Notebook | Comment

The many secrets buried in sheaves of paper

Filing an RTI can help obtain more information than is required

The Right to Information Act of 2005 is a journalist’s favourite tool. It enables us to liberate information from bureaucratic stranglehold and discover the limits to how much information Ministries are willing to share.

The year was 2009. The Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry held the key to “proper programming” of news on television, entertainment and cinema. This was also the year of Indian Summer, an adaptation of Alex von Tunzelmann’s book of the same name. It was about the last days of British rule in India and had the tantalising possibility of a romance thrown in between Edwina Mountbatten and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. You could say that it had all the ingredients of a good film. Hugh Grant and Cate Blanchett were to play the Mountbattens, and the film was to be directed by British filmmaker Joe Wright. However, expectedly, the script had run into problems with the I&B Ministry. Nothing much was heard of it for a while. All we heard was a terse comment by Mr. Wright that he was waiting to hear from the Ministry.

It was then that an RTI was filed to obtain information on the inordinate delay in granting permission to the film. While the government was obliged to share only its decision or proffer reasons for the delay in approving or disapproving the script, buried in the official information shared was more: a sheaf of papers tied up with a string. This contained the script submitted to the Ministry and the observations of a one-man committee appointed by the Ministry to vet scripts submitted by foreigners. Surprisingly, the committee had taken a very liberal view on what was largely a work of fiction. Yet, the Ministry, or the Minister, decided against giving a nod to the proposed film. Indian Summer was over even before it could begin.

Some years later, on the 25th anniversary of the ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the RTI was again deployed to understand how books are banned in the country. This was a tedious process and took almost a year as the Home Ministry did not have a reputation for sharing information. I kept appealing under the RTI with the sole purpose of wearing down the Ministry. From refusing to give information on how close to 30 books were banned in independent India and how those bans were never revoked, the Ministry finally relented and offered to give information on three books: The Satanic Verses, James W. Laine’s Shivaji and Peter Heehs’ The Life of Sri Aurobindo. But even here the Ministry continued to dig in its heels, citing potential law and order problems that would arise from sharing full information on the books, till the Central Information Commission ordered it to share whatever it had subject to the provisions of the RTI Act.

When the information was shared, it was nothing short of a miracle. In the thick files were inputs from the Intelligence Bureau, which were hidden by a tape. Section 8 of the RTI Act is a lifeline for bureaucrats, especially in the Intelligence and Home departments. It elaborates on exemption from disclosure of information. But all I had to do was to lift the tape, read the information, and stick the tape back. Also buried in the files were the photocopies of the banned books. And I got to read them all!

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Printable version | Jun 4, 2020 9:58:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-many-secrets-buried-in-sheaves-of-paper/article25540416.ece

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