Gujarat Dalit teen’s murder: ‘Riddled’ with bureaucratic bungling, NHRC registers case
Will the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) go in for a “thorough inquiry” into the recent murder of 19-year old Rajesh Sondharva a resident of Manekwada village in Rajkot district of Gujarat? As claimed by well-known right to information (RTI) activist Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission (CHRI), following his complaint, NHRC has decided “register a case” in the matter.
Belonging tothe Dalit community, Rajesh is known to be fighting for justice in a criminal case involving the murder of his father, late Nanjibhai Meghabhai Sondharva in March 2018. Nanjibhai was reportedly murdered for exposing corruption in the construction of a road in his village through his RTI interventions.
Rajesh is said to have been attacked because he was trying to draw the attention of the trial court to the fact that one of the murder accused had violated the conditions of the bail granted to him. The latter was roaming around freely despite being barred from entering Rajkot district by the court.
Nayak’s past experience, apparently, does not seem to give much hope from NHRC. Last year, based on his complaint, NHRC had sought reports of action taken by the Rajkot police to investigate the circumstances leading to Nanjibhai’s murder. However, it “closed its inquiry” into his complaint “after the murder case was committed for trial”.
The result was, the local police did not do “enough to monitor and report to the trial court instances of violation of bail conditions by the accused”, and alleged murderers had a “free run threatening and attacking the victim’s family.”
“Instead of ensuring foolproof protection for Rajesh Sondharva, who was fighting for justice, the indifference of the criminal justice system resulted in his life being snuffed out”, Nayak insisted, adding, the absence of NHRC as observer at the trial proceedings created this “atmosphere of impunity. This is the crux of my latest complaint to NHRC.”
Pointing to what he calls bureaucratic bungling at NHRC which added to the “problem”, Nayak says, “In 2015, I had filed another complaint with NHRC about the alleged murder of RTI activist Ratansinh Chaudhary at Garamdi village in Banaskantha district of Gujarat. In this instance, NHRC sought reports from the state government about action taken by the police to investigate the murder.
But the complaint was closed after the murder case was committed for trial.
While NHRC did issue a direction to the Government of Gujarat “to ensure freedom of expression of RTI activists and HRDs and give them necessary protection as per law”, its officials sent this recommendation “only to the Head of the District Police, Banaskantha.” He adds, “Such a direction must be addressed to the Secretary, Home Department, and the Director General of Police, who are competent to implement the direction across the State.”
Not an RTI activist himself, yet, Rajesh’s murder, according to Nayak, is the 14th instance in Gujarat with an RTI connection. Since October 2005, at least 13 murders to citizens’ RTI interventions aimed at exposing corruption and wrong doing in the administration – the second highest after Maharashtra (17), he adds.
“The countrywide tally now stands at 83 reported cases of alleged murder and at least 165 cases of assault, 180 cases of harassment or threats – all targetting RTI users and activists. At least six cases of death by suicide have also been linked to RTI-activism of the victims”, says Nayak.
Meanwhile, says Nayak, “Even more disturbing is the refusal of the Rajkot police to publicise a copy of the FIR relating to the alleged murder of Rajesh Sondharva. Uploading FIRs on the Police’s websites is a mandatory requirement as per the directions of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in the matter of Youth Bar Association of India vs Union of India & Ors.,[Writ Petition (Crl.) No. 68 of 2016, order dated September 7, 2016].”
He adds, “The barely legible copy of the FIR attached to my complaint to the NHRC was sourced from human rights advocates based in Gujarat… The Rajkot Police has refused to put a copy of this FIR on the website claiming that it is a sensitive matter.”
Despite all this, says Nayak, the Government of India has been trying to water down the Whistleblowers Protection Act (WBP Act), passed by Parliament more than five years ago. Not only has it not been implemented, “a series of retrograde amendments that would have effectively discouraged any potential whistleblower from exposing corruption and wrong doing” are being contemplated.