Getting into the Skin of an RTI Activist’s Murder To Bring Out a Fact-finding Report – Way To Go!
The regularity with which Right to Information (RTI) activists are killed across the county, often brutally and in broad daylight, should be a cause for deep concern for the government to the point of bringing in a strong whistle-blowers’ protection legislation. In the absence of it, the activists put their lives on the line for the betterment of governance and accountability. When they are killed, the police and the judicial system often ensure that the case languishes. A typical example is Satish Shetty, the first-ever RTI activist to be killed in 2010; however, the culprits continue to roam free. The story is the same in the case of others. This has been recorded in the research book Life and Death in the Times of RTI, explicitly referring to 13 murders in Maharashtra.
 
Hence, it is a splendid effort by a group of activists, who took up the cudgels to bring out a fact-finding report on the murder of Ranjeet Soni in Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh on 2 June 2022. A team consisting of Anjali Bhardwaj, Rolly Shivhare, Ajay Dubey, Amrita Johri and Santosh Malviya visited Vidisha two weeks later, on 19 June 2022. They have put together the work of the slain activist, studied his RTI applications, met the police and family, chronicled his story, and submitted recommendations.
 
In a statement, the activists wrote, “We met with the wife and children of Mr Soni at their residence in Vidisha. We also spoke to a lawyer who had been helping Mr Soni with the legal follow-up of his cases and a journalist associated with a local newspaper who had been reporting on the case.
 
"Gayatri Soni, wife of Ranjeet Soni, shared with us that he used to work as a contractor and often undertook government works in collaboration with other contractors, including those being investigated for his murder. A few years ago, due to some falling out between Ranjeet and the other contractors, Ranjeet stopped working with them.” 
 
As per the police investigations, this hostility led to the murder.
 
Mr Soni mostly filed RTI applications, over 150 of them addressed to the public works department (PWD). One of them, his wife stated, related to fake fixed deposit receipts (FDRs) made by certain contractors in collaboration with officials to bid for government contracts. 
 
State the activists, “Gayatri showed us a bag containing papers and correspondence between Ranjeet and various departments of the government. She said there were several boxes and bags full of such papers in the house.
 
"From among the papers, we were able to see there were several RTI applications filed to public authorities and complaints filed to the Lokayukta.’’
 
As per Mr Soni’s lawyer, some of the accused being investigated for the murder had threatened Mr Soni earlier as well in a bid to pressurise him to stop pursuing his RTI matters and complaints of corruption. 
 
RTI Applications by Mr Soni
 
• Application under the RTI Act dated 25 February 2022, seeking details about the process of appointment of the deputy general manager, including the eligibility criteria, in the Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Vikas Pradhikaran implementation unit in Vidisha. 
 
• Application under the RTI Act dated 21 February 2022 filed to the PWD, seeking details of notices issued to contractors pursuant to certain decisions of the Lokayukta. The replies furnished in this matter include complaints filed by Mr Soni to the Lokayukta. 
 
Two of the complaints filed in December 2020 sought an investigation into alleged corruption in works carried out by Ankur Construction Company for PWD, Vidisha and inaction by PWD officials (Jaswant Singh Raghuvanshi is the proprietor of the company). Another one sought an investigation into allegations of corruption and wrongdoing in development works carried out during the tenure of an engineer in the PWD. 
 
The correspondence included another complaint dated August 2021 marked to the chief minister, PWD minister, chief secretary and senior officials in PWD regarding alleged irregularities in the FDRs presented by Mr Raghuvanshi, proprietor of Ankur Construction Company, in the tender documents for works in PWD, Vidisha. The correspondence also includes several show-cause notices issued by the PWD to Ankur Construction Company over wrongful delays by the company in executing works awarded to it. 
 
 • Application under the RTI Act dated 5 January 2021, filed to the district hospital in Vidisha, seeking details of stock and supply of ARV injections. 
 
• Application under the RTI Act, filed to the police in Vidisha in February 2017, seeking details of action taken by the police on a complaint (annexure 6).
 
• Complaint filed by Mr Soni on 9 September 2016 to the police, alleging that subsequent to filing an RTI application, seeking details of road construction in the area, Mr Raghuvanshi and his son came to Mr Soni’s house and threatened him with dire consequences if he did not withdraw the RTI application. As per the complaint, on 30 June 2016, three to four people in the PWD office, regarding which he filed a complaint to the police, attacked Mr Soni. Upon the police taking no action in the matter, he filed a case in the local court. Subsequently, he had been attacked three to four times for not acceding to withdraw his RTI applications. 
 
