The Supreme Court recently ruled that protection of whistleblowers is a state subject. In a murder case the Bihar State Information Commission refused to acknowledge the victim as an RTI activist; will NHRC succeed?
Perhaps not many would remember that RTI (Right to Information) activist Ram Vilas Singh who dared to use RTI to unearth corruption and misuse of development funds in the Amhara gram panchayat of Bihar was brazenly shot dead in his Bavangavan village in December last year. His crime was to ask information under RTI pertaining to financial irregularities in construction of check dams; appointment of Anganwadi workers and hoarding and black marketing of commodities distributed through the Public Distribution System.
Strangely, the Bihar State Information Commission refused to acknowledge him as a RTI activist and therefore, did not suo motu pass an order to the concerned departments of the gram panchayat to voluntarily disclose information he had asked for and put it in the public domain. Nor did the police department take immediate action, allowing miscreants to roam free.
Also, the Sub-Divisional Police Officer’s (SDPO) first report filed by his son, clearly speaks of a conspiracy to eliminate Singh due to his RTI activism. The conspiracy is said to have been hatched by one of the accused in this case who was spending time in jail on account of being an accused in another murder case. Despite this police report confirming that Singh was a RTI activist the Bihar State Information Commission has remained indifferent.
Also, the Supreme Court recently, in a hearing of a public interest litigation seeking safety for whistleblowers stated that, “the incidents of killings (of whistle-blowers and RTI activists) are tragic and unfortunate, but law and order is a state subject. It is for the state government to take action. We cannot issue guidelines…”
Taking up the cudgels of this indifference to whistleblowers and activists who stake their life for the society, social activist, Venkatesh Nayak, programme coordinator of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) made a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in February 2012 for justice to Ram Vilas Singh. NHRC sent a letter to the Deputy Inspector General of Police (Human Rights), Bihar, seeking a report on the incident by submitting “a further report as to the outcome of the investigation.” Nayak received a reply last week from the NHRC containing a copy of the report submitted by SDPO on the orders of the DIGP. Nayak states that the report hints at a larger conspiracy to eliminate Singh and suggests more investigations into the conspiracy angle. The NHRC has asked Nayak and other complainants to submit their suggestions on the report sent by the SDPO by 25 January 2013. Thereafter, NHRC will take further action.
According to the earlier SDPO’s report, a first information report (FIR) was filed on the basis of information given by the Late Ram Vilas Singh’s son who is an eye witness to the murder. Three accused were identified by name. Two others were mentioned in the FIR as accomplices of the accused but could not be identified in the melee. The SDPO’s investigation report identifies the remaining two accused by name. A charge-sheet was filed in the trial court in January this year. The police have arrested only two of the accused. The remaining three accused have been declared absconders and the trial is on against the two accused. The main accused Rakesh Kumar Singh alias Bambam Singh remains untraceable along with two of the accomplices. The main accused in this case is also wanted for trial in relation to other murders committed earlier.
Adds Nayak, “when he was alive, Ram Vilas Singh had also filed several RTI applications with the State Election Commission and various authorities in the Police Department asking why the main accused was not being arrested despite him moving around freely and committing offences during elections to the local bodies (panchayats) last year but he got no answers nor was any action taken.”
Nayak has made an appeal to citizens to suggest ways to put pressure on the Bihar State Information Commission to act, now that the “further report” also confirms that Singh was a RTI activist. In his appeal Nayak says: “I request readers to send suggestions for next steps in this case. Please send suggestions as to how to make the Bihar State Information Commission order disclosure of information in all the matters filed by the Late Ram Vilas Singh and pending before them instead of denying the RTI link to the murder.”
On 19 November 2012, a RTI activist in Odisha who has been filing RTI applications to procure information from the mining sector has been threatened but no protection has been provided to him despite his request. With the judiciary as well as the state throwing up its hands to protect whistleblowers, the situation for pro-active and participatory governance is very dim.
Says Nayak, “so who then will defend and protect human rights defenders such as RTI users, anti-corruption crusaders and whistleblowers of wrongdoing in government? Should they be at the mercy of that very government whose functionaries harass them or even cause their murder in collusion with criminal elements? Can we have some protective mechanism instituted by then next Human Right Day (which falls on 8th December) in December 2013? We have a whole year to discuss, debate and get some advocacy going.” Interested readers may get in touch with Nayak at: B-117, First Floor, Sarvodaya Enclave
New Delhi- 110 017, INDIA, Tel: +91-11-43180215/ 43180201,Fax: +91-11-26864688
Alternate Email: email@example.com
(Vinita Deshmukh is the 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”.)