That the Right to Information (RTI) Act empowers all is again reflected in the state information commission at Nagpur allowing a second appeal hearing of a death row convict. The hearing was conducted through video conferencing from Nagpur central prison on 15 June 2022.
The video conferencing facility, specially created at the prison with complete privacy for the RTI applicant and in the presence of the jail authorities, lasted for 45 minutes. State information commissioner (SIC) Rahul Pande had accepted the applicant's request to grant him an opportunity of hearing and heard him patiently.
Ehtesham Qutubuddin Siddiqui, an accused in the 7/11 serial blast, was awarded the death sentence by a special court in 2002. Since December 2016, he has been lodged at a special cell in the Nagpur central prison, earmarked for death row convicts.
He filed an RTI application for copies of his representations to the high court (HC), the prime minister (PM) and the anti-terrorist squad (ATS) seeking re-investigation into the serial blast probe in which more than 200 people died and around 800 people were injured. These representations were forwarded by the jail authorities of the Nagpur prison.
Mr Siddiqui had written four letters of seven pages each in July 2019, questioning the probe conducted by ATS, claiming that he was framed by senior ATS officers and sought a probe in the interest of justice. To confirm whether the letters were actually forwarded or not, he filed an RTI application on 20 September 2019 with the jail authorities, seeking details of the outward number and covering letter of jail authorities along with his original letters.
Mr Pande, state information commissioner, citing why Mr Siddiqui filed for a second appeal, stated that "the prison's public information officer (PIO) provided him only the outward number but refused to supply a covering letter. This was upheld by the first appellate authority (FAA) on 6 November 2019. Aggrieved by this decision, he filed the second appeal on 15 February 2020 but due to corona restrictions and unavailability of full-time commissioner, the appeal remained pending."
During the second appeal hearing through video conference, Mr Siddiqui expressed apprehension about whether the letters seeking re-investigation had reached the authorities and insisted on the copies of the covering letters sent by the jail authorities.
SIC Mr Pandey, "while finding substance in this point," directed the PIO of central prison to immediately furnish the covering letters containing the proper outward numbers and other relevant official endorsement to the appellant free of cost within seven days.
Mr Siddiqui, in another second appeal, demanded a copy of the official order by which he was lodged at Nagpur jail. The PIO had supplied him a communication from the superintendent of central prison, Mumbai dated 26 October 2016, addressed to the Nagpur jail authorities about the shifting of Mr Siddiqui. However, the latter claimed that the order passed by the then additional director general of police (ADGP) (Prisons) was quashed by the home department since the matter was pending before the HC and the communication by the jail superintendent was not an order as per the jail manual.
SIC Mr Pande ordered the authorities to produce the original file and perused it before rejecting this particular appeal. Referring to Section 2 (f) of RTI Act, the SIC found that the information available with Nagpur prison authorities was duly provided to Mr Siddiqui. Hence, the stance taken by PIO and the FAA was in consonance with RTI.
This reminded me of a case around 2004 when, under the Maharashtra RTI Act (implemented before the Central Right to Information Act 2005), a convict of the Yerwada central jail invoked the RTI seeking the copy of the Prisons Act. He contended that he was shifted from the open jail back to the closed jail as he had agitated against the poor quality food served to prisoners there. Hence, he wanted to know under which rule he was being put back into the closed jail. When the jail superintendent dismissed his RTI application, he wrote to Prakash Kardaley, the then resident editor of The Indian Express.
Mr Kardaley asked this author to follow up on the story. This led to the jail superintendent asking the prisoner to file his RTI application, after which he was provided with the required copy of the Prisons Act.
Ever since the implementation of the RTI Act, hundreds of prisoners across the country have been seeking information by invoking it. In 2019, RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak had sought information on details of prisoners who had been shifted to the Agra central jail after the government scrapped Article 370. He was denied the information under a third-party clause.
Nonetheless, the common consensus amongst experts is that most of the prisoners are economically backward and are unable to spend money on lawyers. Hence, requisition under the RTI Act is the only avenue of trying to defend themselves through certified information.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book "To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte" with Vinita Kamte and is the author of "The Mighty Fall".)