RTI Martyrs: Saluting the Brave

10 February 2011

By Amitabh Thakur

IPS officer from UP and President, National RTI Forum

“RTI Martyrs ! Who the hell are they?” someone might ask.

And the reason is obvious. For long we have listened the word martyr as someone who has sacrificed his or her life at the altar of human well-being. Each society and each country has its martyrs who are the part of their folklore, myths and legends.

But “RTI martyr” had not been a very prominent concept till late. In fact, if we look into the history of the word, we find that it possibly has its origin in the last few years. I vividly remember that when we were remembering Satish Shetty in a program at IIM Lucknow [a prestigious management institute in India] and I used the words RTI martyr, it took many of those present by surprise. But very soon the word was heard everywhere.

In India RTI is hardly 5 years old because the Right to Information Act was promulgated in October 2005, yet this Act has caught the fancy of people in this country as very few other acts. This is not only one of the most frequently used laws; it is also creating ripples in governance and administration. The opening of the doors which had hitherto been closed for long, guarded by the impenetrable iron frame of bureaucracy, is making much noise and chaos.

There are all kinds of actions and reactions in play. While an entire new set of activists, known as RTI activists have come up, who are asking for more and more information from the administration, there are also some government functionaries and private individuals who are getting adversely affected by this dissemination of information. In a few of these cases, the parties seem to get so badly perturbed and disturbed that they tend to grow revengeful and violent. The result is attack on the RTI activists, at times leading to their deaths.

It was the murder of Satish Shetty that made me and my wife Nutan to initiate the formation of National RTI Forum and it was the murder of a few more RTI activists in rapid succession that forced us to begin writing about these RTI martyrs. We thought that this would be an appropriate way of paying our homage to these people who laid their lives for the sake of justice.

They sacrificed themselves in the way of asking information about irregularities, corruptions, wrong practices, improper conduct and functioning in various government mechanisms. In our opinion theirs was the cause that must be remembered and saluted.

Unfortunately since the time we began working on this book on RTI martyrs, a few more persons have got killed for the sake of information seeking and have added to this list. At present the RTI Martyrs (in chronological order) whom we are to cover in our book are as follows:

1. Lalit Kumar Mehta, member of Vikas Sahyog Kendra was a Right to Food and Right to Work campaigner in Palamau, Jharkhand. He had done in-depth social audit of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) works in Palamau exposing corrupt practices. For this he was brutally murdered when he was on his way back on March 15, 2008.

2. Kameshwar Yadav was a Right to Work activist from Giridih (Jharkhand) who had, with the help of RTI, questioned the nexus flourishing among officers, leaders, contractors and middlemen regarding minor irrigation work in Deori. He was killed by unidentified gunmen on June 7, 2008.

3. Venkatesh from Eranapalyta (Bengaluru, Karnataka) was an RTI activist who had exposed encroachments on government property.  This enraged many powerful people.  He was killed on April 12, 2009. The incident initially looked like an accident, but the post mortem report revealed it was murder.  Local Don Lohit Raja, alias T C Raja, was later arrested.

4. Satish Shetty was an RTI activist from Pune who exposed many land scams in Maharashtra adversely affecting a very large number of powerful persons. This finally led to his murder on January 13, 2010, by unidentified men while on his morning walk. The case was later transferred to CBI but still all the facts have not come up

5. Vishram Laxman Dodiya sold drinking water and books at roadside in Surat (Gujarat). He also used to ask a very large of information through RTI on many essential government services. This uneducated RTI activist was hacked to death by three men on February 11, 2010, on a road near his home. Three men were charge sheeted in murder.

6.  Shashidhar Mishra, popularly known as ‘Khabri Lal’ was an activist from Begusarai (Bihar) who had exposed scams in the welfare schemes at the panchayat [a local body] and block level, earning the wrath of many. He was shot dead by unknown assailants on February 14, 2010, while coming back to his house

7. Sola Ranga Rao of Krishna district, Andhra Pradesh was an RTI activist who had filed many RTI applications in the district office regarding funding of the village’s drainage system. He got murdered because of his RTI activities near his house on April 11, 2010,

8. Vitthal Gite was an RTI activist from Aurangabad (Maharashtra ,who had exposed irregularities in a village school in Beed. He was killed on April 18, 2010, following a clash led by the son of the president of the educational society that run the school exposed by him.

9. Dattatreya Patil was an RTI activist from Ichalkaranji (Kolhapur district, Maharashtra) who was known for taking on the administration with the help of the RTI act.  He was attacked by assailants with a sword on May 22, 2010, and was killed because of his RTI activities.

10. Amit Jethwa was an environmentalist and social worker active in the Gir Forest area near Junagarh, Gujarat. His RTI activities against illegal mining in the protected area got him many powerful adversaries. It is for these reasons that on July 20, 2010, he was shot dead by two assailants. A nephew of a BJP MP and others have been arrested so far.

11. Ramdas Patil Ghadegaonkar, who sold milk in District Nanded, Maharasthra was fighting a battle through the use of RTI against some companies who were using heavy machinery to dredge sand from Godavari river. He was murdered in the night of August 27, 2010, as he was killed in retaliation for blocking the dredging.

We only hope that there are no more of these RTI martyrs. Again we know that the sacrifices of these martyrs will not go in waste and their lives will forever go on inspiring the RTI activists to do their service with courage and conviction.

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