Sunday, July 09, 2017

“An RTI activist is always vulnerable”

Hindustan Times: Jaipur: Sunday, July 09, 2017.
Activist Nikhil Dey and four others were recently sentenced to four months in prison in a 19-year-old case. They have appealed against the sentence. But many other activists feel that the sentence sends out a message of warning to other information seekers as to what may happen if you ask questions.
Intimidation of activists, or attempts thereof, can take many forms. It can go beyond physical and verbal abuse, to include legal harassment as activist Nikhil Dey and his companions recently found out. It was 1998. The RTI Act was yet to be passed, but in Rajasthan, the Panchayati Raj had been amended, remembers Dey, and it was said that people could get copies of official records and documents.
Dey, along with Naurti Devi and three others, were seeking information from the sarpanch of Harmara village regarding complaints of irregularities in development work. The allegations against the sarpanch, a liquor contractor of the village, included payments for toilets, Indira Awaas houses, and labour payments for development works, that had not been made to the beneficiaries.The activists went more than 70 times to meet the sarpanch at his office, but he was not there. Finally, they got orders from the collector and the block development officer (BDO) directing the sarpanch to show the records. They went to hand over the order to the sarpanch at his house. But, the activists say, they were attacked by the sarpanch and his brothers, who were worried (if they had given the records they were likely to have been caught). They shoved and pushed the activists and threatened them with dire consequences if they persisted.
Dey and the others then went and met activist Aruna Roy who was in a nearby village. They discussed what to do and Roy wrote to the SP, the collector and the chief secretary, informing them about he incident and requesting information. A team from the Public Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) came to record the incident. They did a fact finding and the sarpanch finally gave the papers. But he also filed an FIR against Dey and the others, alleging that they had assaulted him and his family members.
A few months later, final reports were filed in the case and the activists felt the case had been closed. But a few years later the sarpanch got the case reopened in court. The activists found out when they got summons from court. They weren’t too worried since they thought they would be able to put out their side of the story. But the case dragged on. Dey had asked for exemption from personal appearance, but the others continued to appear in court. The court refused to see it as an RTI kind of case. The activists filed an appeal at the Information Commission. But last month the Munsif Magistrate court in Kishangarh convicted the five under sections 323 (voluntarily causing hurt) and 451 (trespass in order to commit an offence punishable with imprisonment) of the Indian Penal Code, and sentenced them to four months imprisonment. The activists will appeal the conviction. But as Aruna Roy says , “It sends out a warning to other information seekers on what can happen if you ask questions.”