Shrinking Civil Spaces: 68 RTI Activists Killed In India Since Act First Passed
The nation has been robbed of the critical mirrors that have historically been shown those in power.
On Tuesday, March 20 this year, unknown assailants killed Right to Information activist Poipynhun Majaw in Meghalaya, making it the first RTI related death in the state. This marked the 68th death of RTI activists across the country since the Right to Information was first passed. Just a few weeks earlier, on March 9, in a small village in Gujarat, Nanjibhai Sondarva was killed. Mere numbers however, do not do justice to the efforts of the 67 who have had to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of social accountability and realise in the worst way possible, the extent to which an exclusionary system will go, to continue its opaque existence.
Perhaps nothing can capture this case better than that of Nanjibhai Sondarva, who, on the 9th of March was allegedly clubbed to death by 6 people in Manekvada village, Gujarat soon after filing an RTI application demanding fiscal transparency about the road construction in his village. Just a year and a half before this, him and his family had been assaulted, allegedly by the sarpanch, for filing an RTI about some of the developmental projects in his village.
Nanjibhai could have stopped then, after the first assault, but his desire for some sort of accountability, led him to continue his pursuit and pay the ultimate price in the process. To say that Nanjibhai is a one off, or that the total number of deaths is only in the double digits (numbers that we have now grown accustomed to), is to dismiss the abysmal state of affairs, plaguing social accountability in the country today.
As of January 2018, Gujarat does not have a State Chief Information Commissioner, and “Maharashtra SIC is headed by an acting SCIC since June 2017. There is also no information commission in Andhra Pradesh (after Telangana was carved out in June 2014),” The 6 biggest commissions are “saddled with 72% of the pending appeals and complaints across the country” and Maharashtra, by itself has a pendency of 41,537 cases.
The mainstream media purge
In parallel, editors of senior publications have been pushed out for being critical of the government in power, with Harish Khare of The Tribune, being the latest in a long line of coerced editorial resignations. Khare’s resignation comes weeks after the paper brought out details of a massive leak in the countries Unique Identification database, which had been lying exposed for several months before the breach was sealed. The fact that this took place while the government was fighting a case in the Supreme Court, to defend the Unique Identification system, did Khare no favours and in a matter of weeks, he now finds himself without a job.
The purge however, has been much wider and in similar fashion, Bobby Ghosh, Karan Thapar, Pranjoy Guha Thakurta, Bharat Bhushan and Krishna Prasad, all respected journalists, from some of the most senior publications in the country, have either had to resign or had their shows discontinued. The change in coverage has been something that we have witnessed across Television and print media, from the bathroom coverage of Sridevis demise, to the smearing of the farmers protests. In its plunge towards TRP’s, without actually challenging the sentiments of the powerful, TV journalism has turned into a caricature of itself and, most print editions seem to have been chastised and domesticated.
As Indian journalism struggles to cope with a regime that has proved to be intransigent, in its will to avoid any reflection on its own shortcomings, the nation has been robbed of the critical mirrors that have historically been shown to those in power, and hence lost one of the most essential tools to hold them accountable.
The issue with such a predicament is almost self-evident. A regime that does not reflect, must then, necessarily exclude, as the body of citizens that are disenfranchised find no place in the policy process that acknowledges their suffering, further perpetuating a cycle of neglect.
The 200 kilometre long, farmers March in Mumbai, is symptomatic of this crisis of accountability, that has ensured little reporting, reflection and acknowledgment of the agrarian distress across the country. The fact that 50,000 farmers would have to march all the way to the financial capital of the country to be achieve a degree of acknowledgement from established media houses, speaks volumes about how the editorial overhaul in media houses has resulted in a certain blindness of both the government and its supposed watchdogs, in the fourth estate.
The end result of this attack on social accountability can only be the shrinking of both democratic and civic space, as the agency to question is taken away from a populace by cutting of their means to do so. Such a process of mass exclusion will inevitably be met by mass protest and if the farmer protests across the country have been symptoms of this illness in our democracy, at what point, will we, as concerned citizens, decide to play doctor?