Article by Sabarish Suresh on "PM Modi degree row: Where is the right to information?" - Daily O

January 01, 2017 | Sabarish Suresh (JGLS Student)

Recently, information commissioner Madabhushi Sridhar Acharyulu overturned the decision of the First Appellate Authority of Delhi University, which had refused to divulge details of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s graduation degree in response to an RTI application. Little did Acharyulu know that he would face repercussions for upholding the democratic ideals of the Right to Information Act on principle.

RTI applicant Neeraj had sought to know from the DU the total number of students who appeared in bachelor of arts, year 1978 (the same year that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is said to have graduated), besides result of all students who appeared in the examination along with their roll number, name of the students with father’s name, marks and result pass or failed.
 
The public information officer of the university (the first point of contact for information applications as per the Right to Information Act, 2005) rejected the information on grounds of privacy and confidentiality as per Section 8 (j) of the RTI Act. Pursuant to this rejection, a first appeal was filed by Neeraj with the first appellate officer of Delhi University. But that too resulted in a rejection.
 
It was at this stage that a second appeal was filed before the Central Information Commission, and the matter came before information commissioner Acharyulu, who was the authority in-charge of the HRD ministry. The department of higher education and the University Grants Commission (UGC) both fall under the ambit of the HRD for purposes of the RTI Act.
 
Acharyulu was of the firm opinion that the Delhi University was not able to produce satisfactory arguments or sufficient evidence to prove that the information actually sought would violate privacy and confidentiality concerns. By doing so, he ordered the public information officer of the university to release the information sought by Neeraj.
 
In what seems to be a classic retributive response of speaking truth to power, Acharyulu was discharged of his duty from his HRD jurisdiction and the same was transferred to his colleague in the Central Information Commission, Majula Parashar.
 
The right to information was conceptualised as a fundamental right as per Article 19 (1) of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has maintained this position since 1976, through the case of Raj Narain vs State of Uttar Pradesh, when they pronounced that people of a democracy cannot express or speak themselves unless they know.
It is not only disappointing that earnest officers who uphold fundamental rights as enshrined by the Constitution face backlash, but it also speaks volumes as to what extent political immunity is implicitly sought by politicians when legitimate questions are raised about their personal qualifications.
 
It is the duty of candidates to mention truthfully and earnestly their educational qualifications as prescribed by Form 26 of the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951. Last year, the Supreme Court of India has made use of this provision and the constitutional right to information to explicitly hold that citizens have a fundamental right to know the educational qualifications of every candidate/ minister and the same can be furnished to him/her without hesitation.
 
Given such an enormous legal and constitutional arsenal that backs Neeraj’s RTI application to seek the prime minister’s educational qualifications, the decision given by Acharyulu is a welcome move and must be celebrated for upholding the principles of the Constitution without any hesitation or reluctance, but with the firm and sole objective of fulfilling his duty.
 
But what is of curious concern is that if people like Amit Shah and Arun Jaitley can flaunt the PM's degree on national television, why a citizen must be denied access to inspect the said degree defeats reason.
 
Why an officer who upholds the citizen’s right to information must be divested of his HRD charge, coincidentally just two days after his decision, is all the more surprising. In the world’s largest democracy, corruption and deceit has overpowered the strong-armed ideals of good governance.
 
It is certainly disappointing that bodies set up to instil a sense of transparency and accountability, such as the Central Information Commission, would work through bureaucracy to stifle diligent officers. Central information commissioner R K Mathur refuses to give answers as to why Acharyulu has been strangely and abruptly relieved of HRD ministry charge, just after the decision.
 
Although it is within the authority of the Central Information Commissioner to reassign duties to information commissioners, it is also the duty of every citizen to know why honest officers, who uphold constitutional rights of the citizens, face the wrath of the political stronghold for performing their duty.
 
India, as a country, has never been encouraging and supportive of RTI activists. The number of murders of RTI activists and the extent to which activists have been hounded and threatened stands testimony to this. But it is definitely the deepest of travesties if uncalled for actions were to be taken within the body established to facilitate the information to such activists. Thomas Jefferson once famously proclaimed that information is the currency of a democracy.
 
It is only ironic that in the world’s largest democracy, demands for information itself acts as a gateway for treachery in an attempt to destabilise democracy by all means. Then again, with the current regime such fascist underpinnings have become the new currency as per the language of Jefferson.
 
Should one feel upset with how Acharyulu has been treated? Or should one feel grateful that he at least did not face institutional wrath that Gujarat officers Sanjiv Bhat and Rahul Sharma faced for being whistleblowers exposing the state government’s complicity in the 2002 riots?
 
Whatever be the answer, one thing is clear, democracy in India has become a farce.
 
The writer is a law student at OP Jindal Global University in Haryana. He is interested in criminal law and human rights and actively writes on gender and sexuality.