Listen to this article:
Patna: An East Champaran-based Right to information (RTI) activist who had raised the issue of illegal encroachment by land mafias in the district through his queries was shot dead in broad daylight on Friday.
45-year old Vipin Agarwal had gone to Harsiddhi block for some work when unknown assailants shot him and fled. He was taken to hospital in Motihari around 30 km away, where he was declared dead on arrival.
He was a resident of Harsiddhi panchayat and had been working as an RTI activist for more than a decade. Apart from his activism, he also ran a business.
“Four bullets were fired at him,” Pramod Paswan, SHO of Harsiddhi police station told The Wire.
He said that Vipin was going to the block office for some land-related matter around 11:30 am that day when two bike-borne criminals fired on him and fled.
The district SP has formed a special investigating team (SIT) to probe the matter.
According to family members, Vipin was continuously raising the issue of land encroachment. He had last year requested police protection as his house was attacked by unknown persons.
“He had filed many RTI queries regarding encroachment of government land in Harsidhi,” his father Vijay Agarwal said. “Last year, my house was attacked. We had informed the local police about it, but nothing was done.”
Targeted for a long time
According to locals, Vipin had filed many RTI applications, and in some cases, action was initiated which might have irked the land mafias.
Family members said that he had been targeted by the local administration as well as encroachers for some time.
He was arrested in 2015 for allegedly selling grain and rations available under government PDS. His family believes the charges against him were trumped up, in order to discourage him from exposing corruption.
On July 5, 2015, his wife Monica Devi had written a letter to the DM (district magistrate) when Vipin was in jail.
The letter said, “He had recently complained of irregularities against a local PDS dealer. His allegation was proved right and the licence was cancelled.” She had also mentioned that government land in Harsiddhi market was encroached upon by influential persons.
“On June 3, the dealer and a few land mafias together framed him for black marketing government ration and got him arrested,” she wrote in the letter.
He also filed a case in the Patna high court in 2013 over eight acres of land in the Harsiddhi market, which belongs to the government.
According to his relatives, he had first sought RTI response on the encroached land and then provided documents to district officials for further action. But the administration didn’t act. Then he filed a case at Patna high court. The court had issued notice to 90 persons to vacate the government land.
The Harshiddhi SHO said, “He was an RTI activist and around dozens of illegal houses which were built on government land were razed. Another case related to encroachment is pending with Patna high court.”
Areraj DSP Abhinav Dhiman, who is heading the SIT, said: “We have been conducting raids in search of the suspects. The matter looks to be related to land encroachers.”
Opposition parties demand security for RTI activists
Opposition parties have criticised the Nitish government after the news came to light.
CPI(ML) Liberation leader Kunal said, “We have sent a team to investigate the reason behind his murder. But the way RTI activists are being murdered in the state is a serious issue. We condemn the murder of Vipin Agarwal. Police should investigate the matter and arrest culprits.”
“RTI activists bring truth which exposes the government, administration and mafias. So they are angry with them. We demand security for RTI activists to be provided across the state”, he said.
RJD leader Nawal Kishore told The Wire, “RTI is the strongest weapon to expose corruption. Good governance will be a reality only when RTI activists act fearlessly. But in Bihar the murder of RTI activist shows that the government is not protecting RTI activists.”
“Police should immediately arrest the culprit and state government should ensure RTI activists’ security,” he said.
’20 RTI activists murdered since 2006′
Bihar has been notorious for the murder of RTI activists. Last year in January a Patna-based RTI activist Pankaj Kumar was murdered by unknown criminals. He too was active against encroachment of government land.
The first reported murder of an RTI activist in Bihar took place in the year 2010. Shashidhar Mishra, a resident of Phulwaria village in Begusarai, was shot dead near his house on the night of February 14, 2010. He exposed several scams and had sent out 1,000 RTI applications in a span of two years.
Since then, there have been reports of RIT activists being murdered almost every year.
So, far around 20 RTI activists have been murdered in Bihar, according to Shiv Prakash Rai, who is also an RTI activist and is the convenor of Nagrik Adhikar Manch.
“The state information commission should have stood by the side of RTI activists, but it is working for the state government. RTI activists are being humiliated by the information commission when they seek information. This gives criminals and land mafias a sense of state protection, so they are committing murders. The state government is completely failing in protecting RTI activists,” he told The Wire.
Bhagalpur-based RTI activist Ajit Singh told The Wire, “Bihar has become a risky place for RTI activists. The system has collapsed.”
“Many times I had written letters to the home ministry asking the state government to protect RTI activists. The home ministry writes a letter to the Bihar government, but the administration does not act,” he said.
“The irony is such that out of dozens of murders, only in one case, culprits were punished,” Shiv Prakash Rai said.
Rohtas-based RTI activist Narayan Giri says, “I was framed in a molestation case by police for exposing their wrongdoings which had resulted in departmental inquiry and fine against top district police official. Later, charges against me proved false.”
“But this is not an isolated case. We are being harassed continuously,” he said.