IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis

Resurrecting the right to know

19th August, 2020 Editorial

Context: A significant development in the right to information campaign has largely gone unnoticed.


  • A High Level Committee (HLC) chaired by a retired judge of the Guwahati High Court and including, among others, the Advocates General of two Northeast States was constituted by the Home Ministry through a gazette notification of July 15, 2019.
  • Its mandate was, among others, to recommend measures to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord and define “Assamese People”.
  • The HLC finalised its report by mid-February 2020.
  • With the Central government apparently “sitting idle” over the report, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) released the report on August 11.

Evolution of Right to Know in India:

  • In State of U.P. vs. Raj Narain(1975), the Supreme Court carved out a class of documents that demand protection even though their contents may not be damaging to the national interest. For example, Cabinet papers, foreign office dispatches, papers regarding the security of the state and high-level inter-departmental minutes.
  • A pragmatic view was canvassed by Justice Mathew, who held that “the people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing. The right to know, which is derived from the concept of freedom of speech, though not absolute, is a factor, which should make one wary, when secrecy is claimed for transactions which can, at any rate, have no repercussion on public security.”
  • This view was endorsed in P. Gupta vs. President of India (1981) and a few other decisions. In S.P. Gupta, Justice Venkataramiah observed that “the tendency in all democratic countries in recent times is to liberalise the restrictions placed on the right of the citizens to know what is happening in the various public offices. The emphasis now is more on the right of a citizen to know than on his ‘need to know’ the contents of official documents.”
  • In Yashwant Sinha vs. Central Bureau of Investigation (2019), the Supreme Court referred to the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times vs. United States (1971) wherein Justice Marshall declined to recognize the right of the government to restrain publication of the Pentagon Papers.

Being more transparent

  • There is no doubt that a bold and progressive decision has been taken by AASU to release the report in public interest. This will encourage governments to effectuate the citizen’s right to know and be more transparent in public interest, as long as the security of the country is not jeopardised.
  • If secrecy were to be observed in the functioning of government and the processes of government were to be kept hidden from public scrutiny, it would tend to promote and encourage oppression, corruption and misuse or abuse of authority, for it would all be shrouded in the veil of secrecy without any public accountability.