Report No. 275
C. Evolution of the Right to Information (RTI)in India
1.13 James Madison, the late American President, once remarked, A popular Government, without popular information or the means for obtaining it, is but a Prologue to Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will for ever govern ignorance and a people who meant to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.
1.14 This quote demonstrates exactly how crucial it is for the populace to be armed with tool of knowledge if they desire to be self-governed. The Supreme Court gave recognition to the citizen's right to information as part of the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.
This in-turn meant that right to information was subject to reasonable restrictions enunciated in Article 19(2) of the Constitution viz sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with Foreign States, public order, decency or morality, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. The Constitutional jurisprudence that led to the recognition of this right, is traced to the following catena of cases.
1.15 In the case of Bennet Coleman& Co. v. Union of India,10 the Apex Court remarked:
It is indisputable that by freedom of the press meant the right of all citizens to speak, publish and express their views' and 'freedom of speech and expression' includes within its compass the right of all citizens to read and be informed.
1.16 In the case of State of Uttar Pradesh v. Raj Narain & Ors.,11 the respondent had asked for the documents pertaining to the security arrangements and the expenses incurred on the then Prime Minister. The Supreme Court while maintaining a fine balance between public security and public interest observed that while there are strong arguments for the former, the Executive cannot be given exclusive power to determine what matters may prejudice the latter. Once considerations of national security are concluded there are few matters that cannot be safely made publicly available. Justice K.K. Mathew, observed:
In a government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries...
1.17 In the case of S.P. Gupta v. Union of India,12 Justice Bhagwati, observed that an open Government directly emanates from the right to know which is implicit in the right of free speech and expression. Therefore, the disclosure of information in regard to the functioning of the Government must be the rule and secrecy an exception.
1.18 In the case of Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India & Ors. v. Cricket Association of Bengal & Ors.,13 the Apex Court held that: The freedom of speech and expression includes the right to acquire information and to disseminate it. Freedom of speech and expression is necessary for self-fulfilment. It enables people to contribute to debate on social and moral issues.
It is the best way to find a truest model of anything, since it is only through it that the widest possible range of ideas can circulate. It is the only vehicle of political discourse so essential to democracy....the right to freedom of speech and expression also includes the right to educate, to inform and to entertain and also the right to be educated, informed and entertained...True democracy cannot exist unless all citizens have a right to participate in the affairs of the polity of the country.
The right to participate in the affairs of the country is meaningless unless the citizens are well informed on all sides of the issues...One sided information, disinformation, misinformation and non-information all equally create an uninformed citizenry which makes democracy a farce when medium of information is monopolised either by a partisan central authority or by private individuals or oligarchic organisations...
1.19 In the case of Dinesh Trivedi, MP & Ors. v. Union of India & Ors.,14 while dealing with the Vohra Committee Report on the criminalisation of politics and of the nexus among criminals, politicians and bureaucrats in India, the Supreme Court observed:
In modern Constitutional democracies, it is axiomatic that citizens have a right to know about the affairs of the Government which, having been elected by them, seeks to formulate sound policies of governance aimed at their welfare. However, like all other rights, even this right has recognized limitations; it is, by no means, absolute.
1.20 The Court further stated that, though it is not advisable to make public the basis on which certain conclusions are arrived at in that report, the conclusion so reached, should be examined by a new body of institution. The Court added that, it is now recognised that while a public servant may be subject to a duty of confidentiality, this duty does not extend to remaining silent regarding corruption of other public servants. Society is entitled to know and public interest is better served if corruption or maladministration is exposed.15
1.21 In the case of People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) & Anr. v. Union of India,16 while dealing with the right to information provided under section 33A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, the Supreme Court held that right to information is a fundamental right and that this right, vested in a voter/citizen, is adequately safeguarded under the aforementioned provision of the said Act.
1.22 In the case of People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) & Anr. v. Union of India,17 the Supreme Court made an observation that keeping with the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 (UDHR), the Preamble of the Constitution embodies a solemn resolve of its people to secure, inter alia, to its citizens, liberty of thought and expression; The Court further observed:
In pursuance of this supreme objective Article 19(1)(a) guarantees to the citizens, the right to "freedom of speech and expression" as one of the fundamental rights listed in Part III of the Constitution. These rights have been advisedly set out in broad terms leaving scope for expansion and adaptation, through interpretation, to the changing needs and evolving notions of a free society.
1.23 The Court added that right to information is a facet of "freedom of speech and expression" as contained in Article 19(1)(a) and is thus indisputably a fundamental right.
1.24 A reading of these cases, among others, makes it clear that right to information is indisputably a corollary of freedom of speech and expression, and thereby a fundamental right guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution of India. Moreover, it is apparent that right to information has become an imperative in a democratic set-up such as that of India.