‘Nature of the government is authoritative, with a strong security apparatus backing it that feeds on corruption. Officials and politicians enjoy de facto impunity here’
Dr. Shaikh Ghulam Rasool, a doctor by profession, has been working as an RTI activist since 2005. He is a founding member and the current head of the JKRTI Movement, a group that advocates transparency in government function. He spoke to Kashmir Narrator about his work.
Kashmir Narrator: Tell us about how it all began.
Dr. Shaikh Ghulam Rasool: My journey began in 2002 when, after coming back from Azerbaijan, I was posted as a medical officer in far- off village of Beerwah. I saw the people suffering for basic needs like health, education, sanitation etc. The people of the villages had no agency and were often neglected by government officials. I began to help them with these daily issues. In 2004 we created a group called Citizen Counsel and began to work for the basic issues people faced. The group later grew and we began to take up larger issues and until it became the JKRTI Movement in 2005.
KN: What does JKRTI Movement work on?
SGR: JKRTI Movement is a group of volunteers who aim at making the functioning of the government transparent and help the powerless of the society. Due to the conflict, basic issues of the people are neglected and the government is not questioned too much for this neglect. We want to bridge that gap and make the government accountable for at least the basic necessities of the life.
KN: What are the basic hurdles in making the RTI Act work, considering that Kashmir is a conflict region?
SGR: The major hurdle is the state itself. The corruption is state- sponsored in Kashmir. There is a strong bureaucratic and political nexus going on and this makes it extremely difficult to make the RTI Act work. Officials and politicians don’t want it to function and are putting hurdles in our way, either through threats or other means.
KN: In the past you have been attacked for your work. Tell us about it.
SGR: First time I was attacked at Khansahab in 2006. I had run a campaign to save the forests from being chopped down by a syndicate run by police, politicians and smugglers. I was working as a medical officer there. One day I was in my room and at night some people, of course, sent by influential people, attacked me. I was saved by the locals. Similarly, some people in positions of power have harassed me to stop me from my activism, but I never gave up. I was also picked by the STF and put behind bars for being “anti-state” Working here is life threatening. The politicians and bureaucrats in the government don’t want that they be held accountable.
KN: Is the RTI Act 2004 enough to bring transparency in government functioning?
SGR: No, I don’t think it is enough. Though it looks strong on paper, its implementation is very difficult and wrought with hurdles. Government officials do not, almost in all cases, provide information easily when demanded. We have been advocating that punitive measures in the law should be made stronger if some official deliberately withholds information. The nature of the government is authoritative, with a strong security apparatus backing it that feeds on corruption. The officials and politicians enjoy de facto impunity here.
KN: JKRTI Movement has in the past been accused of blackmailing and misusing its position. Some activists have joined pro-India political parties using RTI Movement as a launching base. How do you explain that?
SGR: Look, every movement has some turncoats and thugs who creep in. Of course, some of the activists have misused the RTI Movement for their own benefits. But as soon as we come to know of such misgivings, we expel the activist from the RTI Movement. Plus we have a rule that if any activist enters any kind of politics, pro-India or pro-azadi, he /she is immediately expelled from the RTI movement. We expelled Raja Muzafar Bhat, who was one of the core members of RTI Movement once he joined PDP.
KN: You have been associated with the Tosamiadan issue? Tell us about that experience and how the army responded for taking on them?
SGR: We travelled to Tosamiadan and saw the destruction due to the firing g range. We filed an RTI and demanded information about the lease, amount and type of ammunition used. We came to know that the lease for the occupation of land at Tosamiadan has to be renewed every five years and army has been, with the help of government, using the firing range illegally without renewing the lease. We launched a campaign on that. It brought pressure and the army finally decided to vacate and end the lease.
The army pressurized our activists, harassed and threatened them. We were even offered money if we stopped pursuing the case. But we stood strong and succeeded.
KN: What are your expectations from the RTI Act?
SGR: At times it works. As far as I have seen, the RTI Act is the only law in JK that is pro-people and we must therefore use it. Besides, it has the potential, even if minimal, of changing the “confused” democracy into a participatory one.