Backstory: With Mass Obedience as the New Mantra, We Need an RTI That Works

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

Thirteen years have passed, to the day, since the Right to Information (RTI) law came into force in India.

The backlash to it was immediate and one of the first challenges in preserving its integrity involved file jottings. Because those seemingly innocuous ink marks on the pages of a file could reveal the thinking behind the government’s decisions, both politicians and bureaucrats were insistent that these be kept out of the ambit of the Act.

That first battle was not easy but the important thing is that it was won – through a combination of inspirational activism, the support of former judges and politicians, and the advocacy of mainstream editors like Prabhash Joshi, who could grasp the connection between an information law and investigative journalism.

Joshi’s piece, ‘Hum Janenge, Hum Jiyenge’ (‘We will know, we will live’) in the Jansatta, was perhaps the first editorial comment on the new law in a mainstream Indian newspaper. Its title said it all. 

Today the challenge is of an altogether new order. Even before he came to power, Narendra Modi had made his distaste for the RTI law clear.

“Has the RTI given you something for your stomach?” he asked during his electioneering in 2014. Once his government was installed, ministers and babus quickly picked up their cue: as the number of rejected RTI applications grew, so did vacancies in both central and state level commissions.

Also read: RTI ‘Report Card’ Laments Pending Cases, Vacancies in Information Commissions

Jitendra Singh, then minister of state for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, even argued that this law should not be a “nuisance” and that applications should be filed only by people directly connected with the issue.

The intent to shrink the RTI to the point of extinction was patent. One of the first moves the Modi government made in its second avatar was to pass the RTI Amendment Bill, ending the fixed tenures to which the chief information commissioner and information commissioners were entitled.

The aim behind this tweaking of a transparency law was transparent: to control an institution, control those who run it.

Mass disobedience may have been the mantra during the nationalist struggle but in today’s India it’s all about mass obedience. Those who do not participate in the genuflections on the mats of this gigantic yoga session will be duly disciplined. 

The sedition charge brought against the 49 intellectuals who had written an open letter to the prime minister protesting the growing incidents of mob lynching is just one example. As The Wire piece entitled, ‘The Dissenting, Questioning Citizen is Now the Enemy of the State’ (October 7) observes, “This is farcical, but frighteningly so. Stupidity with a menacing edge is a dangerous combination — it can destroy lives… Any one writing a letter to the prime minister, even if polite in tone and with a reasonable point of view, could be called a traitor and thrown into jail.” 

The interesting aspect about this episode’s denouement was that it didn’t provoke any response from the man to whom the letter was addressed, even as BJP spokespersons steadily kept up their “what about?” argumentation on every television chat show. It was only after five days, and many more letters of protest to the prime minister, that the Bihar police was handed the onerous duty of withdrawing the charge.

Action will be taken against the petitioner, it promised. What about the magistrate who saw nothing wrong in the complaint? What about the various instances of draconian action taken against others? What about the six students of the Mahatma Gandhi Antarashtriya Hindi Viswavidyalaya (MGAHV) in Wardha, who have been expelled for the ‘crime’ of planning an event during which letters to the prime minister were to be written?

Also read: Who’s Afraid of the RTI Act?

This is classic gas lighting – and the future will witness more of these experiments at disciplining the recalcitrant and rebellious.

But their numbers, despite the state’s mailed fist, is also growing (‘Eminent Citizens Write to Modi, Kovind on ‘Unacceptable’ Situation in Kashmir’, October 7; ‘Postcards to the PM: Why Students’ Solidarity With Kashmir Is Significant’, October 9; ‘IITians Write to Centre Against ‘Brutalisation’ of Kashmiris’, October 9).

Even in Kashmir, people have not stopped protesting, and media persons spoke silently to the world though placards (‘In Srinagar, Journalists’ Protest Ban on Internet, Mobile Service Across Kashmir’, October 3). 

The importance of a well-functioning RTI Act cannot be overstated in such times. All the more so, when media houses are losing the appetite they once had in deploying it to reveal inconvenient truths.

