New Delhi: The Central Information Commission (CIC) maintains that Indian missions abroad are not outside the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, but the law ministry holds a different view.
"In my opinion, the Right to Information Act applies all over the country as this holds true for Indian missions abroad," Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah said.
"This is for the simple reason that our embassies and missions are all part of India, properties of India. India's sovereignty runs through these missions," Habibullah said during an interaction with the editorial team of IANS.
He said the law ministry felt the RTI Act can apply only to "Indian territory" and not "institutions" outside the country, and added this could have further ramifications on the issue of its jurisdiction in Jammu and Kashmir.
"They cannot be placed outside the purview because of the legal opinion of anyone. They will only be out of the purview because of a decision of the commission," he asserted.
"If you argue that the Indian embassies do not come under the RTI law, then the government of India offices in Jammu and Kashmir does not come under the law. It's a completely absurd assertion."
"I, of course, ordered that all the offices of Jammu and Kashmir would not come under the law," he said, making a distinction between the state- and central government-run offices and institutions.
Habibullah also said that if the commission's directive can be challenged in a court of law by a ministry through a writ petition, then there was no purpose in giving a decision that is contradictory to the law ministry.
"Now, it's a matter of discussion and currently under examination. There is an element of dispute on how we view it and how the law ministry views it," the former bureaucrat said.
Habibullah said the issue came up after his commission recently issued directions to seek information from some Indian missions through the ministry of external affairs (MEA). But the MEA reverted back saying it was advised by the law ministry that the act would not apply to Indian missions.
The RTI Act, which came into force in October 2005, is seen as the most powerful tool for empowering people, since it gives citizens the "right" to access information as opposed to "freedom of information" in other countries.
It is for that reason, Habibullah said, that even countries like the United States and Britain were interested in understanding this legislation. "This act puts India among the leading democracies in the world."
When asked if foreigners and people of Indian origin who are not Indian citizens can seek information using this legislation, he replied in the negative but added that there were ways to get information.
"They cannot ask for information. Our country has been cloistered for so long, its opening up has all kinds of apprehensions. The law is framed so that it is open to only citizens of India," he said.
"But if you have a friend who is an Indian citizen, then he can ask for the same information," Habibullah said, clarifying that people of Indian origin with dual citizenship had every right to seek information under the act.