Indore, Madhya Pradesh: On 2 June, former public works department (PWD) contractor Ranjit Soni was shot in the head, in daylight, in front of a PWD office in his hometown of Vidisha, a town of 155,000 people 60 km north-east of Bhopal.
Soni, 46, became a right-to-information (RTI) activist in 2016, filing hundreds of requests, mainly in and about the PWD, under the Right To Information (RTI) Act, 2005.
“He had gone to the PWD office for some documents when he was shot in the head from a close range,” said Sameer Yadav, assistant superintendent of police (ASP) of Vidisha, headquarters of a central Madhya Pradesh (MP) district of the same name north of state capital Bhopal.
On 3 June, police arrested five people, including a civil works contractor named Jaswant Singh and his alleged associates Ankit Yadav, Naresh Sharma, Aish Kumar Choubey and Shailendra Patel, as murder suspects.
Monika Shuka, Vidisha district’s superintendent of police, said Soni and the accused had a long-standing dispute. “Soni had filed many RTI requests in the PWD department regarding the work details of contractor Jaswant Singh.”
According to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), a think tank, 99 RTI activists have been killed, 179 assaulted, and 186 harassed or threatened across India since April 2006, when the organisation started its tracker. In Bihar, 17 RTI activists have been killed since 2008 for exposing corruption.
As far back as 2016, MP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said, while speaking to government officials, that some RTI activists have murky lives. “Kuch gande hote hain (some are dirty),” he was reported to have said.
Despite civil society representatives seeking accountability from governments for rising attacks on RTI activists (here and here), MP’s activists who use the sunshine law, passed in 2005 to transform the relationship between government bodies and citizens, have continued to be vulnerable.
Activists in MP told Article 14 that the government not only failed to protect them but has harassed them by filing cases against them on fake charges. Some faced government surveillance after their RTI queries exposed corruption, while others reported direct government action against them, apart from threats of violence from private individuals their RTI queries targeted, and efforts to malign them.
Ranjit Soni had filed nearly 200 RTI applications, including 14 in the municipality and 137 in the public works department. Since 2018, he had filed at least 14 applications for information on the poor quality of construction work in school buildings in Vidisha.
Whistleblower Accuses Chief Minister Of Vengeance
A police complaint filed against Rai in Bhopal said he had falsely alleged, through his social media screenshots of the leaked MP Teachers’ Eligibility Test, that an official in the chief minister’s office was involved in the paper leak.
On the basis of a complaint by Laxman Singh Markam, deputy secretary in the chief minister's office, police registered a first information report (FIR) and booked him under sections 419 (cheating by personation), 469 (forgery for harming a person’s reputation), 470 (forged document or electronic record), 500 (defamation), 504 (intentional insult to provoke breach of peace) and 120 B (party to a criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) 1860. The FIR also invoked the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
The paper was leaked on 25 March 2022 from the Gyanveer Institute of Management And Science in Sagar, a college owned by Aditya Rajput, son of MP’s transport minister Govind Singh Rajput.
In a viral screenshot of the leaked paper that Rai went on to post on social media, the sender was shown to be an account named Laxman Singh.
A district and sessions court granted Rai bail on 8 April, but he was suspended with immediate effect from his post as medical officer at Indore's government-run Lal Hukumchand hospital, for “dereliction of duty and undue absence from the hospital”.
In addition to Rai, the FIR named K K Mishra, media cell chief of the Congress in the state.
In its preliminary report, the Madhya Pradesh Agency for Promotion of Information Technology (MAPIT), the agency appointed by the government to ascertain the facts of the case, found that the examinees at the Gyanveer Institute of Management and Science had been pretending to take the paper in the examination hall while their computers were being remotely accessed from another room outside the campus where their papers were being solved.
The exam was held on 26 March but part of the paper was leaked in the form of screenshots on 25 March.
Nearly 30 questions in the question paper matched with the leaked paper.
Rai accused Chouhan of acting out of vengeance. He said, “It is clear that the chief minister has ordered the police to lodge a case against me in retaliation,” he said. “Whatever it takes, I am going to keep fighting corruption until I die.”
Video Surveillance On Pretext Of Providing Security
Ashish Chaturvedi, another RTI activist who busted the Vyapam scam, has claimed that an attempt was made to kidnap him in December 2021. He said two men in a car tried to force him into it, but later fled.
Since becoming a complainant in the Vyapam admission and recruitment scam in 2014, the 31-year-old whistleblower has faced numerous threats to his life. In 8 years, he has been attacked 19 times, Chaturvedi said, including on 16 occasions when a police guard was present with him.
A complaint filed by Chaturvedi led to the arrest of more than 400 people who faced more than 2,000 cases in total. So far, nearly 45 activists, middlemen, medical college owners and bureaucrats alleged to have been involved in the scam have died since the cases were filed.
Chaturvedi said the state administration began to track his activities after he exposed the Vyapam scam. “Under the guise of providing security, they began monitoring me,” he said. “For nine months, security guards recorded every activity of mine on a video camera, which clearly violated my right to privacy."
In February 2022, he exposed an alleged sextortion racket that he claimed was run by police officials in Gwalior. "Since then, I have received many threatening calls,” he said. “Some senior policemen also threatened to file a fake rape case against me.”