The Rafale deal’s anomalies remain interred under an avalanche of fake information. The recent reportage about Union defence minister’s visit to the Rafale production unit in Mérignac, France, focused more on the ‘Shastra Puja’ he conducted there, than anything else.

The headlines of this story had a significant error. The Wire, too, got it wrong.

Its headline went, ‘As Rajnath Singh Receives First Rafale Aircraft, Here’s What We Still Don’t Know About the Deal’ (October 8). Technically, Singh did not “receive” any aircraft.

Also read: Over 30,000 RTI Appeals and Complaints Are Pending Before the Information Commission

But it is with regard to another story that the RTI would have played a vital role: the repression on children mounted by the J&K police.

Two of the country’s more prominent child rights activists had to petition the Supreme Court, seeking the release of illegally detained children after Article 370 was read down (‘’Urgent, Disturbing’: PIL in SC on Kashmir Children ‘Illegally Detained, Maimed‘, September 15).  The petition observed that the state was “acting in violation of both specific laws with respect to children and also of constitutional principles and international child rights commitments”.

The J&K Police, in its response to the J&K High Court on it, categorically refuted the allegation and the court was happy to go with the police version.

The mainstream media, with characteristic disregard for the fine print, used the police statements to hector the petitioners for defaming the government. They did not care to look at the data presented by the police which told another story. A former judge of the Patna high court, going through this data, set the record straight in these columns (‘Jammu and Kashmir Police Has Violated the JJ Act in Detaining Children’, October 7).

Using the police’s own figures, she revealed how 75 children living under various police jurisdictions were “arrested”, with some being kept in observation homes for varying periods as a ‘preventive measure’. She concluded: “These figures demonstrate that either the police is ignorant of the ban on preventive detention contained in Section 18 of the Juvenile Justice Act, or, despite it, have acted in violation of it.” 

The concern of the petitioners was therefore valid. In more rational times they would have been hailed as truly patriotic. The full story of this scandal in a region that has been under a state-imposed gag for over nine weeks may take years to emerge.

Reports that have made their way through the chinks, such as the searing tragedy of Osaib Altaf that The Wire carried, with supporting visual evidence (‘Funeral Video Busts ‘No Deaths, No Kids in Jail’ Report J&K Police Sent Supreme Court’, October 4), which refutes the police claim that no child has died in this interregnum, are extremely rare.

Altaf died on August 5, even as the country was getting acquainted with Amit Shah’s game plan for J&K. Most Kashmiris, however, including includes Altaf’s family, were in the dark about it. According to his father, the youth was playing near the foot overbridge in Parampora and was cornered by the security forces. Terrified, he leapt into the river, holding on to bushes to keep himself from falling in. The armed personnel hit his hands leading to his death by drowning. Altaf’s was a cold blooded murder yet this case never made it to the report filed by the police before the high court. 

Kashmiris run for cover as unseen security forces fire teargas shells during clashes in Srinagar on August 30, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

In this effort to subjugate a region, information – both in its use and abuse – plays a role that complements the State’s armed might. The people have little by way of protection with even the local courts failing to deliver justice. A functioning RTI would have been an asset in their hands.  The reality, however, is that the system is broken, as a well-known RTI expert discovered (‘Home Ministry Believes in Internet Ban, Mass Detention But Not in Paperwork’, October 7).

Having filed an RTI online on August 30, seeking information from the Ministry of Home Affairs on a range of issues concerning J&K, from the copy of order to suspend the internet and telecom services to the names of RTI activists in J&K who have been detained, he waited patiently for a response. This is what followed: “The Central Public Information Officers (CPIOs) in the MHA seem to have played soccer with my RTI application for a few of weeks, moving it from desk to desk within the J&K division of the ministry. Both CPIOs eventually replied that they did not have any of the information sought in my RTI application.”

The RTI law could be powerful in the hands of the citizen, certainly. But that is precisely why the Modi government wants it to be reduced to a farce.

