RTI on 26/11 report: what’s going on?

A decade has passed since a group of 10 armed militants launched murderous attacks in the heart of Mumbai. More than 160 lives were brutally extinguished and 400 others were injured. Scores of innocent civilians, including children, lost their lives and several police personnel and NSG commandos were martyred in the mayhem let loose over three days and nights under the guidance of masterminds across the border. A High-Level Enquiry Committee (HLEC) was tasked with enquiring into the intelligence lapses and the adequacy of the responses of law enforcement agencies in Mumbai.

The HLEC was headed by RD Pradhan, former union home secretary and erstwhile governor of Arunachal Pradesh, and V Balachandran, a distinguished IPS officer who retired as Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat was its other member. Over 11 months, the committee conducted an in-depth enquiry into the events that resulted in the massacre. In December 2009, the committee submitted its findings to the Maharashtra government along with several recommendations for improving the intelligence, internal security and rapid-response systems.

Soon after, the government tabled the HLEC report, along with an action to be taken report (ATB report), in the state legislature. A copy of the HLEC report was sent to the central government as well because the committee’s recommendations were crucial for beefing up the security and intelligence apparatus in other cities that face a risk of similar attacks. However, neither government has elected to place these reports in the public domain to inform the voter-taxpayer citizen. All that we have seen so far are sensationalised tidbits that the media has reported.

In December 2017, this author, being based in Delhi, submitted an RTI application to the union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) seeking a copy of the HLEC report, the date of its receipt in the ministry, all correspondence conducted with the Maharashtra government on the subject and related file notings. The central public information officer (CPIO) summarily rejected the request on grounds that the information was “classified” and therefore attracted the first exemption clause under the RTI Act.

This author appealed against the CPIO’s decision before his senior officer and argued that access to sensitive information may be denied under that exemption clause only if disclosure will harm the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country, security, strategic, economic or scientific interests of the State or relations with a foreign country. That clause cannot be invoked simply because a bureaucrat decides to stamp an official document “secret” or “top secret” or “confidential”.

Accepting these arguments, the appellate authority remanded the matter back to the CPIO for reconsideration — a rare instance because they are often known to agree with their juniors’ decisions. The CPIO rejected the request for the report again, stating that disclosure would “prejudicially affect the security of the State”. Ironically, while the armed militants took a boat and landed on Mumbai’s shores with intent to harm the “security of the State” and faced little resistance initially, releasing the HLEC’s findings and recommendations would jeopardise the country’s security, the CPIO seemed to think.

The CPIO also replied that no correspondence had been conducted with the Maharashtra government on the issues dealt with in the report. This claim is even more ludicrous given the fact that the HLEC report has been studied deeply and decisions taken to improve the security and intelligence systems in many cities.

Rather than file an appeal with the Central Information Commission, where the wait for a decision could be longer than a year, this author submitted a fresh RTI application to the public information officer (PIO) of the Maharashtra legislature secretariat, seeking the government’s ATB report in addition to the HLEC report. The PIO sent a copy of both reports without any fuss, after collecting a fee of Rs 411 towards photocopying and postal charges. This, indeed, is how such a request must be dealt with, because both documents had been  tabled in the state legislature. Under the RTI Act, information that cannot be denied to parliament or a state legislature cannot be denied to any citizen. This is the spirit of democratic and responsible governance. Citizens should have the same rights to access information as the MPs and MLAs whom they elect, if not more.

The RTI is a fundamental right. Fundamental rights by their very nature must be available to people in equal measure everywhere across the country. Similar information, available in one jurisdiction, should not be denied in another.  However, despite constant pressure from an active citizenry and frequent prodding from information commissions, public authorities are reluctant to make the transition from needless secrecy to a regime of transparency regulated by the RTI Act. Instead, when in doubt, the quintessential PIO-babu errs in favour of secrecy. We have a long way to go before the vision of the RTI Act — transparency in the functioning of government at all levels — is realised.

(The writer is with Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi)

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RTI on 26/11 report: what’s going on?

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