Govt Did Little to Execute SC Guidelines On Lynchings, RTI Reveals
(This is the first in a series of RTI-driven stories to find out to what extent the Supreme Court guidelines to curb lynchings have been followed by the central and state governments. The guidelines were introduced on 17 July 2018. This particular story focuses on the measures taken by the central government to broadcast the message that lynchings are prohibited.)
In a question about mob lynchings, the Ministry of Home Affairs told the Lok Sabha that they had through audio-visual media generated public awareness to curb the menace of mob lynchings on 19 November.
This is in accordance with the SC issued guidelines on lynching from 2018, that asked the central government to broadcast the message that lynching and mob violence are prohibited and invite serious consequences.
However, a four-month investigation by The Quint from July to October 2019 – where we filed a series of RTIs which were posted, transferred, received and analysed – had exposed the government’s ‘lack of political will’ and ‘gross negligence’ in spreading the message loud and clear.
The government stonewalled RTI queries made to understand what has been done by them. Supreme Court lawyers and RTI activists believe that this reflects the government’s disinterest in taking strong measures to curb the dangerous practice.
According to court proceeding records assessed by The Quint, more than two months after the SC guideline was issued, Supreme Court advocate for the petitioner, Indira Jaising, on 24 September 2018, said this direction was not complied with. The central government's attorney general, Venugopal, and additional solicitor general Tushar Mehta said the same shall be done, if not already done, within a week.
That week ended in September 2018.
What Was Asked in the RTI Query?
MHA Stonewalls Queries
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has been issued notices by the Supreme Court to submit reports on the implementation of the said guidelines. Supreme court lawyer Anas Tanwir, who was called on by the central government to consult on a separate legislation on mob lynchings, said the MHA was the authority on ensuring the guidelines were followed.
In response to both queries by The Quint about the budget as well as stating the various mediums used, the MHA said, "The government through audio-visual media has generated public awareness to curb the menace of mob lynching."
After this, they added that the RTI application is being “transferred to the Ministry of I&B for providing additional information, if any available with them”.
The RTI activists we spoke to said this response was problematic. Anjali Bhardwaj, from the Satark Nagrik Sangathan, told The Quint that a quick look at Section 4 tells us that the government should provide as much information suo motu to the public about the functioning of various departments and policy decisions that it is taking at regular intervals through various means of communications, including internet.
RTI activist Nikhil Dey, from MKSS, said the MHA should be answering these questions directly.
"The orders need to be passed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, then we can analyse the compliance of the order," said Dey.
The Unending Saga of Transferring RTIs Begins
From the MHA, the RTIs were transferred to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. Two CPIOs of the I&B Ministry said that they do not have the desired information.
One CPIO said, "This CPIO is concerned with regulation of the programmes and advertisements telecast on private satellite TV channels. Hence, the information is not available with this CPIO."
The other simply said, "Answer to query is not available with this CPIO."
Govt’s Media Advisor Received ‘No Request’ to Spread Message on Lynchings
The I&B Ministry forwarded the query to the Bureau of Outreach and Communication (BOC). Now, this may raise the question as to why the BOC relevant?
Interestingly, the role of the BOC is:
i) Provide a 360-degree communication solution to all ministries
ii) Media strategy advisory body to government
iii) Educating people, both rural and urban, about the government’s programmes.
iv) By using different vehicles of communication, including print media advertising, audio visual campaigns, dissemination through exhibitions, outdoor campaigns and new media.
The BOC, in its RTI response filed by the author of this article, says, "No such request or approval received from any client Ministry to publish advertisement through Print Media or Broadcast and Telecast the campaign on the subject mentioned in RTI. BOC(DAVP) UNDERTAKE CAMPAIGNS ONLY ON THE BASIS OF REQUESTS RECEIVED FROM VARIOUS CLIENT MINISTRIES/ DEPARTMENTS."
Reacting to this, senior Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Hegde said, "It is obvious that the central government has chosen to ignore the SC guidelines as it has not expended any money on any direct campaign to spread awareness against lynchings as required by the SC judgment."
Lawyer Anas Tanwir said this was surprising.
"The RTI was filed with the MHA, who then redirected it to the I&B ministry, and then further to the BOC, where we find out that no request was made. This exposes how the government has been negligent. It reflects how they have no respect whatsoever for the court and its directives. It is their responsibility. I was in court where the AG and ASG argued that they will get the order implemented in one week in September last year. This is gross negligence," said Tanwir.
