Afroz Alam Sahil is a well-known name in the field of investigative journalism and RTI activism. Born in the northern Bihar city of Bettiah, this young journalist rose to prominence for his numerous RTIs related to to the 2008 Batla House Encounter. It questioned the narrative of the Delhi Police, raising suspicion on whether it was a genuine encounter. This was when he was just a 22-year-old student at Jamia Millia Islamia in 2010.
Over the years, he has constantly utilised the RTI to question authorities, whether it be related to the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, amongst a list of many others.
Currently, he works as a special correspondent at twocircles.net and he also received the 2014 RTI fellowship by the Ministry of Personnel and Training, Govt of India.
In an interview with Youth Ki Awaaz, he talks about how he got involved in RTI activism, what needs to be done to make life more safe for activists, his experience during the course of being an RTI journalist and much more.
Safwan Ghani (SG): What inspired you to get involved in RTI activism apart from journalism?
Afroz Alam Sahil (AAS): First thing is that the RTI Act got passed only because of journalists. The Press Council of India had drafted this bill much earlier. Its demand has been raised in Rajasthan and there was an international pressure too. It was believed at that time that journalists would get more advantage because of this law. Kuldip Nayyar, Prabhat Joshi and the likes of them had supported this movement.
In 2005, I took admission in Jamia and started reading about this act. It was applicable in 9 states at that time including Delhi. The ‘Drive against Bribe’ campaign was also going on in Delhi in 2006. There were 9 media partners who joined this campaign including Ravish Kumar of NDTV. I joined this campaign as a media coordinator.
I started working in an Urdu newspaper Hindustan Express in 2005. My journalistic journey began in the very first year of my BA.
SG: Can you elaborate on stories you worked on which you think had the most impact?
AAS: There are plenty of stories that have had far-reaching impact. If I recount a few of them, it would certainly be political funding, political donation by the private schools of Delhi, most recently the beef export companies funding BJP. In fact, the story of Bhopal Gas (details of the communication exchanged between the Ministry and the CBI on Mr Anderson’s extradition and the details of the money spent till date by the Ministry in the Bhopal case tragedy), was carried by international media also. The filing of RTI on Sohrabuddin Encounter case. After my RTI, CBI has accepted that they didn’t have a post-mortem report of Sohrabuddin.
The journalist’s work is to extract the information and put it into the public domain. This information creates discussion. For example, Baba Ramdev was creating his own party with the name Bharat Swabhiman and had denied his involvement in the funding of BJP. An RTI response I filed revealed that he funded the BJP. This became the discussion point among the media fraternity. Digvijay Singh went on to say that a narco test should be carried on Baba. This hue and cry compelled Baba Ramdev to cancel his plan of forming the party.
In the same way, private schools shied away from taking donations from political parties after the RTI revelation.
SG: In March, two individuals were allegedly murdered for using RTI to expose corruption. One in Meghalaya and the other in Gujarat. What measures do you think the Indian government needs to take in order to give more protection to people who are willing to use RTI for getting access to information?
AAS: The demand for forming a whistleblower protection act has been going on for several years. Narendra Modi should come up with this act. Sadly, right now the government says it will curb fake news but the very next day a minister shares a fake news report.
SG: Do you think transparency in government institutions has become better ever since the Narendra Modi government came to power at the Centre?
AAS: Not at all… People are not even getting information.
There are plenty of examples. The post of Central Information Commission remained vacant for several years. There are a lot of cases pending in the CIC. If you file an RTI in the PMO, you will not get a reply. Had they been transparent, why would their ministers be stopped from sharing information with the public?
SG: Tell us about the RTIs you filed regarding the Batla House encounter, what did you find out in the process and what was its impact?
AAS: I was studying in Jamia Millia Islamia when the Batla House encounter took place. And for students like us, it was a very terrible time. The way Muslim youngsters were arrested, and the encounters happened, people were very much horrified. There were rumours and suspicion in circulation about the Batla house encounter. I thought that filing an RTI related to the post-mortem report would be of much importance and people’s faith in the police administration would also get restored. But things got just reversed. The RTI raised more questions than giving answers.
It was interesting that CIC had asked AIIMS to give a full report of the post-mortem but retracted just after 10 days. As per the rule, the post-mortem report should be given to the victim’s family within three days. It took two years for me to collect these documents. There were several loopholes in the post-mortem report.
I have filed 30-40 RTIs in this matter. The doctors had to specify the cause of death in the post-mortem report. The reports of Atif and Sajid clearly indicated repeated beating and striking with a blunt object as the cause of death. There were injuries on their body. An encounter doesn’t happen like that.
As per the forensic experts, MC Sharma sustained two bullet injuries one on the left shoulder and the other on the abdomen. The direction of the bullet mark on the left shoulder was vertically upward. This can only be possible when someone fires from the sitting or lying position. The direction of the bullet mark on the abdomen was vertically downward. This can only be possible when someone fires from a higher position. Furthermore, the bullet wounds were in the range of 15 cm radius. Encounters do not occur from such a close range.
These questions were suppressed. When the Delhi Minority Commission and the National Human Rights Commission were asked about the fact-finding team, they said that no such team was sent. It simply means you made the report just on the account of what the Delhi Police had given you. One of the most interesting things is that when I asked the NHRC to provide the list of fake encounters, they provided me with a list in which Batla House Encounter was also mentioned as a fake encounter.