Unresolved Death Count of RTI Activists in Maharashtra

Maharashtra receives some of the highest numbers of RTI applications, as reported by CHRI in 2018. Unfortunately, it is also the leading state when it comes to attacks of violence against those who file such applications. Senior Journalists, Vinita Deshmukh and Prasannakumar Keskar, supported by the fellowship of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), published an investigative report titled, “Life and Death in the time of RTI: Case Studies from Maharashtra” on 24th January 2021. This report delves deeper into the tragedy of those who have lost their lives while seeking transparency in administrative matters. In this article, we are going to look at the key points that arose from the report:

  1. How common are the attacks: The report states that “at least 36 instances of assaults and attacks on and 41 cases of harassment of or threats to citizens using RTI have been reported by the media. At least 16 alleged murders have been linked to RTI activism of the victims in Maharashtra since the enforcement of the RTI Act. Country-wide, at least 86 cases of murder, 170 cases of physical assault (in some cases multiple attacks on the same individual), 183 cases of threats or harassment reported by the media are linked to the RTI activism of the victims. Unable to cope with the retaliatory pressure they faced, at least seven RTI activists are said to have taken the extreme step of ending their lives.” This information remains updated and is mapped on CHRI's Hall of Shame initiative.

    1. What were the subjects of the RTIs: According to the report, “These RTI activists were not seeking information about the country’s defence or strategic interests or trying to pry out the trade secrets of any private company. Nor were they seeking to invade the privacy of their neighbours through their RTI requests. Instead, they used the RTI Act to make local public authorities more transparent and accountable in their functioning than the latter were willing to be voluntarily. Our inquiries revealed, the RTI activists slain in Maharashtra were essentially whistleblowers who used the RTI Act…” to expose corruption and modes of illicit gains in their local administrative bodies and lay bare the irregularities existing around them.

    2. What happened after their deaths: The cause of utmost alarm mentioned is the inability of the law enforcement agencies to root out the culprits and put them to trial. In most cases, the correlation between the deaths and their respective RTI applications are not explicit. The deaths are attributed to personal causes and the perpetrators are never brought to justice. Even the Central Bureau of Investigation, which boasts of a successful prosecution rate of 65-66% of the cases it handles every year, in its very first RTI-related murder case, cited lack of evidence and failed to uphold justice

    3. What obstructs justice delivery: The compilers of the book assert that the reluctance by the victims’ families to speak out, insufficient community support from the activists' network, hostile witnesses, shoddy police work, lack of media presence and improper maintenance of files by police stations as some of the major hurdles hampering justice delivery. The police treat the murders of RTI activists as routine murders and even project them as blackmailers, resulting in loss of public sympathy towards the victims and stigmatisation of their families.

    4. What is the solution: Finally, the senior journalists say that as the situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon, the best solution is prevention. “It is better to put in place mechanisms to ensure that the possibility of attacks on RTI activists and users is mitigated. In the rare instance where such attacks occur, effective oversight mechanisms are necessary to ensure that the law enforcement agencies and the courts do their mandated jobs without any external influence or considerations.”

    Do you or your organisation work on RTI? What advice do you have for other community members working on RTI? Let us know in the comment below.