Amending the RTI Act Is About Cutting Troublesome Citizens Down to Size

In this centralising endeavour, the government is banking on the disarray among opposition political forces and the near extinction of their power.

At a time when there is country-wide demand that the modalities of the appointment of the election commissioners be amended to an independent collegium format in order to enhance the credibility of the Indian electoral system, guess what the government has done?

It has passed a Bill in the Lok Sabha seeking to take control over the tenure and salary structure of information commissioners without suggesting any persuasive rationale for so tightening the executive noose around citizens’ right to information – a right that has since its inception afforded to every Indian the prerogative to seek accountability from the government that she votes to power.

It is important to recall that scores of RTI activists have given their lives to uphold this revolutionary democratic right.

The executive disingenuously asserts that it has left the autonomy clause of the RTI Act untouched, so that there need ostensibly be no worry that the government intends to curtail the powers of the Central Information Commission and state commissions.

This piece of gratuitous innocence is best answered by a verse from Mirza Ghalib. As is well known, the great poet used to pride himself on his lineage and his fearless questioning of the powers-that-were: until he became a pensioner, dependent on the government’s goodwill and patronage. Which is when he said to himself:

Ghalib, vazifakhwar ho, do Shah ko dua,
Woh din gaye kehtey thhey naukar nahi houn main.

(Ghalib you are now a pensioner; so propitiate the King,
Gone are the days when you used to say I am nobody’s servant.)

Having seen how our election commissioners have conducted themselves in recent times, even without such service rules and conditions, it should not be hard to imagine what might happen to even the best-intentioned information commissioners should the terms of their tenure and salary be indeed appropriated by the executive.

Also read | An Appeal to MPs: Don’t Let NDA Deal a Death Blow to Right to Information

Look where you will, the simple fact is that in the worldwide contention between a red-necked political Right and a beleaguered Centre, the Indian Right is making big strides. It now seeks to make its parliamentary majority (based on a minority vote share of 38 %) a sine qua non for bringing forth any and all legislation that is conducive to derailing the balance between the right to exercise state power and the democratic and constitutional checks that hold such exercise of power accountable.

In this centralising endeavour, the government is banking on the disarray among opposition political forces and the near extinction of their power to mount popular challenges in public spaces.

Note that in Hong Kong, some two million citizens have for more than a month now been out on the streets protesting a Bill that seeks to empower the local administration to extradite arraigned parties to mainland China. Even after the administrator has retreated and declared that the Bill is “dead”, the protests do not subside, because their demand is for the government to declare that the Bill is “withdrawn”. Equally notably, the government there has not thought it fit to counter the mass protests with direct force – a stark contrast to the goings-on at home.

This week, no less than the governor of a state – Jammu and Kashmir, currently under Central rule – has publicly called upon gun-toting militants to shoot corrupt politicians and bureaucrats instead of targeting dutiful members of the state apparatus. The gentleman has subsequently modified his statement only to the extent of saying that perhaps it was not in order for him to have made such a call as governor, although as a citizen he holds on to the view he has expressed.

Imagine for a moment that a similar call had been made by an opposition politician for militants to eliminate mob-lynchers, eulogisers of Gandhi’s killers and rabid elements that use religious sentiments to instigate violence against “others”. Charges of sedition would have followed within seconds. But such instigation coming from the executive itself seems a matter merely of good intentions being badly articulated.

Also read | Information Panel Strength Hits All-Time Low in Modi Era

Many in India’s civil society are beginning to sense that things are truly going too far, and that it is time for “we the people” to be seen and heard. Some even recall the zeitgeist of the time in the decade of the 1970s, when the students’ movement in Gujarat led to the overwhelming people’s resolve – under Jayaprakash Narayan’s leadership – to assert the primacy of democracy, constitutional propriety and governmental accountability. Ironically, that was a movement of which our present rulers were a part.

It will remain to be seen in the coming days and months as to how the contention between suffocating state control and the constitutional prerogatives and liberties of institutions shapes itself – a developing story in which the Fourth Estate will sooner rather than later be called upon to examine its own conscience and role.

For now, taking inspiration from the resolute demand of the protesters in Honk Kong for withdrawal of their particular Bill, the demand for the withdrawal of the pernicious RTI Amendment Bill ought likewise to be made with conviction and resilience. It is, of course, to be hoped that the legislators in the Rajya Sabha will muster enough united clout to stop the Bill from becoming a law.

Badri Raina taught at Delhi University.