No gag on media for Malegaon trial

Institutional capture and collapse is the story of the day, but occasionally there’s a glimmer of hope. The National Investigative Agency (NIA) argued before a Special Court, that the trial on the Malegaon blast case needs to be held in-camera.

This demand is not surprising considering that those accused are Sangh favourites, including BJP MP Pragya Singh Thakur and Prasad Purohit. Special Judge V.S. Padalkar however ruled it out, saying the media plays an important role in ensuring that correct information reaches the public.

Also read: Court Rejects NIA Plea for In-Camera Proceedings, Media to Report on Malegaon Blast Case

He wanted the proceedings to be transparently conducted, which demanded the presence of the media. Journalists, on their part, were asked by the court to provide proof of identity, desist from revealing names of witnesses and report the facts of the case without being speculative or interpretative.

Brickbats that shatter the window pane

There was that old phrase, much beloved of sub-editors of the ancien regime, “bouquets and brickbats”. Well, it’s useful to describe the contents of my mail bag.

The brickbats come flying through the window panes, shattering the glass, sometimes allowing the bouquets to come through!

Take this solid response from someone going by the pseudonym Zoho Zoha, and who signs off as ‘An Indian’: “Why the heck are you always promoting negative news. In many cases your ideological belief against a party or person turns out to be against India. You guys have the entire team to defame India. In recent days I haven’t seen a single positive news about India. I believe in constructive feedback and criticism but at the same time don’t forget to appreciate the great moves made by the government. Professional ethics demands this. There are multiple other ways to make money. Please don’t make your negative stance a business model to earn money or favour a particular party or individual – or to take revenge. Don’t misuse the press freedom and freedom of expression.” 

Difficult for an old fogey like me to understand how criticism of the government can be construed as “misuse of press freedom”, but it doesn’t surprise.

Also read: The Fate of Press Freedom in India Over the Years

Then take some of the responses to a shout out from a founding editor of The Wire on how it has become the “the first independent all-digital news platform launched in the past decade to reach the half a million milestone.”

C.A. Alpesh Kikani tweeted back darkly, “Half a million followers on Twitter doesn’t they all are reading and viewing your c**p..It means they follow you to know how much low you people can stoop for your hate against someone.”

Another unnamed tweeter explained that he/she was a Wire follower “just to be sure that India has a set of internal enemies who need to be tackled”.  Someone called Manjari Gupta raged that this portal “is just another product of Yellow Journalism. Don’t get hopes too high.” 

But the bouquets too flew in.  One tweet went: “A big thanks to the editors and the intrepid team of the Wire.in for keeping journalism alive in India And for truly following Justice Black’s dictum : ‘Press is to Serve the Governed and Not the Governors’. 

Another reader, Gaurav Vats, tweeted: “Vow. Since the first day, I was rooting for The Wire to succeed. You are still here, not only surviving but thriving is a testament to the fact that we have some sanity left in us. Thank you for being the beacon of hope in the dark times. Thanks a lot.” 

Then there was this note of appreciation sent some time ago from Major Gen S.G. Vombatkere: “I cannot begin to express my appreciation of the courageous decision of all you “accused” members of The Wire in the Jay Amit Shah case for having withdrawn your plea in Supreme Court and deciding to fight out your case in the trial court. Your decision is in the larger national interest of the freedom of the media, and I hope and pray (as many, many others would do) that you succeed in defeating the charges against you all. May the powers be with you all! Satyameva jayate!” 

Meanwhile Ritesh Ranjan, who works as an android developer with Zomato, is “quite impressed” with Wire’s work, and wants to be part of it because “you can’t just ask darkness to disappear if you don’t have courage to find light”.

Although he has “no skills when it comes to journalism”, he would like to help out with the tech side of things. Ranjan has seen The Wire’s Hindi app on Play Store and thinks it’s good. But he has a suggestion: there needs to be uniformity across apps. He also believes it’s not good policy to have separate apps for separate bases. What I found particularly disarming about his mail was his offer to work for this portal on a pro bono basis because “I know it’s tough being an independent editorial concern”.

All he wants in return are some “great stories and the odd cup of tea.”

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in