Meanwhile, RTI activist Nikhil Dey added that the BOC only acts on requests made by the government.
"Hence, a copy of the request made should have come from the MHA, or even the I&B ministry," he said.
RTI Continues to be Transferred Again & Again
The I&B Ministry also transferred the RTI query to CPIO (RTI Cell) of Prasar Bharati, who then transferred it to the CPIO of Doordarshan and AIR radio.
Both Anjali Bhardwaj and Nikhil Dey said that the RTI Act is being used to send people on a wild goose chase for information.
Referring to Section 6 (3) of the RTI Act, under which transferring of RTI applications happen, Bhardwaj said, "Under the section, the RTI has to be transferred in a very responsible manner after verifying that the information, in fact, belongs and is with the agency where it is being transferred. The use of the RTI Act in any manner which leads to just delays in obtaining information or where the request is transferred to departments which do not have the requisite info is in violation of the law as it leads to unnecessary delay. For the applicant to run around for months for a response is obstructing information flow. It was added with the specific purpose to enable citizens to access information.”
Dey adds that the burden of getting the information does not lie with the person filing the RTI.
"The structure should not allow you to escape. This trail you are referring to is a complete stonewalling and escape trail. Again, there is no reason for the MHA to not provide the answer," he said.
Either way, the Nodal CPIO of Prasar Bharati forwarded the RTI to Doordarshan (DD) and All India Radio (AIR).
At DD, it was sent to the directorate general of DD's office and received in the Scor-I section. The response was, "No such information is available in Scor-1 section."
The author of this article spoke to employees of DD who confirmed that the Scor-1 section of DD is the department that deals with employees who work on contract. Why then are they responding to this query is another tactic of depriving the person from concrete information.
"This goes on to again show how they did not take the SC guidelines seriously," Dey added.
The response from the AIR office reads, “programme heads of all AIR stations were instructed to broadcast messages in all regional languages incorporating that 1) Mob violence and lynching is a serious criminal offence and invites serious consequences and under the law, and 2) Mob violence and lynching is a serious criminal offence and invites stringent punishment under the law [sic].”
Programme heads were also advised to mount programmes for the same to create awareness.
Dey, however, argued that this is incomplete information, saying, “This letter or order that was sent to programme heads, a copy of it should be sent to you. It could have been done via video conferencing, on call, or just be a figment of imagination too. We do not know the date either."
Sanjay Hegde told The Quint that AIR's response bears some semblance to lip service.
Is the Govt Serious About Following SC Guidelines?
The question that glares at you is, why are the RTIs being transferred repeatedly to agencies who do not have the response. This exposes how the ministry is itself unclear on what they have and haven’t done.
The guidelines also say that the message was to be broadcast on the websites of the home departments. While it can be argued that this was meant only for state departments, The Quint checked the MHA website to see if any message was displayed on there.
Through the digital tool called the Wayback machine, which keeps digital archives of the World Wide Web, we tracked the MHA website through screenshots.
The screenshots taken in 2018 – on 8 August, 7 September, 24 September, 17 October, 27 October, 8 November, 19 November, 3 December, 26 December – and come 2019 – in 21 January, 14 February, 23 March, 8 April, 21 April, 12 May, 1 June, 17 June, 23 July, 9 August, 31 August, 20 September, 14 October – display no message warning people of the serious consequences that committing mob violence and lynching would bring about.
Hegde said this shows how “the government is inclined not to do anything about the guidelines”.
"They are not interested to make any visible effort to comply with the guidelines. To add to that, in light of the absence of the matter being listed for monitoring by the court it is unlikely that the situation will change going forward. The registry was directed to list the matter, there have also been several efforts to activate the registry but there could be the pressure of pending cases," he said, adding that the matter of lynchings do not seem to be a matter of priority at the Supreme Court.
Referring to the SC guidelines, Bhardwaj said, "The point of these guidelines was to address a crucial concern of increasing mob lynchings where the fear and apprehension is that not enough is being done by the state governments themselves. It is unacceptable that the government is failing to provide prompt and accurate information on what steps have been taken in compliance of the SC guidelines."
(Keep watching this space for more RTI-driven stories regarding the SC guidelines on lynchings.)