New Delhi: Even as the Delhi Police on Wednesday questioned RTI activist-journalist Pushp Sharma for a second day in connection with the authenticity of AYUSH ministry documents on which he based his story on Muslims allegedly being discriminated against by the Centre in the selection of yoga trainers and teachers, RTI activists say the investigation is the first of its kind they have seen since the Right to Information Act was passed..
They have also suggested that the journalist – accused by the AYUSH minister of fabricating an RTI reply – can, if he so desires, seek access to and take copies from the original file in the ministry from which the purported reply came.
Well known RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal said that in case the government challenges the authenticity of a document, an RTI activist can say, “I received these documents, please let me inspect the records.” But, he added, “it is not always easy to inspect the files, it is also possible that they may take the relevant page out of there.”
As for the use of forensics to establish if the paper in question was printed by the government, he said that would require investigation and prove to be a long-drawn process. “If someone is a real sufferer, he can ask for an inspection of the file. In 99.9 per cent cases the pages are numbered. The government will have to give access to the files and in case it refuses, the defendant can also ask for this access through the courts.”
Recalling that in the long period that he has been an RTI activist, he has not heard of the police questioning any RTI applicant like this, Agarwal said: “I have done so many exposures but never before has this kind of action been initiated. The government can deny the information, but never has the government even said why did you share the details with the media. Sometimes, in the Central Information Commission they even say we can show you the documents personally, but I refuse them, because what is their use then? Also if some other government official gives it out, then it amounts to breach of trust.”
Asked whether a junior official in a ministry could release information on his own without his or her seniors being in the know – Sharma believes this is the likely explanation for the controversial ‘Annexure 1’ (which contained the vital information on which he based his story) being sent to him – Agarwal said it is common for junior officials to provide the RTI replies. ‘It is not essential for senior officers to vet the information. Ideally they should not do it, because they are also the appellate authority and it is basic rule of the justice delivery system that the appellate authority should not be part of the decision making process. Still, normally they often go through the files, but not always.”
On how RTI applicants can protect themselves in case information is provided by some junior officials, the award-winning RTI activist said: “A risk is always involved, if the pages are not certified. If I were to play Devil’s advocate, what if I put a fake reply on behalf of the government, then what protection does the government have? What if someone tries to deliberately defame the government, what if he has four documents and deliberately files a fifth one. Of course, I am not mentioning this case in particular.”
As for the case of Pushp Sharma, Agarwal said the fact is the document the government is questioning – Annexure I – is not certified. “But then,” he said, “very few documents received from the government are certified, not even 10%. In this particular case, if he challenges [the government and insists] that he has received this in an RTI reply, but if the paper concerned goes missing from the file, then what will happen?”
Another RTI activist, P.P. Kapoor, who has exposed several land scams in Haryana over the past eight years, said normally not all papers received by activists are attested. “Sometimes they send attested ones, sometimes they don’t. We ask for certified copies under the RTI Act but don’t always receive them.”
So, he said, in case one of four pages received by an RTI applicant is a plain paper and the government claims it is fake, then the applicant should immediately demand an investigation. “They can look at the typing of the page, its quality and whether the government has used similar typesetting earlier. But this would require proper investigation.”
“I have never heard of such a case in which an RTI activist has been interrogated like this,” he said, adding that every activist has the right to inspect the files, take a copy of the files and also their samples. “There is a provision for it, they charge a per-hour fee for viewing the files and you can ask for a copy.”
Meanwhile, Zafarul Islam Khan, editor of Milli Gazette – which ran Pushp Sharma’s story, told The Wire that while he had read in some newspapers about his newspaper being charged under Section 153-A of the IPC for promoting hatred among communities and Section 468 (forgery for purpose of cheating), he has neither received notice of this or a call from the police.
He said the interrogation of Sharma, who was quizzed by the police for nearly four hours on Tuesday evening, began at 11 am on Wednesday. “Before going to the Kotla Mubarakpur police station he has taken all the original RTI applications and replies which were lying with us.”