Chaturvedi was formerly a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological progenitor of the BJP. In 2015, a case was filed against Chaturvedi based on a complaint by the RSS that he had barged into a function without invitation.
“I had exposed many RSS officials in the Vyapam case,” Chaturvedi told Article 14. “They filed the case against me as retribution.”
Chaturvedi claimed in 2016 that he faced a threat to his life from some members of the RSS.
RTI Activists From Marginalised Groups Face Frequent Harassment
In February 2022, Dalit RTI activist Shashikant Jatav filed an RTI application with the Barai panchayat regarding expenditure of funds by the gram panchayat. Barai village is located in the Gwalior block, about 25 km to the north-east of the district headquarters in Gwalior.
In retaliation for Jatav’s RTI application, the husband and secretary of Barai’s sarpanch and others allegedly assaulted him in a room. They also made him drink urine from a shoe.
A gravely injured Jatav, 33, had to be transferred to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi.
RTI activists belonging to Dalit or other marginalised communities are often more likely to face harassment for their work. In Gujarat, for example, an investigation by Article 14 found that at least 40% of 15 information activists killed in Gujarat since 2005 were Dalits, Adivasis and from other marginalised communities.
Om Prakash Prajapati is an RTI activist in northern MP’s Tikamgarh district whose work has focussed on fighting corruption in the forest department. Prajapati exposed a tree plantation scam worth over Rs 1 crore in September 2021 and received threats from forest department officials, he said.
“Pressure toh bahut hai ham logon ke upar, par ham nahi karenge kuch toh badlav kaise hoga? We are under constant pressure, but who will bring change to society if we stop working?)” he said.
‘Some People Tried To Prove That I Am A Robber’
Shivanand Dwivedi, an RTI activist based in the Rewa district of MP, said the threats have become increasingly frequent.
“Dhamki toh roj milti hai. Ab toh shikayat bhi nahi karte (Threats are issued everyday. Now I don’t even file a police complaint),” he told Article 14. “Police do not help us even when we complain.”
Dwivedi uncovered the Karadhan scam in September 2019, in which Rs 300 crore was alleged to have been spent improperly by village panchayats in Rewa district.
In 2019, Dwivedi was attacked by the sarpanch of Chandeh village in Rewa’s Mangawan block for filing RTI queries and seeking a social audit of panchayat funds.
Dwivedi told Article 14 that a false case was filed against him earlier, in 2017, under section 394 (voluntarily causing hurt while committing a robbery) of the IPC. “I am an IIT graduate and now working as a social worker,” he said, “but a few people tried to prove me to be a robber.”
He said, “Hamari samajik pratishtha khatam karne ke liye chori dakaiti wale case lagaye jaate hain. (False reports of theft and burglary are registered to damage my reputation.)”
Eight Years Later, Whistleblower Protection Act Not Implemented
The Whistleblower Protection Act, 2014 outlined a process for complaints or disclosures of corruption or wilful misuse of power by officials. The law was meant to facilitate investigation into such disclosures or complaints while providing adequate safeguards against victimisation of whistleblowers.
“The Whistleblower Protection Act does not allow anonymous complaints,” said advocate Shashank Tiwari who practises in the Jabalpur high court. “Complaints are only investigated once the complainant reveals his identity, which increases the risk for a complainant.”
Tiwari said the role of the ‘competent authority’ under the Act was extensive, and these officials could easily abuse the power they are given under the law.
He said even though eight years have lapsed since the law was passed by both houses of Parliament, it was not being implemented. Lok Sabha passed the bill in December 2011, Rajya Sabha in February 2014.
In a response to a question regarding the delay in operationalising the law to protect whistleblowers who expose corruption, then minister of state for personnel Jitendra Singh told Rajya Sabha in August 2018 that the existing legal framework ensures safety and security of all citizens, including RTI activists.
Before the Act can be adopted, he said, it required amendments to protect against disclosures that threaten India's sovereignty and integrity. An amendment bill passed by Lok Sabha in 2015 was pending in Rajya Sabha, he said.
On The Radar Of Politicians, Officials, Governments
“Sarkar kuchal rahi, neta kuchal raha hai, gunde kuchal rahe hain (The government is harassing us, politicians are harassing us, goons are harassing us,)” said Ajay Dubey, an RTI activist based in Bhopal and a board member of Transparency International, a global civil society initiative against corruption. He said receiving threats to their life was now a routine expectation for an RTI activist.
In 2021, a corruption index published by Transparency International said India’s ranking slipped from 78 in 2018 to 85. Transparency International conducts research into corruption in more than 100 countries.
In December 2021, Mahesh Rai, member of the MP legislative assembly from Bina, 150 km north-east of Bhopal, said, “RTI lagane walon ke bade bade shehro me ho jaate hain murder. (All those who file RTI queries in big cities get killed.) When people meddle in other people's affairs, they get killed.”
Dubey said the Madhya Pradesh government had paralysed the state information commission by appointing people favoured by the regime.
He said the Madhya Pradesh Information Commission also has no data regarding the harassment of RTI activists and whistleblowers or complaints registered by them.
“The ruling class, including bureaucrats and politicians, have decided that they will not allow the survival of whistleblowers.” He said officials make an example of RTI activists so that others “do not dare to exercise their rights”.
(Anil Kumar Tiwari is an independent journalist based in Madhya Pradesh.)