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‘They can break legs, not spirit’: RTI activists call Barmer the ‘kala pani’ of Rajasthan

Rajasthan is where RTI movement began in the late 1990s. Even so, multiple RTI activists in state's Barmer claim they regularly face attacks or threats as they attempt to 'expose corruption'.

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Barmer/Jodhpur: Right to Information (RTI) activist Amra Ram Godara, 30, is lying motionless on a bed in Jodhpur’s MDM Hospital. Both his legs are fractured, and he hasn’t been able to move his upper body either since a brutal attack last month that Godara attributes to his campaign against corruption and illicit liquor trade.

Godara doesn’t know if he will be able to walk again, but he can’t wait to go back and work for his people. “Ye log mere pair tod sakte hain, par hausla nahi (they can break my legs, but not my spirit),” he said. 

The activist claims that, on 21 December, he was abducted from near his home in an SUV. “I got off a bus near my house and saw some people with their faces covered waiting for me. I am threatened on a daily basis, so I started running for my life. They first tried to run their car over me. When they failed, they picked me up and tortured me,” he told ThePrint. 

“They inserted nails in my legs, beat me up with sticks and rods, and then forced me to drink urine. They then threw me out of the car presuming I was dead,” he added. 

According to Godara, he was primarily attacked for “exposing corruption in Gram Panchayat Kampuliya” in Barmer. He says he exposed illegal liquor trade in villages, and corruption in the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awas Yojana and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

He says he raised these issues at a special state-government facilitated meeting under the “Prashasan Gaon Ke Sang (administration with villages)” campaign.

Rajasthan is where the movement for Right to Information began in the late 1990s (in Ajmer). Even so, multiple RTI activists in the state’s Barmer region claim that they regularly face attacks or threats as they attempt to “expose corruption”. They also allege that their RTI pleas are often stalled for as long as four years.

Social activist Aruna Roy, one of the torchbearers of the RTI movement, said “violence is especially bad in Barmer”.

“Whenever the powerless ask questions of the powerful, it becomes a problem for the corrupt and the power elite. When people who have been suppressed for so long raise their voice, there is a violent reaction from those who have monopolised all privileges in society,” she told ThePrint.

“They use violence to suppress truth and people’s rights. The reaction in Barmer, especially… comes from the fact that the RTI activists expose the corruption and arbitrary use of power by the lower government functionaries,” Roy said. “These functionaries  connive with the power elite of the feudal system. They come together, and become a powerful combination and oppose the dilution of their hold on communities, and government money.” 


‘Get at least 2 threat calls a day’

Bhagwan Singh, a 36-year-old RTI activist from Labrau village, describes Barmer as the “kala pani of Rajasthan, especially for RTI activists”. 

Standing in his office, surrounded by overflowing piles of papers related to RTI applications he has filed, he told ThePrint: “I am unable to digest my food on days I don’t get at least two threatening phone calls. It has become routine for people to tell me that they will torture me, kill me.” 

RTI activist Bhagwan Singh at Labrau village | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
RTI activist Bhagwan Singh at Labrau village | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Singh alleges that, in February last year, he was pelted with stones after he uncovered a local “scam”, under which 1,600 hectares of village common land was “acquired illegally by upper caste residents”. 

“RTI activists have to be brave as they face all kinds of harassment like court cases, fake FIRs, threats, attacks and police brutality,” he said. Singh, founder of the National Anti-Corruption and Human Rights Organisation, added that he set up the body because “we needed a banner to work under”.  

“I also worked to install a PCO service in all Rajasthan jails so that prisoners can at least make phone calls,” he added. 

Singh’s organisation currently has 2,855 participants from 22 states in the country. Of these, 350 activists are from Rajasthan, of which a third are from Barmer district. 

Although they don’t have a precise figure for how many RTI activists have been attacked in Barmer in the recent past, Singh says at least 6 have faced attacks in the last two years. 

RTI activist Jagdish Golia, he said, was “killed in police custody” in 2019. 

“One senior activist who has been working to expose corruption in illegal sand mining was attacked. RTI activist Sumeri Lal Sharma from Balotra and activist and lawyer Sujjan Singh Bhati from Barmer city have been attacked thrice. I was attacked in February, other activists Mukesh Sharma and Devi Lal Jhakar, Nav Singh Dheka have also been attacked,” he said. 

“If activists approach police stations to file complaints, they are mostly turned away,” he added.

The station house officer (SHO) for Pachpadra, Pradip Dagar, denied allegations of police apathy.

“In 2019, all police personnel on shift when Golia died, along with the then SHO, were suspended. An internal investigation concluded Golia died of a heart attack, not brutality,” he added. “In case of violence against Bhagwan Singh, an FIR was registered and 2 people have been arrested. Both the cases in which Mukesh Sharma was beaten up, the accused were granted bail and the case is currently in district court Barmer.”

