The Bombay High Court on Thursday directed the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) to conduct an inquiry into how personal details of RTI applicants, including Saket Gokhale, were made public on its website. A bench of Justices Nitin Jamdar and Milind Jadhav also asked the I&B Ministry to consider Gokhale's petition as a representation and place the inquiry report before the high court within three months.
It disposed of Gokhale's plea, but granted him the liberty to approach the HC again if the inquiry was not initiated by the ministry. The HC also directed the ministry to pay Rs 25,000 to Gokhale as litigation expenses. Gokhale had also sought Rs 50 lakh as damages from the ministry. The HC, however, left the issue of damages to the civil court.
The bench was hearing a plea filed by Gokhale seeking that his personal details be removed from the ministry's official website. Gokhale was inundated with hate calls and messages after he filed a plea in the Allahabad High Court in July this year, seeking a stay on the 'bhoomipujan' of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He also sought in his plea before the Bombay HC that he be paid a compensation of Rs 50 lakh for the trauma he had to undergo after the ministry made his address and phone number public. As per Gokhale's plea, his details were displayed on the website in November 2019 and removed in September this year, after he wrote a letter to the ministry.
The ministry's counsel, Rui Rodrigues, told the HC earlier that though the Department of Personnel and Training issued two communications in 2016, asking all government departments to refrain from displaying personal details of RTI applicants, the I&B Ministry had not received such communications at the time it made Gokhale's details public.
On Thursday, Rodrigues informed the bench that the I&B Ministry had already initiated "disciplinary action," The bench noted that such action was initiated "on November 3, after the court reserved its order (on the plea)."
During the previous hearing, the bench pulled up the I&B Ministry and asked why no one had looked into the issue of disclosure of details of applicants, besides Gokhale, in nearly 4,474 RTI applications since 2016.
"The papers of this petition be placed before Secretary, Ministry I&B to conduct an inquiry into this issue of disclosing personal details of RTI applicants," the high court said in its order.
"Inquiry should complete within three months, failing which petitioner has the liberty to approach this court again," the court said.