Last week, unidentified motorcycle-borne assailants shot dead an RTI activist, who investigated the alleged land encroachments and irregularities in the public distribution system, in Bihar’s East Champaran district.
According to police, the victim, identified as Bipin Agarwal, succumbed to bullet injuries while being taken to the hospital. While no arrests have been made in the case yet, the police are investigating the motive behind the murder.
According to news reports, the assailants fired multiple rounds of bullets at the activist from a close range while he was returning home from the local Block office. Agrawal’s family blamed the local ‘land mafia’ for the murder, and demanded a fair investigation into the case.
This is not an isolated case. In the past decade, at least 11 RTI activists have been killed in Bihar.
In 2020, 32-year-old RTI activist Pankaj Kumar, who initially went missing, was found dead with bullet injuries, on the bank of Sone river in Patna. And in August this year, a Sudarshan TV journalist was kidnapped and brutally murdered in East Champaran district. His father, an RTI activist, ran a local newspaper and notably highlighted some of the corruption cases in the region.
Over the past few months, similar incidents have come to light across the country, where information seekers and whistleblowers in the country have come under severe attack.
T. Shridhar, a resident of Vijayanagara in Karnataka was attacked with iron rods and bricks by a group of miscreants on July 15. He has been fighting against illegal mining, encroachment of government land, and the presence of unauthorised stone quarries in his district. On the same day, another RTI activist Venkatesh S from Tavarekere, was attacked in Bengaluru.
Since the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2005, a total of 95 activists have been killed, 175 cases of assault have been registered, and 186 cases of harassment and threats have been reported from across the country, according to data by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).
The organisation maintains a website called the ‘Hall of Shame’, mapping the attacks on RTI activists. Much of these cases come from Maharashtra, Karnataka, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh.
Certainly, the numbers are under-reported, as these cases stem from the news reports in English media only. Unofficial estimates are pegged to be much higher.
Venkatesh Nayak, programme coordinator at CHRI, said that while the data do not suggest an increased attack on RTI during the NDA regime, the viciousness and brutality has increased in recent years.
Explaining their research in Maharashtra, he said that six out of the 17 cases they looked at resulted in acquittal, while the rest were mired in various stages of investigation. “None had resulted in a conviction,” he said.
The government enacted the Whistleblower Protection Act in 2014, to protect those seeking information. But Nayak says that the system has failed many, as both, the state governments as well as the Union government have failed to implement the Act, so as to protect those highlighting corruption in government departments.
Besides, various High Courts, including the Karnataka High Court, have directed the state governments to formulate rules and regulations to ensure the safety of RTI activists.
“The police, the judiciary, the bureaucrats, and parliamentarians, have all failed in protecting RTI activists despite complaints of life threats,” Nayak adds. “The accused in many cases enjoy some kind of impunity and hence we do not see convictions happening.”
Another RTI activist from Hyderabad, Purushotham Gullepally said that while governments were active in adhering to the RTI Act in the initial years, the Act seems to have been diluted in recent years. And he blames the Chief Information Commissioners, who often are appointed by the political class, to maintain the status quo or dilute the implementation of the Act.
Gullepally said that the enthusiasm that one experiences while filing an RTI, dies down when the person is made to run around to get information. “In many cases, the government finds reason to deny information rather than furnish it and showcase transparency,” he added.