Right to Information Sans Intimidation
Posted by rtiact2005 on June 12, 2006
Right to Information Sans Intimidation
By: V.Sundaram, IAS
December 30, 2005
Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. — James MadisonThe NDA Government enacted The Freedom of Information Act in 2002. It was adopted in January 2003 but never went into force. The recent Right to Information Act was approved by the Parliament and signed by the President in June 2005 and went into effect in October 2005. It replaces the Freedom of Information Act, 2002. The main objective of this Act is to provide for freedom to every citizen to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, consistent with public interest, in order to promote openness, transparency and accountability in administration and in relation to matters connected therewith or incidental thereto. Under the Act, all Indian citizens have a right to ask for information from central and state public authorities. The public authority must respond in thirty days. An independent Information Commission has been created for the nation and all the States are following suit.
During British Raj The Official Secrets Act was passed in 1923 mainly as a defence mechanism against the rising tide of nationalism initiated by Mahatma Gandhi from 1917. No citizen had any access to official information and every citizen was distrusted by the British Government. This tradition was not only maintained but enriched by the Congress Party after independence.
Though we got our independence in 1947, the Congress Party and the Congress Government were never interested in educating the public or in making it possible for the common people to have access to information relating to the functions, policies and programmes of Government Departments. Jawaharlal Nehru who wrote eloquently against suppression of civil liberties in India during British Rule in his Autobiography in the middle 1930s, conveniently ignored the fundamental fact that his hero Stalin was during the same period killing thousands of innocent people in Russia every day under the subterfuge of protecting the Socialist Soviet State against the so-called ‘Revisionists’ and ‘Reactionaries’. Stalin’s ‘Purges’ did not emotionally affect Nehru. No wonder therefore that he had contempt for civil liberties and when he became Prime Minister of independent India on August 15, 1947, he was not interested at all in introducing any legislation for giving free information to the public on public authorities and Government as a whole.
Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse on 30th January 1948. The Congress Government and the Congress party let loose a reign of terror against the R.S.S. and brought up the charge that R.S.S. was responsible for the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. The R.S.S. was banned illegally. Later the Court of Law held that R.S.S. was in no way responsible for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the illegal and immoral ban on R.S.S. was removed in 1950. The day on which Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in New Delhi, thousands of innocent school and college students in different cities and small towns in India were taken into custody by the police. This was a dark chapter in our nation’s history. This record was put to shame by the misdeeds of Indira Gandhi Government, ably masterminded by her son Sanjay Gandhi who functioned as the de facto Prime Minister during the emergency. Secrecy and suppression became the watch words of Indira Gandhi Government.
In recent years, there has been an ever growing global trend towards recognition of the right to information by countries, intergovernmental organisations, civil society and the people. The right to information has been recognised as a fundamental human right, which upholds the inherent dignity of all human beings. The right to information forms the crucial bedrock of participatory democracy—it is essential to ensure accountability, transparency and good governance.
It goes to the credit of NDA Government that they passed The Freedom of Information Act, 2002. This was a revolutionary step conferring on every Indian citizen the fundamental right to demand and get information from Government, Governmental agencies and public authorities.
The greater the access of the citizens to information, the greater will be the responsiveness of government to community needs. Alternatively, the greater the restrictions that are placed on access, the greater will be the feelings of `powerlessness`, ‘helplessness’, ‘impotence’ and `alienation`. Without information, people cannot adequately exercise their rights as citizens or make informed choices. The unrestricted and free flow of information to the common citizens in India were historically restricted by the following factors:
a. The regulatory statutory framework which includes several pieces of restrictive legislation, such as the Official Secrets Act, 1923;
b. the inherited colonial culture of secrecy and arrogance within the bureaucracy which was later cemented by the callous attitude of Nehru and the authoritarianism of Indira Gandhi; and
c. the low levels of literacy and awareness of fundamental rights among India`s teeming millions—the original monopolistic stock-in-trade of the Congress party and later shared by all the other political parties as a perennial commonwealth.
The real tragedy is that our Constitution makers included ‘the right to information’ as part of the Constitutional guarantees relating to freedom of speech and _expression. This right was later upheld by the Supreme Court in one of its landmark orders relating to governmental control over newsprint and illegal bans on the distribution of newspapers. The successive Congress Governments showed indivisible contempt towards the Supreme Court on the one hand and the common people of India on the other. Government of India became the private property of the Nehru family. The name ‘Gandhi’ also became part of their private estate. Though Mahatma Gandhi is the father of the nation, he held no official office in independent India. None of his children occupied any official position in the Government of India. The most poignant aspect is that his rightful name ‘Gandhi’ was snatched by another family on account of the quirks of Indian politics manoeuvred and masterminded by the Nehru clam. The original usurper was Feroze Khan who became Feroze Gandhi who in turn lent his name to Indira Gandhi. Today it has descended to an Indian Made Foreign Leader (IMFL).
The Supreme Court of India and all the High Courts in several decisions have upheld clearly the public’s right to freedom of information, or the public`s right to know, as embedded in the provisions guaranteeing fundamental rights in the Constitution. Various Indian laws provide for the right to access information in specific contexts. Section 76 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, contains what has been termed a `Freedom of Information Act in embryonic form`. This provision requires public officials to provide copies of public documents to anyone who has a right to inspect them.
The National Advisory Counsel (NAC) had specifically included “File Notings” in the definition of information. But “File Notings” is conspicuous by its omission in the definition of information in the new ‘Right to Information Act, 2005’ (RTI). The word ‘File’ finds its place in the definition of ‘Record’ in the Act and it was expected that since the Act states that ‘Record’ includes “Document, Manuscript and File”, access to “File Notings” will be possible under the Act. But, the Government of India seems to have developed a cold feet and is now wanting to water down the definition of ‘File Notings’ through a new amendment as is clear from the answer given to a Parliamentary Question tabled in the Rajya Sabha on December 8, 2005. The answer says that “substantive file notings on certain aspects relating to social and development issues may be disclosed”. This clearly shows the intention of UPA Government to again conceal, hide, sidetrack, camouflage and do everything possible to prevent free flow of information to the common man.
I suspect not without basis that several corrupt bureaucrats who are having conjugal relations with corrupt UPA politicians are tremendously worried about the possibility of their partisan views expressed in ‘File Notings’ reaching the public and becoming matters of public dispute, public controversy and finally judicial review. I have myself been a civil servant in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) for 29 years. I can testify from my experience that an honest civil servant will never be deterred from expressing his views frankly on the file because of fear of disclosure of such information. Nor will he be worried about disclosures. Unscrupulous and dishonest bureaucrats in absolute majority in the minority UPA Government may be apprehensive about such disclosures. But all the citizens in India should feel tremendously happy that The Right To Information Act (RTI) has already started having its positive and beneficial impact.
Eternal vigilance is the price of individual liberty. What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it. I can only give you an article of my faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own without bios. The spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded or unheard. The spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, more than 2000 years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten—that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest. To conclude in the famous words of Lord Acton: “Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end”.