For Sujjan Singh, Kotwali Barmer SHO Prem Prakash said he didn’t have details. As for Sumeri Lal Sharma, the SHO for the Barmer police station, Babulal, claimed it “was a long time ago, I am not the right person to talk to”.

‘Tareekh pe tareekh’

Bhagwan Singh also said most of their appeals have been lying pending for years. 

“The Rajasthan Information Commission gives us tareekh pe tareekh like courts. It doesn’t take action on our appeals. My appeals have been pending in courts for almost four years now,” he added.

“The commission doesn’t even fine people for filing late replies to RTI applications, even though the law requires them to impose a fine of Rs 250 every day. RTI activists should also be given compensation for the harassment they face, but nothing is given.” 

When ThePrint asked D.B. Gupta, chief information officer in Rajasthan, about the activists’ allegations, he said very few cases from 2018 are pending. 

“The data is available with court 3, which handles Barmer cases. Very few cases of 2018 are pending. The major reason (for pending case) is parties not appearing on the date set for hearing or no reply (from the party the RTI application is addressed to),” he wrote in response to ThePrint’s queries over WhatsApp.

“In 2020 and 2021, the courts were closed for three months due to the pandemic so no further dates were given.”


Also Read: In 15 years, RTI has gone from Indian citizens’ most powerful tool to an Act on life support


‘Received 7-8 stitches’

Mukesh Sharma, an RTI activist from Heera Ki Dhaani village, claims he was attacked twice, once in 2017 and the other time in 2019. 

“In 2017, I had asked for some information from the gram panchayat. The then sarpanch and his aides picked me up from my house when I was asleep around 1.30 am and hit me on the head with a rod. I received 7-8 stitches in my head,” said the 21-year-old. 

An FIR was lodged on his complaint at the district’s Gida police station. However, no arrests were made.

Sharma said one of his biggest inspirations is late freedom fighter Bhagat Singh. “Tell me, what did Bhagat Singh have? Nothing. Yet he gave away everything selflessly for the betterment of you and me. That is why I do what I do, even though I come from nothing,” he said.

Godara, who hails from Jassodon ki Beri village, comes from modest roots too. 

His house, or dhaani as it is called in the local dialect, is comprised of three kutcha structures situated in one obscure corner of the Thar desert. Here, Godara’s wife Indira Ram, children in tow, waits for her husband to return.

RTI activist Amra Ram Godara's wife Indira Devi with their children outside their home in Jassodon ki Beri village | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
RTI activist Amra Ram Godara’s wife Indira Devi with their children outside their home in Jassodon ki Beri village | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

In this part of Barmer, hardly anyone lives in a concrete house. 

Godara alleges that he was attacked for exposing an illegal liquor vend and fraud in implementation of the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awaas Yojana, the central government’s flagship housing-for-all scheme.

“The poor are kept out of the scheme and benefits are transferred to the clan and castes of the sarpanch in power,” he claimed. 

“One such example was of a man called Prakash, in Pareu village. The money granted under the scheme was transferred to another person of the same name. When I raised it in the panchayat samiti, necessary action was taken,” he said.

Block Development Officer Satish Singh acknowledged there had been a discrepancy: “A wrong allotment was done under PM Awaas Yojana, which was highlighted by Godara. When it came to my notice, I took the money back and deposited it in the state treasury.” 

Godara says that, through RTIs, he has also sought to uncover corruption in other schemes and projects, such as MGNREGA, and construction of roads and public toilets in villages. 

Under MGNREGA, local villagers are given work to build rain-water harvesting tanks for public usage, but claim underpayment. 

Saroopa Ram from Jassodon Ki Beri claims he wasn’t paid fully for his labour. “The thekedar and sarpanch ate half my money. They added fake names to the list of labourers who worked on this water tank. Only five of us worked on the project, while 17 names have been shown in the list of people who worked on the project,” he added. 

Saroopa Ram in Jassodon Ki Beri village | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
Saroopa Ram in Jassodon Ki Beri village | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

ThePrint visited several villages in Kampulia Gram Panchayat Samiti — where Godara resides — an extremely backward region in Barmer district. The land is barren, there are no irrigation systems, and the primary source of income of the people is cattle rearing. The distances are made worse by the lack of proper roads. 

Godara says he has dedicated all his life to “fighting corruption in the gram panchayat”. 

 RTI activist Amra Ram Godara at a Jodhpur hospital | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

RTI activist Amra Ram Godara at a Jodhpur hospital | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

“I am one of the few people who have had the privilege of an education. I want to work for my society. That’s why, even though I am poor, I have been an RTI activist since 2011,” he said from his hospital bed in Jodhpur.

Ummed Singh Sodha, an RTI activist in his 40s who lives in the district’s Gadra village, said he isn’t subjected to threats so frequently, but also explained why this is so.

“I am a Rajput. I am well to do, so nobody dares to threaten me,” he said. “But if I was from a lower caste and poor background, things would have been more difficult for me.” 

(Edited by Gitanjali Das)


Also Read: How can landmark laws fail? Just look at how high courts resist RTI


 

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