RTI Act is being "misused to settled scores and taking a childish jab at opponents": Solicitor General Tushar Mehta

RTI Act is being "misused to settled scores and taking a childish jab at opponents": Solicitor General Tushar Mehta

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued before the Gujarat High Court today in opposition to the Central Information Commission's (CIC) order directing the Gujarat University to provide "information regarding degrees in the name of Mr. Narendra Damodar Modi" to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in the year 2016. He was challenging the order. 

SG Tushar Mehta, who appeared on behalf of the Gujarat University, claimed that although the university had already made the certificate available to the public, the issue was being discussed in principle to determine whether the RTI Act could be used for unrelated purposes such as satisfying someone's curiosity.

The University's principal defence was that it was acting in a fiduciary position when it held the material. Invoking Right to Information Act Section 8(1)(e), SG argued that information maintained in a fiduciary role cannot be shared "unless the competent authority is satisfied that the larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information".

The dispute was brought before the Court by the Gujarat University, which argued that the CIC had passed the ruling without giving it notice. 

Dr. Sridhar Acharyulu's Varsity case is at issue (the then Central Information Comissionner) “suo motu decided the controversy as regards the qualification of the Prime Minister without any proceedings pending before him”

You should be aware that the Commission was debating a request pertaining to Kejriwal's electoral photo ID card. Kejriwal wrote to the Commission in response and criticised it for lacking transparency. He continued by saying that while he is prepared to furnish the requested details, Prime Minister Narendra Modi should also be asked to reveal information about his educational background. 

Accordingly, the IC instructed the PIO to the Prime Minister's Office to submit a "precise number and year" of Modi's BA and MA degrees from Delhi University and Gujarat University, respectively, treating Kejriwal's response as a "application under RTI in his role as a citizen." Kejriwal was also instructed to obtain the degree from Gujarat University.

Against this very order, the Gujarat University moved the High Court.

Third parties can't claim degree certificates

SG Mehta today argued before the bench of Justice Biren Vaishnav that if the person himself wants his/her own degree from the University, he/she can demand the same, but a third person can't demand the same. He however added that the degree has been put in the public domain.

Significantly, when the counsel for Arvind Kejriwal, Senior Advocate Percy Kavina assisted by Advocate Aum Kotwal, argued that the University is not affected due to the CIC's order as the PIO of PMO was primarily directed to furnish info, SG Mehta argued thus:

" The contention that the University is not affected due to the CIC's order is not correct as the varsity has been directed to “make the best possible search for information regarding degrees in the name of Mr. Narendra Damodar Modi...and to provide it to appellant..."

Kejriwal's attorney stated that the RTI Act cannot prohibit the revelation of educational credentials because it is required by law to do so while submitting election nominations. In response to this claim, SG said that disclosure of one's criminal history and asset declarations are also required by election legislation. By applying that reasoning, he questioned whether anyone could use the RTI Act to request chargesheets or income tax reports. 

Regarding the argument that the petitioner (Gujarat University) has access to an alternative remedy, SG Mehta argued that this is not a disqualifying factor.

"We are at a stage when the plea was filed in 2016 raising questions of wide import...the entire university infrastructure of the nation would be awaiting the Judgment of the court...to short-circuit the issue by saying that go to an alternate forum and challenging the order would be like begging the question," he added.

Finally, in order to save the RTI Act from being misused because it was designed for something else but was being used for something else, he contended that the plea should be dismissed with costs. 

The Court adjourned the hearing in the case after hearing Kejriwal's arguments, which were presented by Senior Counsel Percy Kavina and SG Tushar Mehta (representing Gujarat University). 

A petition involving Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BA degree has also been pending before the Delhi High Court since 2017. (the next date of hearing being May 3). 

The CIC order was suspended on the first hearing date, which was January 24, 2017, by Justice Sanjeev Sachdeva.


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