The court may well be right in sentencing RTI activist Nikhil Dey and four others who sought to expose the dealings of a sarpanch in a Rajasthan panchayat if, as the FIR said, they assaulted the official. But things look a bit different when you take into account 65 murders, 158 incidents of assault and 169 incidents of harassment/intimidation of RTI activists in the country so far this year—if intimidation of activists is de rigeur, false FIRs can’t be ruled out either. In May 1998—seven years before the transparency law was enacted—Dey and the others had confronted Pyarelal, then sarpanch of Harmada, a village near Jaipur, at his house with a letter from the block development officer, to obtain documents on government grants under various development schemes. Before this, Dey and Naurti Bai, one of the four convicted activists, had visited the sarpanch’s office 73 times to get the documents and had been turned away each time. While both sides alleged that they were assaulted by the other, the police had closed investigation failing to find evidence. Three years later, Pyarelal got the case reopened, producing ‘eye-witnesses’ who hadn’t come forward during the initial investigation and who, Dey and the others contend, weren’t even present at the time of the alleged assault.
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It isn’t just RTI and activists. Anyone confronting power, especially at the grass-roots, is in danger of getting his teeth kicked in either literally or metaphorically. The likes of Pyarelal are residents of the area where their sway holds, and thus have command of both people and resources to crush the likes of Naurti Bai, if not a Dey. As the government goes about implementing RTI as a vital tool of governance, it needs to find a way to ensure all investigations are fair. False cases are easy to register, and those in power have a greater ability to do so—ensuring against this is the government’s job.