New Delhi, July 13 (KMS): With the murderers of many of the 20 right to information (RTI) activists who were killed in the Indian state of Bihar over the last 10 years still roaming free, a public hearing in Patna urged the state government to constitute a judicial commission to ensure proper investigation into these cases and direct law enforcement agencies to complete the probes in a time-bound manner.
Bipin Aggarwal was murdered in Sept 2021 in West Champaran. He used the RTI Act to expose corruption in Public Distribution System & govt works. Frustrated by lack of action in the matter, his son Rohit died by suicide in March 2022. Bipin’s father speaking at the public hearing pic.twitter.com/9HicnlP1Rr
— Anjali Bhardwaj (@AnjaliB_) July 12, 2022
The `Jan Sunvai’ (public hearing) was organised by the Social Accountability Forum for Action and Research (SAFAR), National Campaign for Protection of Right to Information (NCPRI), Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan (JJSS), Right to Food Campaign (RTF) and National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) Bihar. Relatives of a large number of RTI activists killed in the state presented their testimonies at the event.
The meeting also passed a resolution which stated that these activists were killed for raising public issues and pursuing transparency. Terming the killings “a very disturbing trend”, the resolution highlighted how these activists were trying to cleanse corruption from PDS, NREGA and Anganwadi centres, and pointing to the operation of illegally operating clinics and other such activities. “The intimidation and harassment of RTI activists should stop immediately,” the resolution demanded.
Speaking at the public hearing, Anjali Bhardwaj of NCPRI urged the Union government to immediately operationalise the Whistleblowers Protection Act to ensure protection of those showing truth to power. She charged that the failure of the government to operationalise the law passed in 2014 meant that despite the Act being passed by Parliament, people were unable to seek protection.
While calling upon the Government of India to immediately operationalise the law, the speakers at the event urged that in the interim the Bihar government should adopt a mechanism for protecting those exposing corruption. This could take the form of a state level Whistleblower Protection Act, it was suggested.
In all cases of threats, attacks or killings of RTI users, the resolution passed at the event said, the State Information Commission must immediately direct the relevant public authorities to disclose and give wide publicity to all the RTIs and replies the person was pursuing. “Giving wide publicity to the information being pursued by people who are being threatened or attacked, potentially acts as a deterrent against such attacks in the future, as perpetrators get the message that rather than covering up the matter, any attack would invite even greater public scrutiny,” it added.
Noting that much of the information being sought by people who were killed was such that it should have in any case been proactively provided under Section 4 of the RTI Act, the meeting also urged the Bihar SIC to undertake periodic monitoring and audits of proactive disclosures by public authorities.
It also asked the Nitish Kumar government to develop a single window portal for disclosure of information under Section 4 of the RTI Act on the lines of Jan Soochna Portal developed by the Government of Rajasthan and the Mahiti Kanaja set up by the Government of Karnataka.
The meeting also urged that RTI activists who have lost their lives be given the status of human rights defenders. Moreover, it said, in all cases of attacks or killings of RTI activists the departments from which they were seeking information must be made to undergo special audit of all schemes and financial matters which were being pursued. This must be monitored by the state Social Audit Unit.
The relatives of several of the slain RTI activists spoke at the public hearing. They narrated how, in some cases, even after several years the accused were roaming free while the families were being threatened and harassed.
The son of Shashidhar Mishra, who was killed in Begusarai in February 2010, for using the RTI Act and exposing corruption in construction of development works, said his father had been working towards exposing corruption in public places even before the RTI law came into being in 2005. He said because of this RTI-related work, his father was shot dead on February 14, 2010. However, the boy lamented that the accused had not been punished and the family was still awaiting justice.
In the case of Buddhinath Jha, who was murdered in November 2021 in Madhubani district, his elder brother said he was using the RTI Act to expose irregularities in functioning of private nursing homes. As of date, he said, the prime accused is still at large.
Jha, his brother said, had since the age of 18 been using RTI to expose the functioning of an illegal nursing home which was being run by quacks. Following complaints by Jha, the authorities had imposed fines running into lakhs on the nursing home. Thereafter Jha was kidnapped and murdered on November 9, 2021. In connection with the case, three of the 10 accused in the case have been arrested, he added.
However, Jha’s brother demanded that the remaining accused be also punished for their crimes. He also urged that the Civil Surgeon, who had imposed a fine of Rs 50,000 only on the nursing home, be also brought under the purview of the case.
In the case of Praveen Kumar Jha, who was the `mukhiya’ or head of Bharko village in Banka, RTI activist Nikhil Dey said he had accessed information, and taken action against local Public Distribution System dealers and cancelled their licenses. As a consequence, he was killed by the dealers who allegedly crushed him under a vehicle in September 2021. His nephews, the activist tweeted, continue to face threats. Dey also tweeted that the family was today facing threats and being lured with offers of money to keep silent.
The meeting also discussed how Rajendra Singh was killed in West Champaran in 2018 for using the RTI Act to expose land encroachments and scams in construction works; and Valmiki and Dharmendra Yadav were killed in Jamui in July 2018 for using the RTI Act to expose corruption in MNREGA and irregularities in appointments at Anganwadi Centres.
Similarly, it said, Bhola Shah was killed in Banka for using the RTI Act to take up issues of corruption in the construction of Anganwadi centres, public works and MGNREGA. Ramkumar Thakur was also murdered in Muzaffarpur in 2013 for unearthing corruption in MGNREGA, Indira Awas Yojna and panchayat works.
One of the most poignant stories pertained to the murder of Bipin Aggarwal in West Champaran. He used the RTI Act to expose corruption in Public Distribution System and government works.
Bipin’s father, Vijay Agarwal, narrated how on February 16, 2020, his house was attacked and robbed by land mafia. The accused had also dragged Bipin’s wife out. Bipin had lodged an FIR in the matter but no action was taken on it. On September 24, 2021, Bipin was murdered.
“After that Bipin’s son, 14-year-old Rohit, tried to get justice by repeatedly approaching the police. On March 24, 2022, he went to the office of the Superintendent of Police to seek justice. However, he was ill-treated there. He returned home angry and dejected. Then he climbed a nearby building, doused himself with kerosene, set himself afire and jumped off, and thus died by suicide,” said the aggrieved man, who lost two members of his family. Vijay Agarwal added that the main accused in Bipin’s murder has still not been arrested.
The meeting was also attended by Rashtriya Janata Dal leader and Rajya Sabha MP Manoj Jha who said the murder of RTI activists was not an ordinary crime. “It is also the murder of the search for truth; because an RTI application is a search for truth.”
Jha told the meeting that be it from the ruling party or the opposition, the RTI activists and organisations should identify people who will keep supporting these issues. Jha said he in his over four year tenure in Rajya Sabha he has raised the issue of RTI activists several times but since he came from a small party that often did not make news.