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Kashmiris take on government with unusual weapon

Nirupama Subramanian

A small but dedicated band of RTI warriors is determined to fight for people's empowerment through the weapon of information.

— Photo: SPECIAL ARRANGeMENT

Seeking justice: The Right to Information Act has strengthened the hands of activists. Muzaffar Bhat gave up his dental practice to engage full time in RTI work.

In July 2010, when stone-pelting teenagers were battling it out with policemen on the streets of Kashmir, one young Kashmiri was taking on the security forces in his own way.

In a video conference call from Srinagar, Muzaffar Bhat, a dentist by education, deposed before Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah about an unsuccessful 2007 application for information, under the Right to Information Act, on the whereabouts of a man from Budgam district who was picked up by the Border Security Force in 1990 and has not been seen since.

Three senior officials of the BSF also participated in the four-way conference call hearing on July 2 — two DIGs from the Delhi headquarters of the organisation, and the DIG Frontier from his Srinagar headquarters. The CIC directed Dr. Bhat to send the details of the case to the DIG Frontier at the earliest, and directed the BSF officials to ensure that they responded within 15 days.

Dr. Bhat never got the information. According to him, the BSF invited him to a separate follow-up meeting some weeks later. He was told all the records pertaining to1990 had been discarded and there was no way to track down the missing man, Mohammed Ashraf Yatoo, an employee of the Jammu & Kashmir government's food supplies department.

The failure has not deterred Dr. Bhat, one of a small but dedicated band of RTI warriors in Kashmir. If anything, the dental surgeon-turned activist is now even more determined in his mission to fight for people's empowerment through the weapon of information.

“One of the reasons for the present unrest in Kashmir is that there is a big governance deficit in Kashmir. We see right to information as a way to empower people so that the deficit can be addressed in the right way,” Dr. Bhat told The Hindu in a recent interview in Srinagar.

Human rights violations by the security forces are a big part of this, but also what people see as endemic corruption in every department of government, and the perceived nexus between bureaucrats and politicians to deprive the powerless of their rightful benefits.

Jammu & Kashmir got its own Right to Information Act in 2004, a year before the Central legislation. But it was weak. After the 2005 RTI Act at the Centre, Dr. Bhat and his friends — among them the 2010 IAS examinations topper, Feisal Shah — began mobilising opinion for stronger RTI legislation in the State.

For constitutional reasons, the Central Act was not applicable in Jammu & Kashmir. But it inspired and strengthened the hands of the activists as they lobbied mainstream political parties to include in their election manifestos a commitment to a stronger RTI legislation. They finally succeeded in 2009, when the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly passed an RTI Act that is in some respects stronger than the Central Act.

The legislation has yielded small, but significant results. In September this year, Jammu & Kashmir High Court judges declared their assets following a request made under the RTI Act five months earlier. A 45-year-old widow finally won her battle for a tin-shed under the Indira Awas Yojana, another woman managed to get a Below Poverty Line card, and a village got piped water supply; all after RTI applications were filed. In July, the State Pollution Control Board provided the shocking information, again under the RTI Act, that only two hotels in the entire tourist town of Gulmarg had pollution control certificates from the Board.

Dr. Bhat said he packed up his dental practice to engage full time in RTI work after seeing people suffer all kinds of injustices due to government callousness. At his clinic in Budgam, his patients would tell him of their experiences of dealing with government officials.

“People have no access even to their tehsildar, what to speak of their district commissioner. Even if a tehsildar grants an audience to someone,” he said, “that person's heart rate goes up immediately, and he stands there shivering, unable to state his case properly. People are waiting outside government offices all day to get even the smallest jobs done.”

Not surprisingly, his activism has earned him enemies. Separatist politicians allege he is a stooge of the government, his talk of empowerment distracting attention from their goal of azadi. Powerful mainstream politicians, on the other hand, are out to fix him, he alleges, reeling off a list of FIRs filed against him and other RTI activists.

“We are not pelting stones. All we want is good governance, and transparency in government. For this I am being harassed by powerful people, cases are being fabricated against me” he said. “The question boils down to this: What kind of people do you finally want in the State? My kind of people who believe in democracy, or stone-pelters and militants?”

The Jammu & Kashmir Right to Information Movement, which Dr. Bhat and his fellow RTI activists run, is now engaged in spreading awareness about the legislation in the entire State. They are also campaigning for the appointment of a Chief Information Commissioner for the State.

“More than a year has lapsed since the Act came into existence, and we still do not have a Chief Information Commissioner for J & K,” said Dr. Bhat. Filling that office is important — it is the only forum of appeal to anyone whose RTI request goes unheeded.

For months now, Dr. Bhat has been awaiting a response from the State Home Department for information on how many security forces personnel have so far been prosecuted for disappearances in custody. A request for information on assets of IAS and Kashmir administrative service officials is also pending. “I want to file a complaint but where do I give my complaint in the absence of a Chief Information Commissioner?” Dr. Bhat asked.

The State government has also not filled the two posts of Information Commissioners, leaving the State's three-member Information Commission unconstituted.

In the BSF case, Dr. Bhat could appeal to the Central Information Commission because the paramilitary force is a Central government organisation, and his request for information about the missing man was filed as under the Central RTI Act.

Earlier this month, a delegation of the Jammu & Kashmir RTI movement met the Governor to demand the appointment of the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners without further delay. They also demanded that the State government must raise awareness about the legislation by including it in the education curriculum in the State and by publishing it in the Urdu and Hindi languages. They also flagged the need for pro-active disclosure of information by all the public authorities.

“Some people say, this is a conflict zone,” said Dr. Bhat, “nothing can be done here, they say this legislation cannot work here. But what we are saying to people is this: precisely because of the conflict, this Act can do wonders. It can strengthen people's faith in democracy, and it can even help to resolve the conflict.”

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