Recommendations
 
In addition to the criminal investigation into the murder of Mr Soni, other related aspects also need to be pursued strongly—especially in terms of the various RTI applications filed by Mr Soni and the complaints made by him to the Lokayukta, PWD and other authorities. The family is in deep financial crisis and the government must provide immediate compensation to the family. The recommendations cover each of these aspects and will need to be acted upon by various authorities including the Madhya Pradesh state information commission (SIC), PWD, Lokayukta, police and various departments of the state government. 
 
Place in the public domain, on the website of the concerned public authorities, all the RTI applications filed by Mr Soni in the last one year (including any pending applications) along with the information/ replies.
 
Giving wide publicity to the information being pursued by people who are killed, potentially acts as a deterrent against such attacks in the future, as perpetrators get the message that, rather than covering up the matter, any attack would invite even greater public scrutiny. (SIC and concerned public authorities) 
 
Set up an inquiry committee, headed by a senior PWD official from outside the district, to probe the various complaints of corruption and financial irregularities filed by Mr Soni to the PWD. Make the findings of the committee public. 
 
Fast track the complaints filed by Mr Soni to the Lokayukta and ensure a thorough, time-bound probe into the allegations of corruption and financial irregularities and make the findings public. The complaints must not be closed or dismissed on account of the death of the complainant. If required, the Lokayukta could appoint a lawyer to pursue the cases on behalf of Mr Soni. (Lokayukta)
 
Provide immediate financial assistance to the family by way of compensation to ensure they are able to continue to afford the rent of the house they are living in and pay the school related and other essential expenses for the children and his wife.
 
Further, the local administration must facilitate the family in applying for and seeking benefits under all applicable social welfare schemes including widow pension, scholarship schemes etc. and also consider providing employment to Ms Soni, the widow of Mr Soni, to enable her to earn a livelihood and ensure a life of dignity for the family.  
 
Ensure a thorough investigation into the murder of Mr Soni, including examining whether he was killed as a result of exposing corruption in government works on the basis of information accessed under the RTI Act. In addition to investigating the role of contractors against whom Mr Soni had filed complaints, the police must investigate the nexus between the contractors and PWD officials. 
 
The state government must adopt a policy/ law to provide protection to whistle-blowers and people exposing corruption along the lines of the provisions of the Whistle Blowers Protection Act which was passed by Parliament in 2014 but has not been operationalised till date as the Central government has not notified the requisite rules.
 
The Murder
 
Mr Soni, 46, was shot dead in broad daylight at around 5pm on 2 June 2022. He was shot in the back of the head at point-blank range within the premises of the office of the PWD, Vidisha, just outside the main entrance to the office. A CCTV camera was installed above the main entrance, barely 5-7 feet from the spot at which Mr Soni was murdered; however, as per the police, the CCTV was not functional. 
 
The PWD office is located in a crowded area in Vidisha—opposite the district court and adjacent to the district panchayat office. As per police officials, Mr Soni had gone to the PWD office about his RTI matters. 
 
The police registered a first information report (FIR) on 2nd June (FIR no. 0332/2022) against an unknown person under sections 302 and 201 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The police have arrested five people for the murder—the shooter Ankit Yadav alias Tunda, Raghuvanshi, Naresh Sharma, S Kumar Choube and Shailendra Patel. 
 
Per a press note issued by the police, the murder resulted from a falling out between Mr Soni and Mr Raghuvanshi, Mr Sharma, and Mr Choube, who used to work together as contractors and had filed several complaints against each other. As per the press note, the contractors hired the shooter through Mr Patel.
 
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the 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”.)
 
Comments
whistleblower786
5 months ago
Since 1999 till today I have filed 21,261 RTIs in Maharashtra and with CIC which includes Applications, First and Second Appeals, Complaints under Section 18, apart from Aaple Sarkar, Act 21 of Maharashtra Govt, and by emails. But I have received no threats whatsoever. Problems begin when you demand money. I was once advised by a Inspector General of Police, now retired, not to go after petrol mafia, as they brine every police man from top to bottom, and even politicians help themand can kill me by dashing my vehicle by truck or Jeep . He advised me further to take caution. I told my IGP friend that I am fearless journalist and know how to handle the mafia and corrupt cops. Think why many RTI Activists dare and yet not harmed. You better do a story on them.
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