Long road to justice: Franklin Thomas vs. Ministry of Minority Affairs

By Kashif-ul-Huda, TwoCircles.net

Franklin Caesar Thomas of Delhi is an optimistic man. In his professional life he used to be engineer employed at BHEL and Indian Railways but he got himself a law degree and since 2004 fighting a full time legal battle for justice for Dalit Christian and Muslims. It may come as a surprise but Ministry of Minority Affairs is playing delay tactic to deny justice to those it is supposed to benefit.

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Thomas is the National Coordinator of National Council for Dalit Christians. Since 2004, he is leading the fight to remove the Presidential Order of 1950 that excluded Muslim and Christian Dalits from the Scheduled Castes list. His legal fight resulted in Government of India referring the matter of the controversial Presidential Order to the Commission headed by Justice Ranganath Misra Commssion.

The National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (NCRLM) also known as Ranganath Misra Commission recommended extending the benefits of Scheduled Castes to all Dalits regardless of the religion. But the official machinery is doing all in its capacity to keep the report and its recommendations under wraps so that like other reports it is forgotten.

Since Government of India in an affidavit in the Supreme Court said that the recommendations of the NCRLM was referred to NCSC for their opinion, though the recommendations itself was never released by the government. Thomas filed an RTI application to National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) on the source of its copy of the Ranganath Misra Commission report. NCSC is reported to have endorsed the recommendations with some conditions. But Government has not been honest with the public by refusing to release the report or the recommendations. Several media outlets have reported on the major recommendations of the report and TwoCircles.net has published excerpts of the portions of the report.

Thomas’s RTI application also asked the NCSC to provide him with copies of the report. The application was filed on August 12th, 2008 but a year later and even with Central Information Commission ruling in his favour, he has yet to get a copy of the Misra Commission report.

Photo by dabliu

On October 21st, 2008 NCSC transferred Franklin’s RTI application to the Ministry of Minority Affairs (MMA). A month later, MMA transferred questions regarding the source of Misra Report to NCSC to the Ministry of Social Justice and refused to give copies of the report claiming exemption under Section 8(1)(c) of the RTI Act.

On December 1st, 2008 Thomas appealed against MMA decision but it was rejected. In his second appeal on January 12th, 2009 Thomas argued that all members of the Ranganath Misra Commission are private individuals and have their own copies of the report therefore the document is in the public domain and government can not claim exemption.

A hearing was held on May 6th, 2009 which was attended by official from the Ministry of Minority Affairs. The Chief Public Information Officer (CPIO) of the MMA Virendra Singh admitted that few copies of the report are in circulation but could not explain why the report should come under exemption of the RTI Act. On May 16th, the Commission decided that there is no merit in claiming exemption for the report and directed the CPIO to give a copy of the report to Mr. Franklin Thomas.

The Central Government appealed against the order saying that the report can not be given to a private individual when even Parliament has not been given access to it. This appeal was heard on May 25th, 2009 and this time seven public servants were present in the court against a citizen to deny him his right to information. Three of them were of director rank, one special officer and three deputy secretaries representing two ministries and the Cabinet Secretariat.

The combined force of the bureaucracy argued that this RTI application is not simply about the Report of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (NCRLM). This request will result in making public the decision of the Cabinet on the recommendations of the Sachar Committee and Misra Commission, and this decision was more or less classified. The judge understood the gravity of the situation and a larger bench was called to hear the case on July 8th, 2009.

But this is not to say that government was totally unresponsive to Franklin Thomas’s requests for information. On August 28th, 2008 MMA informed that 1800 sets of reports were published by NCRLM. Five sets were given to the Prime Minister’s Office on May 21st, 2007 and 1750 sets were sent to the Ministry of Minority Affairs. In another letter, MMA revealed that the Ministry has not distributed any copy to anyone. NCRLM in addition to 5 set to the PMO also sent 2 sets of the report to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. 43 sets were retained by the NCRLM by it for its 5 members.

Thomas argued that if the government thinks that the report is not in public domain then it should have retained those 43 sets of the report when NCRLM ceased to exist since after Commission ceased to exist then its members become private citizen.

Will the future generation of Dalit Muslims and Christians also suffer? [TCN photo]

CIC bench of Information Commissioners Prof. M. M. Ansari, Satyananda Mishra and Shailesh Gandhi ruled that government can not claim that a report is not public when it made no effort to retain the report when the commission members retired. Therefore the CIC rejected Ministry’s claim that the report is privileged. The bench also noted that the Ministry failed to show why it is claiming exemption from the RTI Act. CIC ruled that exemption under Section 8(1)(c) of the RTI Act will apply to only those cases where Parliament or State Legislature expressly forbid disclosure of the report. Since Parliament has not said anything about Misra Commission Report, this does not apply to this case.

Also Government showed no interest in placing the Report before the Parliament. CIC therefore noted that “if the Government does not place any material or report before the Parliament or the Legislature, it cannot claim exemption from giving it to Citizens exercising their fundamental right to information.” So, on July 30th, 2009 it ordered the CPIO of the Ministry of Minority Affairs to give a copy of the NCRLM Report to Mr. Franklin Thomas within 10 days.

Ten days have come and gone and but Franklin Thomas has not seen the promised report instead the Ministry has filed a writ petition in Delhi High Court which Thomas called a delay tactics. When asked what will be his next step, Thomas said he will move to the Supreme Court and was confident that he will get his copy of the Report within months which will be another step closer in getting due rights to Dalit Muslims and Christians.