in the apex court and we have heard that the Government of India merrily lie in the Rajya Sabha that there were no deaths due to lack of oxygen during the second wave, this year. In fact, 629 patients in 120 hospitals across India died for want of oxygen. Now the RTI Act mandates if there is any information pertaining to a citizen’s life and liberty, within 48 hours the information should be provided. So does this mean the Government of India cares two hoots about the lives of citizens? It is left to your intelligence to draw your conclusions.
Imagine, this is the body that first gave us the right to get information based on specific queries from the administration and various agencies. Now, this same body has, in one instance, snatched away the right of public seeking answers. This very CIC has stayed the order of the First Appellate Authority of the Reserve Bank of India to divulge information on non-performing assets, along with the list of top defaulters of the Saraswat Cooperative Bank in Mumbai. This decision is contrary to the Supreme Court’s order, which held this information was disclosable.
A few years ago, some friends had discussed about how many Muslims the nationalised and private banks have given loans to and what was the financial bracket? This discussion was regarding why a large section of Muslims only get loans from private people or only specific banks giving them loans. Accordingly, I filed a query under RTI requesting them to send me the details. They forwarded it to the State Bank of India but both SBI and the Central bank refused to reply. In such circumstances, where agencies are reluctant to act justly, can one be held responsible for drawing conclusions?
In this interim, again on Monday, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued notices to the Central government, Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh governments and various authorities, asking about the farmers’ protests. In its statement, the NHRC claimed it had received several complaints regarding the ongoing farmers’ protests. (Speaking of which, this human rights body desperately needs to check the spellcheck option and get someone on board for language use and to mind its grammar while it minds our rights). It reads: “There are allegations of adverse impact on the industrial units, seriously affecting more than 9000 micro, medium, and large companies. Allegedly, transportation is also adversely impacted, causing the commuters, patients, physically challenged people and senior citizens to suffer due to the heavy congestion on roads….” It further states, “Since the agitation involves the issue of human rights whereas the right to agitate in a peaceful manner is also to be respected. The Commission needs to take care of various human rights issues.” Obviously, the Central government is facing a huge setback as it has refused to rollback the three farm laws, refused to accept the demands of the farmers and most of all, is dismayed over the fact of the farmers not having called off their protests. They have used their usual strong-arm tactics, slapped sections and cases against many farmers, blocked the road with trucks, heavy vehicles, but this government fails in street smartness. The farmers, who are the backbone of this country – do not forget they produce what we eat, till today, have outsmarted the thuggish government tactics and the old, young, new among them have all simply walked under these monstrous vehicles parked and attended the Kisan Maha Sabha in large numbers, where they openly spoke of toppling this government.
Readers must be made aware that 13 activists are still in jail for more than three years for allegedly conspiring to topple this government. They are facing anti-terror, sedition and several charges. While it is legitimate in a democracy to come together to topple an elected government, wait a second – isn’t that exactly how this government came into power? By using an activist – Anna Hazare, civil society, a former Army General, a former IPS female officer and heaps of planning and marketing they got here. But if anyone else does it, it is anti-national, is it? Now, our farmers too have been tarred with the same brush.
Interestingly, around this time, four special rapporteurs of the United Nations have expressed concern about the custodial torture and death of a Kashmiri Hurriyat leader, Ashraf Sehrai. Sehrai was arrested under the Public Safety Act (PSA) 1978) and died of multiple ailments in a government hospital in May, this year. In fact, even the death of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, one of the founding members of Hurriyat and the manner in which his last rites were conducted by the Indian authorities has caused much alarm globally. The International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR), a Paris-based non-profit agency has raised concerns of “serious human rights violations” that are inconsistent with India’s “international human rights obligations”.
However, most of mainstream media has been ignoring the farmers’ protests and those who do cover it blatantly blame the farmers of toppling the government through elections, sadly having forgotten that it is the fundamental right of a citizen in our democracy. The farmers are seen correcting the reporters, but sadly, even the anchors sitting in Delhi have forgotten their basic civics. At a two-day Kisan Mahasabha, a resolution was passed and a Bharat Bandh has been called on September 25. This marks one year since the controversial three bills for agricultural reforms were passed.
Independent media, which have kept the issue of the farmers’ protests burning, along with other issues, taken a stand and pinned down the BJP-led government, are feeling the heat. Income-Tax authorities conducted 12 hours of ‘surveys’ on the premises of NewsClick and Newslaundry. Details of their phone accounts, along with their data and documents were seized by the authorities.
Neeta Kolhatkar is a senior journalist with over 30 years of work experience across different media platforms. She is currently a freelancer and media consultant.
(Views Expressed Are Personal)