Right to Information (RTI) activist Bipin Agarwal, a resident of Motihari town of East Champaran district of Bihar, was shot dead on 24th September in broad daylight on a busy road, by two assailants astride a motorcycle. They allegedly killed him because of his incessant exposure of illegal encroachment (some of them influential people) of government land and other corruption issues. Bipin Agarwal used the RTI Act extensively to unearth damaging details about the encroachment.
Four days later, Abhinav Dhiman, a sub-divisional police officer (SDPO) investigating the case, offered an ‘initial hunch’ that the brutal murder was the result of a conspiracy by people affected by these RTI revelations.
While the outcome of the investigation is important, the late Bipin’s immediate family, especially his 70-year-old father, Vijay Agarwal, has more pressing and immediate concerns – the future of his grandchildren.
When Moneylife contacted Vijay Agarwal, he said, “My son was a small-time businessman and would spend most of his money in his RTI activism. For the last 10-15 years, he had been doggedly pursuing RTI for bank scams, corruption in local bodies and mainly illegal encroachments by private individuals on large tracts of government land. He had also filed a petition in the High Court for which many encroachers had been served notices to vacate the lands. The hearing of the case is still going on. But now that he is gone and we will never get him back, I am worried about the future of his three sons, aged eight, 10 and 13 years old. I would appeal to the administration and society to secure a good future by supporting their education. That is more important for me now than nabbing the criminals.”
The first information report (FIR) lodged by Vijay Kumar Agarwal at the Harsiddhi Police Station in Champaran, Bihar, states “Today, on 24th September, at around 10.30am, Bipin Kumar Agarwal paid a visit to a primary health centre (PHC). As he was returning from there and slowed down on his motorcycle, on the main road, two people, who were on a motorcycle, took out their pistols and started shooting at my son. He received four bullets. He got injured and fell to the ground, unconscious. Some passersby lifted him and took him to the hospital, but he died on the way. The hearings of a case of illegal encroachment were going on in the Patna High Court. Some people hatched a conspiracy to kill my son.”
This murder, like that of several other RTI activists, was committed in broad daylight and one wonders if it will meet the same fate as the others, witnesses found unreliable or turning hostile later.
Investigating officer SDPO Dhiman also confirmed that Bipin Agarwal, an RTI activist, had exposed specific encroachment of government land. This is interesting because police officers seldom acknowledge the work of slain RTI activists as whistle-blowers; on the contrary, they often badmouth them and call them blackmailers.
Bipin Agarwal’s story is similar to the torment faced by families of other RTI activists who are threatened by anti-social or goonda elements. Vijay Agarwal narrates a similar story. He says that “the untoward elements in the society and the local administration too have tortured our family. On 16th February this year, around 200 people came to our house, broke the main door, and dragged my daughter-in-law on the road. At that time, Bipin and I were out of the house and the children were in school. So, they attacked our women. I had lodged an FIR and three people had been detained, but the case is still pending.”
When asked whether they got police protection, Mr Agarwal said it is only after Bipin’s death, that police guarded their house for a couple of days and then left. He says his daughter-in-law is petrified; but says he is capable of guarding the family at home, on his own, though he is in his seventies.
Mr Agarwal says that there is a sea of RTI documents in his house - a collection of all information that Bipin procured from various public authorities since the last one and a half-decade. He does not know what to do about them but presently they have been sealed. Presently, some of the political leaders and media persons are frequent visitors but he does not expect it to last too long.
It is, indeed, tragic that whistle-blowers like Bipin Agarwal continue to fight their battles single-handedly. They are almost always vulnerable to untoward elements, ruthless local politicians and an indifferent police force. Another precious life is gone, in trying to bring transparency and expose corruption, involving influential people of that town.
In a research conducted by this author along with another senior journalist, Prasannakumar Keskar and instituted by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), the following were some of the major observations in the 13 RTI murder cases of Maharashtra – the reluctance of families of slain RTI activists to speak out due to fear; shoddy police investigations; police, branding RTI activists as blackmailers; witnesses turning hostile; inadequate legal support; and lack records in the police station.
The most worrisome discovery in this study that we conducted is the failure of the criminal justice system to identify and punish murderers. In this case, the father is asking for more than just justice - pleading for the academic and economic future of his grandchildren.
(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”.)