[This is a post by Suvechha Sarkar, Contributing Member. Her previous post on ‘disastrous effect of lockdown and abrogation of Article 370’ can be accessed here.]
The erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, one of the northern states of India, which was considered as a State until 2019 was reorganised into a Union Territory. The living conditions along with the rights of the residents of Jammu and Kashmir has been under major threat from the day of the removal of its autonomous position as a ‘state’. Apart from the violation of certain Human Rights, one of the most important fundamental rights of the Indian Citizens, to hold the administration accountable is also being infringed there. It was none other than the Right to Information which falls under Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution.
Right to Information and the Constitution of India
The Right to Information is a part of Article 19(1) which states that every citizen has Freedom of speech and expression. It has been a topic of hot debate whether or not the Right to Information falls under the ‘speech and expression’. In the year 1976, in the case of the State of Uttar Pradesh v. Raj Narain, the Supreme Court stated in its judgement that it is not possible for people to express or speak up if they do not know about what is happening around them properly and thus it falls under the provisions of Article 19. (further, refer to S.P. Gupta v. Union of India) Though there were no particular provisions in the Constitution stating it as the Fundamental Right, on the 13th of October, 2005, the Right to Information Act was brought into effect.
To illustrate the Act, if we ever go to a government office and ask for the information of their working, they would certainly not provide us with it, and would rather ask one to see their way out. If we want to exercise our right to information, then the right needs to be laid down in the law (RTI Act). After the introduction of the RTI Act, the citizens can claim the information legally, even with the help of the judiciary (in an appeal if the appellate authority rejects to provide the asked information). Before the RTI Act was introduced, many other states had by then passed the Act. The states were namely: Jammu and Kashmir, Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Goa.
The rights which were listed under the Acts mainly consisted of:
- Right to Information
- Seek any kind of information from the government bodies
- Receive copies of governmental documents
- Do an inspection of the works done by the government.
The Jammu Kashmir Right to Information Act, 2009
The first Right to Information Act (State Act) was enacted on 7th January 2004 in Jammu and Kashmir. The main focus of the Act was to gain information from the government alongside the Government records. This Act was repealed and replaced further by the Right to Information Act of 2008 and finally by the Jammu and Kashmir Act of 2009. The 2009 RTI Act of Jammu and Kashmir fell under the election campaigns of Omar Abdullah. After he came to power, a draft of the Act was introduced and the Bill was finally passed on 12th March.
The Act stated as undermentioned:
“6. Request for obtaining information. – (1) A person, who desires to obtain any information under the Act, shall make a request in writing or through electronic means in English, Urdu or Hindi accompanying such fee as may be prescribed, to –
(a) the Public Information Officer of the concerned public authority;
(b) the Assistant Public Information Officer, specifying the particulars of the information sought by him or her.”
The Right to Information Act of 2005 by the Central Government was not applicable to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The state’s Act ultimately provided the activists, civil society groups and the advocates of transparency and accountability with RTI 2009. The then Jammu and Kashmir Government had taken this as a part of their electoral promise. Information could be sought by the residents of the state in the form of large size paper copies, floppy disks, compact discs and many more, by paying a certain amount of fees. This was how the Right to Information Act was being brought to use in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Abrogation of Article 370 and effect on RTI
The state RTI Act clearly states that a person who desires any kind of information as listed under the Act, he or she can seek for the following by the means of internet (‘through the electronic mode’) or in written form. Prior to the abrogation of Article 370 on 5th August, curfew under Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code (with essential services cut down), was being imposed in various parts of the state, especially in the Kashmir Valley. It was after this situation that many of the Indian Media started complaining that they were unable to receive any information from the Kashmir Valley despite their several reasonable attempts as the internet services were completely stopped in the valley except in the government working offices for carrying out their respective tasks.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) informed that one of the local journalists, who was also an editor of a news website-The Kashmiriyat Walla, was arrested by the Kashmiri Police under no specific charges. The Press release was completely stopped and there were various other instances where editors of various newspapers were being arrested without unspecific charges and put under unlawful detention. However, the news channel Indian Times Now stated that their channel did not find much of a restriction, which is really surprising as other news channels and individuals were totally cut off from the valley. Several other Indian Media Reporters, outside Kashmir, claimed that they were unable to get any information from the Muslim majority areas in Kashmir except for a few blocks (as reported by Reuters here).
The curtailment of the freedom of speech and expression by the government and thus taking away the right to get information from the residents of the state has led to the ‘questioning of the idea of democracy’ in the Indian Constitution because the Right to Information is inherently mentioned in the text of Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution (see Swapnil Tripathy v. Supreme Court of India and Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India) and the violation of which would obviously make the citizens question it. Many appeals and complaints were being filed not only before the judiciary but also before the State Information Commission but there were no fruits.
The Right to Information has been recognized by the judiciary as a fundamental right under the Freedom of Speech and Expression. In the age where the whole world is solely dependent on the information from the media, its value can be easily associated with the socio-cultural, economic and political development of a country like India. The Right to information is important because it is at present the basis of the development. The right to know something is also closely related to the Right to Education as stated under the Article 21-A of the Indian Constitution. Thus, the following right should be attributed to every citizen as it is a part of personal liberty and it is essential to form an informed opinion. The access to information should be equated and kept into account that it is guaranteed and treated as a norm (and not an exception). As in the case of Jammu and Kashmir, the rest of the country should raise their voice and every ounce of information must be circulated thoroughly so that the drastic condition of the residents comes into notice of the whole world. For it is always said, “unity is the strength of India”. The Right to Information should aim at providing transparency of the administration as well as public life.