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Is RTI plea involving safety, security in Manipur a personal query? NCW thinks so!

By Rosamma Thomas* 

The National Commission for Women (NCW), established in 1992, is meant to serve as a statutory body advising the Government of India on policies that affect women, and review constitutional and legal safeguards for women. It deals with complaints, appeals and communications related to the deprivation of women’s rights, and intervenes in incidents of atrocities on women.
On July 22, 2023, two months after horrific violence was unleashed in Manipur, where over 150 were killed and more than 300 churches burnt, Commodore Lokesh Batra filed an application under the Right to Information Act, 2005, seeking details of complaints received by the National Commission for Women regarding Manipur. 
He sought to know the total number of complaints received, from April 2023; he also asked if any complaints were received from abroad, relating to Manipur, and sought details of the dates on which such complaints were received, and the categories under which they were received, (the website of the Commission mentions categories under which complaints can be filed, and the NCW even has a northeast cell dedicated to complaints from the region). He also sought permission to inspect files and records pertaining to Manipur.
In its response on August 24, 2023, NCW through its under-secretary and chief public information officer Shalini Rastogi, noted that a total of three complaints were received from April to August 2023; one complaint was received from abroad, related to Manipur; the categories of these complaints and the dates on which these were filed could not be provided, for no such categorization had been compiled.
Commodore Batra had sought list of files and folders with reference to complaints, and the response is: “In this regard, it is to be informed that information sought cannot be made available to you, as it is exempted as per Section 8 (1) (j) of RTI Act, 2005.”
Section 8 (1) (j) of the RTI Act 2005 states that there shall be no obligation to give any citizen: "(j) Information which relates to personal information…"
Commodore Batra asserts that he sought no personal information at all. He asserts that it is in public interest that such information as he sought be disclosed. The records he sought would have included any report that the NCW had generated, after its visit to Manipur, and administrative action taken to contain the violence against women.
Internet was shut off in Manipur for a long time from May 4, 2023, after violence erupted in the state the previous day. By July, when the internet shutdown was lifted, videos began to emerge showing graphic violence against women. Commodore Lokesh Batra says:
“National Commission for Women has the responsibility to proactively take action to prevent atrocities against women. It is in public interest to know the reality of the situation in Manipur. NCW has not given me a cogent reason for denying my request to inspect records, which would have shown administrative action taken in Manipur.”
On July 21, a news website reported that NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma, in an interview, stated that she had “reached out to authorities in Manipur” three times in the previous three months, but had received no response. A copy of the letters she sent could also have been provided in response to the query from Commodore Batra.
Commodore Batra is not alone in being denied important information that would throw light on serious lapses in the administrative machinery. Under the 1961 Transaction of Business Rules, the Ministry of Home Affairs must send to the President of India fortnightly reports about the political situation and weekly summaries of intelligence reports. 
Every Governor is also required to regularly report to the President. In July, Venkatesh Nayak submitted Right to Information applications seeking access to parts of these reports that pertain to Manipur. That request too was turned down by the Rashtrapati Bhavan, on grounds of national security.
The question remains: Does national security involve protecting the government of the day from inconvenient questions by denying citizens access to information that relates to the safety and security of fellow citizens?
---
*Freelance journalist

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