Killings of RTI Activists: New Book Reveals Shocking Negligence in Investigations in Maharashtra
Over the past few years, Maharashtra witnessed brutal killing of Right to Information (RTI) activists from across the state. While studying and writing  a book on this, what my fellow researcher, writer Prasannakumar Keskar, and I found was the gross failure of the criminal justice system to identify and punish the murderers. Further, none of the 13 dead whistleblowers had any personal agenda or motive while seeking information under RTI and, yet, they were killed. Shockingly, in at least four cases, the accused were acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence. So, while the fact of murder is undeniable, nobody has been found guilty of committing the crime or killing RTI activists. 
 
It was, indeed, a matter of great satisfaction that Life and death in the time of RTI - a book based on research and ground investigations by yours truly along with Mr Keskar was e-released on Sunday, in the presence of India’s first chief information commissioner (CIC) Wajahat Habibullah and former central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi. 
 
Both of us had together won the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) fellowship in 2019 to do a comprehensive study on the brutal killings of 13 RTI activists of Maharashtra. The project was conceptualised and edited by Venkatesh Nayak, CHRI’s RTI researcher and we were given a three-month time framework, which extended a bit, due to the onerous task of finding facts that were sparse in the police stations, media and also with family members.
 
It was, indeed, a challenging task to follow up on all the 13 cases, spread over seven districts of Maharashtra and address a whole gamut of questions for each case. As we wrote in the prologue of the book, "We decided to examine the causes and the consequences of their RTI activism. We also looked at the manner in which the criminal justice system, namely, the police, the prosecution and the courts reacted to their killings. Did the system act swiftly enough to bring the culprits to book? How long and difficult was the road to justice for the bereaved families? Were their voices heard in the course of the investigation and prosecution? What impact did the gruesome violence have on the families and the immediate socio-political environment in which the victims lived? What was the role of oversight bodies like the State Information Commission, particularly with regard to the victims’ information requests that were processed by public authorities before these activists were attacked? Will we be able to access credible answers to these and other related questions during our field study?’’
 
The first established fact from our study is that none of these 13 whistle-blowers who met with brutal deaths, had any personal agenda or motive. This belies the rumour-mongering set about by government babus, politicians and even police, to brand these RTI activists as blackmailers!
 
From our study, it was clear that the slain RTI activists had sought information on the following issues of public interest for the larger good of the society. They were:
  • exposing corruption in cooperative societies and irregularities in cooperative banks;
  • unearthing land-grabbing and real estate scams involving the urban land mafia;
  • opposing the construction-realtor mafia in towns and cities;
  • exposing corruption and irregularities in granting building permissions by municipal corporations;
  • exposing defections of municipal corporators from one political party to another through corrupt means;
  • uncovering forgery of property records used for illicit gain;
  • unearthing irregularities like diversion of food grains under the mid-day meal scheme meant for school children;
  • unmasking the diversion of housing assistance benefits meant for poor families to ineligible persons;
  • uncovering illegal takeover of sugar factories by politicians;
  • exposing illegal sand mining;
  • unearthing irregularities in the staffing and management of educational institutions;
  • exposing irregularities in the disbursement of grants and hostel rooms for students from migrant families;
  • protecting the rights and entitlements of pavement hawkers and vendors;
  • laying bare irregularities in the transfer of key officials in civic bodies;
  • exposing misuse of public funds in the repairing the ancestral home of a well-known freedom fighter;
  • identifying truant employees of civic bodies;
  • unearthing corruption in the repair and maintenance of sewer works; and
  • exposing corruption in road repair and pavement construction works.
 
Then second glaring fact was the negligence, mostly deliberate, in police investigations for all the 13 cases.
 
The common thread being, acquittal of the accused due to haphazard or concocted information on police record and in several cases inordinate delay in which court trials have yet to begin, despite several years having gone by after the heinous crime. 
 
Hence, our observations in our research paper read thus: "This is mainly due to the absence of any concerted effort from any quarter- either government or civil society or the State Information Commission or the National Human Rights Commission (which treated at least one of the victims as a human rights defender) to document the aftermath of these murders.
 
“Official records relating to the criminal investigation and prosecution were hard to come by. Families often did not preserve records evidencing the RTI activism of the victims. The local RTI activist fraternity either did not have adequate knowledge of these cases or refused to speak with us fearing reprisals. 
 
“Equally worrisome was the hostile campaign run through the local media by vested interests, with active or tacit support from law enforcement agencies, to malign the victims about their motivations for activism resulting in social stigma for the bereaved families.’’
 
“The most worrisome discovery in this study is the failure of the criminal justice system to identify and punish the murderers. In at least four cases, the accused were acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence. So, while the fact of the murder is undeniable, nobody has been found guilty of committing the crime. In a majority of other cases the trial has not been completed. In one case, the police closed the matter saying it was a case of accidental death due to consumption of liquor. In another the police blamed the murder on an alleged extra-marital affair that the victim was having, without making inquiries about his RTI activism to examine the conspiracy angle.’’
 
There was intervention by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in two cases. What we stated was: “At least two of these cases were handed over to India’s apex crime investigation agency- the CBI after the local police failed to handle them in a professional manner. CBI boasts of a successful prosecution rate of 65-66% of the cases it handles every year. However, in the very first RTI-related murder case (Satish Shetty murder case) reported in Maharashtra, the CBI filed a closure report citing lack of prosecutable evidence against the accused. The victim’s brother has challenged this finding in the Supreme Court of India in a last ditch effort to seek justice. In another case, the CBI has announced a cash reward of Rs5 lakh for credible information about the culprits of the murder, having failed in its own investigative efforts.’’
 
The third fact that was revealed was that these RTI activists hail from various socio-economic strata of society. Some were successful businessmen, a few were farmers. Some belonged to middle-class families. At least one belonged to a nomadic tribe and another hailed from a family of migrant labourers. Some were highly educated; a few others did not go beyond basic schooling. Several were Maharashtrian in origin. A few of them had migrated from northern and western parts of India in search of a better life and livelihood opportunities. 
 
One of them had migrated to Maharashtra in order to escape persecution he faced for assisting law enforcement agencies in Delhi. At least three victims worked closely with prominent political parties but that did not afford them any extra layer of protection.
 
This is the report card of how the criminal justice system in Maharashtra responded to these murderous attacks that emerges at the end of our study.
 
 
(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”.) 
Comments
homijt
9 months ago
Most disturbing. It is most unfortunate that the situation is worsening every year. Reminds me of the late Nani Palkhiwala stating in one of his speeches that ''the morals of the politician, the police and the criminal are indistinguishable from each others".
sactel
9 months ago
Thank you and congratulate Vinita Deshmukh /Prasannakumar Keskar on coming up with this book !
deepak.narain
9 months ago
It is a very deplorable situation. All public authorities have failed in securing justice to the victims and their families. Criminals are more resourceful and powerful, irrespective of the parties in power in Maharashtra. I feel very disappointed.
Meenal Mamdani
9 months ago
Wow, you deserve an acknowledgement of your courage and tenacity in exposing the various govt and non-govt people who continue to conspire against exposing the rot in our civic and criminal justice system.
I sincerely hope that you take precautions for your own personal safety.
revribhav
9 months ago
It is since April 2008 that despite the written Office memorandum issued by CVC to ensure I am not harassed in any manner, India's no.1 non-life insurance company who successfully promote bribe takers are keeping me isolated in retaliation of my 200 or more RTI's that seek to distrub the status quo of protected and promoted employees of doubtful integrity. https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-most-corrupt-sectors-or-organizations-of-India/answer/ShriG-Soni
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