Subhash Chandra Agrawal on his fight against corruption in the judiciary

Meet the man whose decade-long struggle led to the office of the Chief Justice of India coming under the Right to Information Act

Updated - November 24, 2019 05:39 pm IST

Published - November 23, 2019 04:09 pm IST

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Not far from the ramparts of the Red Fort, where the freedom of the nation is celebrated every year, a cloth merchant fought a decade-long battle to uphold the freedom of information of the common man. Subhash Chandra Agrawal, 70, resident of Chandni Chowk in Delhi, recalls how his family became a victim of the high-handedness of some in the higher judiciary.

“My father didn’t wish to part with our ancestral home, where we live now, so my uncle, who owned a share in the property, filed a false case against him in the Delhi High Court. His son-in-law was a judge in the Delhi High Court, who enjoyed proximity to a Chief Justice of India (CJI) and was later elevated to the position of a Supreme Court judge.” The property case, which dragged on for 16 years, became the starting point of Agrawal’s battle against the court.

When Agrawal’s uncle held his granddaughter’s wedding in the official residence of one of the judges hearing the appeal, it violated the code of conduct for judges that ensured that there was no conflict of interest in cases being heard. Agrawal used the wedding invitation as evidence and filed a complaint against the judge with the then CJI. In 2005, soon after he had lodged the complaint, he heard Arvind Kejriwal speak at the Rotary Club about the forthcoming Right to Information Act that would empower the common man to obtain public records.

Court rigmarole

“Kejriwal assured me that the Supreme Court would also be covered under the ambit of the new law. On October 12, 2005, the day the RTI Act came into force, I filed an RTI application with the Supreme Court seeking an Action Taken Report on my complaint.”

“Initially, the Court refused the information. Then, I shot off an RTI application to the President’s Secretariat, which transferred my application to the SC registrar under Sec 6(3) of the RTI Act. That is when the Court registry became aware that they were covered under the new law.”

Compelled, the Court registry issued a vague response to the application: “Your complaint has been put on the relevant High Court file.” Unsatisfied, Agrawal went for a first appeal. The file notings he received revealed that both the First Appellate Authority and the CJI had endorsed this response from the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO). The Appellate Authority could not be a part of the decision-making process in this matter. Thus, the case went before the Central Information Commission (CIC).

At the CIC hearing, the advocate representing the Court was chided by the CIC for its vague response, and also warned that a ₹25,000 penalty could be imposed on the CPIOfor having delayed the response. Wajahat Habibullah, then Chief Information Commissioner, directed the Appellate Authorityto provide the details of action taken on his complaint. When the CJI was asked for his response, his office responded in writing that “neither the CJI nor the SC is a disciplinary or appointing authority for judges of higher courts including of high courts.”

Question of authority

But this claim was not consistent with the existence of a collegium system where the senior most SC judges decided appointments, and the fact that there existed an in-house procedure to probe complaints against judges.

Meanwhile, an English daily flashed the story of the CIC hearing and the Court’s harassment of Agrawal’s family, compelling his uncle to reach a compromise solution.

“Later, I saw a news report in an English daily that said judges of the High Court and Supreme Court would submit asset details to the respective Chief Justices, but that this would be secretive.”

Spotting an opportunity to demand accountability from the judiciary, Agrawal quickly demanded a copy of this unanimous resolution.“The SC registrar provided me a copy of the resolution but refused to inform me if SC judges were declaring their assets to the CJI. On January 6, 2009, the CIC decided disclosure of this information in my favour, which prompted the SC CPIO to approach the Delhi High Court to challenge that decision.”

When the Delhi HC judge upheld the CIC decision, Agrawal finally received information that SC judges were submitting their asset details before the CJI. But the SC CPIO wanted to pull the office of the CJI out of the purview of RTI, and pursued a further appeal in the case before a larger bench of the Delhi HC. After losing there too, the CPIO approached the apex court. This case was later sent before a Constitution Bench of the SC, whose verdict pronouncing that the office of the CJI came under the RTI Act finally came through on November 13 this year.

The judgment has been widely celebrated, but Agrawal is aware the battle is only half won. The court is vague on questions of political influence in the judiciary and on the elevation of judges.

Guinness man

Agrawal has filed more than 6,000 RTI applications so far. But even before the arrival of the 2005 RTI law, he had already honed his skills at bringing systemic reforms by writing letters to newspaper editors.

“I wrote my first letter to the editor as an engineering college student in 1967 to a Hindi newspaper against a DTC bus conductor who took my money but refused to issue a ticket. After the letter was published, a few government employees came looking for me in a DTC van. I tried escaping from the backdoor of my college room, but my friends told me that the men had brought the conductor on campus to apologise to me!”

Enthused by this, Agrawal continued to write, and this eventually earned him a Guinness World Record in 2002 for the most published letters to newspaper editors. By January 2006, this prolific correspondent had penned 3,699 letters, published in various newspapers. “I never wrote idealistic letters. When there is a dearth of resources in this country, how can you expect drastic change,” he asks, twiddling his “texting thumb”.

His practical suggestions for reforms, including those on poll reforms, earned him plaudits from various people in government. He proudly shows off a rich collection of correspondence from dignitaries such as Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and Vice-President Mohammad Hidayatullah, who, in a handwritten personal letter, assures Agrawal that he will not use official machinery but would interact with him like a friend.

Agrawal is concerned about how the law that empowered him is being misused today.

“I have been a victim of fake RTIs being filed under my name to harass government officers.” He is now campaigning for a uniform fee of ₹50 for RTI applications in order to discourage the misuse of the law.

The writer is a doctoral researcher in Social Anthropology at SOAS, University of London, working on the Right to Information movement.

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