The Right To Information (RTI) Act has proved effective to secure information in the context of human rights violations and in terms of accountability of state actors when they are charged with or accused of committing egregious human rights violations such as murder and forced disappearances.
There are two very prominent instances of this. One of them occurred in May 1987 when the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) in the course of communal riots abducted over 40 Muslim men belonging to Hashimpura on the night of 22 May in their trucks, at Gang Neher and at Hindon canal. They were shot at point blank range and the bodies were dumped. This trial is one of the longest in the country and it is also significant in terms of custodial and communal abduction and murder. Nineteen police personnel belonging to the PAC were tried but regrettably the trial ended with acquittal on the basis of lack of evidence. An appeal against the order is pending in the high court.
The role of the RTI was, in 2007, 20 years after the incident, 43 families whose members were killed and the five survivors who lived to tell the horrific tale, filed RTI applications with the state of Uttar Pradesh. Each family filed around 19 applications. A total of 618 RTI applications were filed on the same day. The purpose was not only to get information but we also saw RTI being used as an expression of anguish at the injustice and the complete impunity with which the State was functioning.
I filed two applications as their lawyer at that time asking for a commission of inquiry to take place and for receiving an inquiry report that was submitted in the case. The report was never made public despite the fact that the legislative assembly passed through the hands of many ruling parties. What was made public was the ‘Annual Confidential Reports’ of each of the 19 accused policemen which informed how none of them were suspended beyond a year. They were reinstated with the words that these men were disciplined and were indispensable to the body. Surprisingly, not one of the reports even mentioned the mass murder charges against them. The revelation through RTI left the police force red faced as it exposed its claims of having internal corrective measures.
In a second such instance, I filed another RTI in my own name with the Ministry of Defence in 2011 about the human rights violations in Kashmir. While the army is under the Ministry of Defence, the paramilitary forces known as the Central Armed Police Force come under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a law enforced in Kashmir, requires permission from concerned ministries before the prosecution of any member of the army or the security forces.
The information sought was — how many applications seeking permission for prosecution have been received by the Ministry of Defence from 1990-2011. The response from the ministries said that 44 applications for prosecution were received, out of which 33 were rejected and 11 were pending, which means they had not granted a single permission to prosecute any member of the army. Information received through RTI again exposed the ministries and armed forces, who claim that they had zero tolerance for human rights violations.
There is an increase in the list of exemptions from RTI which will keep a lot of vital information hidden that should ideally be exposed. This is a serious impingement on democracy. Each time information about ‘holy cows’ such as defence and special cells come out, abuse of power, funds etc surfaces. Hence, nothing should be kept out of radar. There may be situations where the State should not give away certain information such as under Section 8. But for every denial there should be a written reason. The best way to safeguard the nation is by maintaining transparency of the institutions.
As told to Amit Bhardwaj