The killing of yet another RTI activist in Mumbai has brought into the question the weak mechanism of protection they have in order to defend themselves against people whose bugbear they become. In many cases, activists themselves had apprehended a danger to their lives. The latest among such killings, more than 40 so far in 10 years, occurred in Mumbai, where an RTI activist, Bhupendra Vira, was shot dead. It is suspected that a former corporator whose properties had been demolished as a consequence Vira’s RTI queries had a hand in the murder. The chief suspect and his son have been arrested.
RTI activist Shehla Masood was shot dead in front of her residence in Bhopal in 2011. She had barely stepped out and sat in the car parked in front of her house when assailants shot her in the neck. She died on the spot. Masood, 39, was to reach the Boat Club, where a signature campaign to support Anna Hazare and spread awareness regarding use of the RTI to mitigate corruption was scheduled. Inspector general of police (Bhopal Range) Shailendra Srivastava said the motive of the killers or their identities couldn’t be ascertained.
The RTI has been an instrument in bringing in transparency and curbing corruption, thereby enhancing democracy at various levels. But unless there is a way to protect the activists, the purpose behind such openness will be defeated.
Read: It’s our right to know
The late VP Singh as prime minister had talked about a law that would legally empower a person to ask for information on governmental matters. That was in 1989-90 and the country had to wait for 15 long years to get its Right to Information Act. Many irregularities such as the Adarsh Housing Society scam came to light because of the RTI. Similar had been the case with Maharashtra’s irrigation schemes.
It is also due to the RTI that we know that we do not know who called Mahatma Gandhi the ‘Father of the Nation’. A girl came up with this question. Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the Union home ministry knew the answer. Tentatively she was told it could be Subhas Chandra Bose.
This is not to say the RTI is working perfectly. Once HT had sought information from one department in Odisha under the RTI Act but got letters from scores of other offices under it, asking for more than Rs 9,000 before providing information.
There is another question here. If RTI activists cannot be protected, where is the guarantee that NGOs, which take on vested interests, can be protected? Or, for that matter, litigants to a dispute?