Author Ligimat Perez for Front Line Defenders
In March 2018 Nanjibhai Sondharva, a villager in the Indian state of Gujarat, was killed for asking too many questions. Assailants dragged the 35-year-old from his car and clubbed and slashed him to death in Manekwada, a village in the Rajkot district of Gujarat.
Just over a year later, in May 2019, his teenage son Rajesh (pictured below) was killed for seeking justice for his father’s death. The science student was on his way home when a group of men ambushed and beat him to death.
The murder was the latest, brutal reminder of the dangers of using India’s right to information (RTI) law.
The law, passed in 2005, gives private citizens the right to demand written answers from state institutions including the police and the army. It has become a widely used tool to expose corruption and hold authorities to account. According to CHRI —an NGO which works towards the practical realization of human rights in the countries of the Commonwealth— people submit between 5.3 and 5.6 million RTI applications every year. Thousands remain unanswered.
But for whistleblowers the consequences can be deadly. Dozens of RTI activists, as they are known, have been murdered – an epidemic of targeted assassinations to silence awkward questions that may expose lucrative and non transparent deeds involving public servants.
“Generally, the attackers are government contractors, lobbies with strong political backing and local politicians”, says Tahmina Laskar, Senior Program Officer for CHRI.
This makes the Whistleblower Protection Act crucial. According to this law, passed in 2014, the identities of the complainant and public servant would be concealed and a competent authority would conduct a discreet inquiry. But five years after its approval, this law has not been implemented.
The Sondharva family – Dalits from India’s “lowest” caste – has paid an exceptionally heavy price in losing a father and a son to the fight for the right to information in India.
Nanjibhai Sondharva had a record of filing RTI requests to fight corruption in his village. He was savagely attacked and killed by six persons after demanding transparency and asking for details about funds spent on the construction of a road.
Four years earlier Nanjibhai had used RTI to obtain documents and file a court case challenging the diversion of funds for water projects related to sanitation and the construction of toilets in his village. This time Nanjibhai was called to a meeting by the local officials and beaten in front of a development officer. Nanjinhai filed three complaints, but the police didn’t act.
After his death in March 2018, the six accused men were arrested, but they were recently freed on bail. Sondharva’s eldest son, Rajesh spotted one of them roaming in his village, thus breaking a condition of his bail.
According to one officer linked to the investigation, Rajesh had been trying to get the man’s bail cancelled when he was murdered.
Rajesh was returning home to Manekwada village when he was attacked. He was riding a motorbike with a friend, when a group of people intercepted them and started beating Rajesh with sticks and pipes. The adolescent was taken to the local hospital where he later died.
As reported by The Wire, a non-profit Indian news outlet, before Rajesh passed out said he had been attacked by the same men who had murdered his father and who had been threatening his family to not pursue the case.
The source, who spoke anonymously, added that the majority of the accused had criminal records. Local reports note that one of the accused in both murder cases is the husband of a sitting Congress member and the son of a government official from the village.
CHRI, which keeps track of the killings and assaults on RTI activists, says Rajesh became the 12th victim killed in Gujrat in connection to RTI use. Since the law passed in 2005 CHRI has counted 82 RTI activists and users killed and 166 assaulted nationwide.
A rampant increase in attacks on whistleblowers in India, and a slow and ineffective response by the authorities to these cases, denounced by international NGOs, bring fear of more of these targeted killings, unless the Whistleblower Act is implemented.