NEW DELHI—An “internal matter of India” in which “no foreign party has any locus standi”—this is how the Narendra Modi government’s external affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar framed India’s public response to an intervention application filed in the Supreme Court by Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in connection with the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) on Tuesday.
However, barely a day before this strongly-worded public statement was issued, an official in another ministry of the Modi government denied an application filed by this reporter under the right to information act to peruse files relating to the drafting of the CAA law by claiming that the files are related to “policy on grant of citizenship to foreigner nationals” and “disclosure of such information may prejudicially affect relation with foreign states”.
B C Joshi, the Director rank official in the Amit Shah-led Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the designated central public information officer who responded to this application, did not give any explanation about how disclosing information relating to an “internal matter of India” will “prejudicially affect” its relations with foreign countries.
HuffPost India has emailed him seeking clarification and this report will be updated if he responds.
Former Central Information Commissioner Yashovardhan Azad, who previously served as the Special Director in the Intelligence Bureau, retired last year after adjudicating second appeals relating to tens of thousands of RTI applications which sought information about issues linked with internal security and other areas of administration.
In an interview with HuffPost India, Azad said the information should have been disclosed and that a wrong reason was given to prohibit disclosure of information under the RTI act.
“I am surprised that such a responsible ministry like the MHA has CPIOs who don’t even know the basics of the act...8(1)(a) is wrongly used. That has no relevance here. Because this law is about foreign citizens, basically about the Hindus staying in these three countries, it is not about foreign governments at all. No question of showing any kind of an adverse relation with a foreign state,” he said.
Azad also felt that if there was any sensitive information, that part could have been redacted and the rest of the file shown. “If there was anything, he still feels it is the security of the state which will be impacted, then that part could have been redacted and the rest of the file could have been shown. I don’t think there is any issue with that,” the former Central Information Commissioner said.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed in parliament on 11 December. The amendments were made ostensibly to grant Indian citizenship to persons belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities on the sole grounds of religious persecution in three countries—Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
It has since become controversial and widely criticised because it makes religion as the sole criterion for citizenship and critics, which includes at least two state assemblies which passed resolutions against the CAA, say it is violative of Article 14 of the Indian constitution which guarantees equality before law and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, sex, caste or place of birth.
The RTI Application And Home Ministry’s Response
In an application filed on 13 January, this reporter requested a specific file for perusal under section 6 of the RTI act. This file (no. 26011/01/2015-IC-I) has details relating to the drafting of the CAA. Along with this file, the application also requested permission to inspect “all other files in the possession of the Ministry of Home Affairs relating to the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (47 of 2019)”.
Director B C Joshi, the Central Public Information Officer and a Director (Citizenship) in the home ministry, said in his response on March 2, “These files are related to policy on grant of citizenship to foreigner nationals. Disclosure of such information may prejudicially affect relation with foreign states. Hence, disclosure of such information is exempted under section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act, 2005.”
The response, limited to this paragraph quoted above, did not explain how relations with foreign states may “prejudicially affect” by this disclosure.
Venkatesh Nayak, veteran transparency activist and co-ordinator of the access to information programme at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, has also been pursuing this matter by filing RTI applications in the Modi government.
When asked for his comment to the response of the Home Ministry CPIO, Nayak said, “Well, if that is the response of the CPIO, I am completely flummoxed by the reply because the Government of India has consistently warded off international criticism either from foreign countries or inter-governmental institutions like the United Nations by saying that the CAA and its implementation are an internal matter and they relate to the sovereignty of India; to decide what it wants to do within its borders. Therefore the public information officer’s response is in complete contradiction to this official position.”
“I am completely flummoxed by the reply because the Government of India has consistently warded off international criticism either from foreign countries or inter-governmental institutions like the United Nations by saying that the CAA and its implementation are an internal matter and they relate to the sovereignty of India; to decide what it wants to do within its borders.”
He also wondered aloud about the meaning of the response. “It is not clear as to how a law that has been passed for the purpose of granting citizenship to people who are already in India, but who originate from those other countries, would actually prejudicially affect the relations with any of the foreign countries.”
Further, Nayak pointed out that since the information sought is in the nature of a cabinet note and other materials that went into the decision to table this bill in parliament, there are multiple precedents to argue that this information should have been in the public domain already and done so voluntarily by the Amit Shah-led Home Ministry.
“There are at least multiple decisions of the Central Information Commission where I was a party as an RTI applicant where it has been said that once the bill is tabled in parliament, then the cabinet note must be made publicly accessible within a week,” he said.
“Subject, of course, to any exemptions under 8(1)(a) but in this particular context, it is very clearly a matter affecting the entire country. It is about matters affecting people who will become citizens of India in future. So there is absolutely no reason why this information should not be made public.”
Other RTIs About CAA
The MHA seems to have given even more perplexing replies to RTIs in other instances when attempts were made to seek information.
Speaking of his own experience, Nayak said that the ministry transferred his application to the Registrar General of Census and he is yet to hear from them despite it being nearly a month and a half since the application was transferred. The RTI Act obliges government officials to give information within 30 days.
“The strangest part is the Registrar General of Census, in my view, has nothing to do with the cabinet note. At the most he might have participated, or that office might have participated, in the discussions on the proposal to amend the citizenship act. Nothing more. The originator of the cabinet note would invariably be one of the ministries—either the ministry of home affairs or the ministry of law and justice. It cannot be any other organisation,” the veteran RTI activist noted. Therefore, this action of the home ministry and a “total silence” from the Registrar General’s office was “perplexing”, he said.