The fate of the whistle-blowers, killed because of use of Right to Information (RTI) to expose corruption and to demand transparency, continues unabated, despite the pandemic, with 10 RTI activists having lost their lives, across the country, since March 2020. And what is unnerving is that the cases continue to languish, thanks to apathetic attitude of law enforcing authorities, local authorities, media and society in general.
Since the implementation of the RTI Act in 2005, 91 RTI activists have been killed, 175 have been assaulted, 186 have been threatened and 7 have died by suicide, across the country.
“The increase in the number of attacks on RTI users and activists since March 2020 is very disturbing, to say the least,” says Venkatesh Nayak, RTI research scholar and programme coordinator of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). “Such instances are rampant in Odisha in particular. The increase in the number of activists killed during this period is indicative of the impunity with which vested interests are acting to prevent crucial information of public interest from seeing the light of the day.”
Pointing to the poor criminal justice system, Mr Nayak says, “India has not exactly covered itself in glory by dragging its feet in punishing the culprits.
"All in all the authorities across the states where such incidents have occurred, do not appear to be the least bit interested in protecting citizens who seek to realise the national motto— Satyameva jayate through their RTI interventions. Meanwhile, rampant corruption, misuse of public funds, illegal diversion and denial of relief meant for the most vulnerable segments of society continues unabated. The lockdown does not appear to act as a check on such illegal activities while law abiding citizens are forced to remain indoors.”
Senior journalist, Prasannakumar Keskar, co-author of Life and death in the time of RTI - a book based on research and ground level investigation of RTI murders in Maharashtra under a fellowship of CHRI, states, “The sheer number of murders of RTI activists is as worrisome as it could be but what I find more disturbing is the increasing tendency of the masses to either overlook, or at times to justify the killings. I vividly remember the shock and outrage expressed from all cross sections of the society when RTI activist Satish Shetty, was murdered, the first such case ever. Such a reaction from the society in general seems to have become almost extinct over the last few years as the entire socio-political atmosphere appears to have become vitiated due to increased polarization. In my opinion, these changing circumstances in the society around us are increasing the risk faced by not only the RTI workers but also journalists and influencers.’’
Following are the RTI activists who were slain or assaulted since March 2020, as per the data uploaded on the www.humanrightsinitiative.org website under the banner Hall of Shame:
1. Rohidas Dastir
Date of Incident: 6 April 2021
Location: Ahmednagar, Maharashtra
Rohidas Dastir, in his late-40s, was a journalist of a local weekly. He was allegedly kidnapped and was brutally killed in the Rahuri town of Ahmednagar district. There is not much information available except that he was an RTI activist and a case has been registered.
2. Sarbeswar Behura
Date of Incident: 27 March 2021
Location: Jaipur, Odisha
Sarbeswar Behura, an RTI activist, based in Jaipur district in Odisha, was critically assaulted when bombs were hurled at his four-wheeler in which he was travelling. Behura, who is also a political leader belonging to the BJP, consistently used RTI to expose massive corruption and financial irregularities in various government schemes. As per media reports, two months before he was assaulted, he had lodged a complaint with the Odisha Lokayukta, that certain people were conspiring to blow up an irrigation embankment with dynamites that inundated 4,000 hectares of standing paddy crop in seven gram panchayats of Jajpur district. The Lokayukta had asked the state government to probe the matter.
3. Amitabh Chand
Date of Incident: 4 March 2021
Type: Harrassed or Threatened
Location: Kendrapara, Odisha
RTI activist Amitabh Chand too belongs to Odisha. He had used RTI to expose how four members of a family got government jobs with fake certificates, besides other issues and hence he was threatened. On a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) by one of his colleagues, the NHRC had sought an action taken report (ATR) from the police.
4. Amrabhai Boricha
Date of Incident: 2 March 2021
Location: Bhavnagar, Gujarat
Gujarat-based Amarbhai Boricha, RTI activist as well as a Dalit rights activist, was hacked to death because he lodged a complaint under the SC/ST Act against several upper caste people who abused him while passing by. He was pressurised to withdraw the case but he did not. The police had provided two home guards to protect him but they too remained mute witnesses to the brutal assault. The attack, which occurred in front of his house, injured his daughter. A case has been registered. In 2019, Kaushik Parmar, an RTI activist from Gujarat had sought information on attacks on dalits in Gujarat. The RTI reply stated that 1,545 cases were filed which included 22 murders and 104 incidents of rape.
5. Barkur Shankar Shanti
Date of Incident: 20 February 2021
Location: Udupi, Karnataka
RTI activist Barkur Shankar Shanti was brutally assaulted in a temple, which has incapacitated him for life. He used RTI to expose corruption in various government departments. The main accused in this assault is a PWD contractor. Though a FIR has been lodged, the accused, as per news reports, continue to go scot free. This case too is languishing.
6. KH Enoch
Date of incident: 20 January 2021
Location: Senapati, Manipur
RTI activist KH Enoch was abducted and assaulted because he sought information under RTI, on the dispersal of funds of various development projects of the autonomous district council of Senapati district, where he resides. As per news reports, the funds meant for Nagas, was misappropriated by leaders of other factions. As a result, he was abducted and kept in a lock-up for 10 days and tortured and pressurised to withdraw his RTI application. He gave in due to this threat and was fined Rs15 lakh for filing his RTI and a Rs1.5 lakh penalty was imposed on his wife for filing an FIR of her missing husband. Enoch had filed the RTI application along with K Johnson, an RTI activist. After seeing Enoch’s fate, Johnson has moved out of Senapati to Imphal.
7. Nelavelli Rama Rao
Date of Incident: 26 December 2020
Location: Khammam, Telangana
In this case, N Rama Rao, RTI activist and politician, was allegedly murdered by his close friend because he did not repay a loan of Rs15 lakh. There is no information on his RTI use except that the BJP district chief stated that Rao used RTI to expose corruption.
8. Zulfikar Qureshi
Date of Incident: 23 November 2020
RTI activist Zulfiqar Qureshi was shot dead and his son fatally attacked with a knife. He was also a politician and as per his leaders he used RTI to expose illegal scrap dealers.
9. Ramesh Maan
Date of Incident: 4 July 2020
Location: Hamidpur, Delhi
Veteran RTI activist Ramesh Mann was beaten to death in Hamidpur village on the outskirts of Delhi as he has sought legal intervention in the High Court against a construction company after he procured some sensational information under RTI.
10. Ramashankar Gupta
Date of Incident: 4 May 2020
Location: Mahendragarh, Madhya Pradesh
A veteran and well respected RTI activist, Ramashankar Gupta was assaulted while he was clicking photos of encroachment in a crematorium. Ever since the implementation of RTI, Gupta has been consistently filing RTI applications on various subjects.
As can be seen from the 10 cases of assault, threat and murder, there is little information on the progress of the cases, thus emboldening the antisocial elements to attack and silence the voice of the whistle-blowers!
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)