Request for Degree Information
The reporter Sparsh Upadhyay from the LawLaw reported that the Gujarat University on 9th February opposed a request to furnish details about Prime Minister’s educational qualifications. The Gujarat University was directed by Central Information Commission (by Sridhar Acharyulu) refused to provide “information regarding degrees in the name of Mr. Narendra Damodar Modi” to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in the year 2016. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued then before the Gujarat High Court that the RTI Act is being “misused to settled scores and taking a childish jab at opponents”.
Appearing for the Gujarat University, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued on Monday that the University has already put the certificate in the public domain, however, the matter is being argued in principle to address the question as to whether RTI Act be applied for extraneous purposes to satisfy someone’s curiosity.SGTushar Mehta, told the High Court that while there was nothing to hide, the university cannot be forced to disclose the information.
“In a democracy, there won’t be a difference if a person holding the office is a doctorate or an illiterate,” he argued, according to Bar and Bench. “Also, there is no public interest involved in this issue. Even his privacy is affected.”Mehta said that the university has already put out Modi’s degree in the public domain, and that he was only arguing on the principle of whether the RTI Act can be used to satisfy someone’s curiosity. The University’s argument was that the University was holding the information in a fiduciary capacity. Referring to Section 8(1)(e) of the Right to Information Act, SG submitted that information held in fiduciary capacity cannot be disclosed “unless the competent authority is satisfied that the larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information”.
“You are a stranger, though highly placed (referring to Arvind Kejriwal)…he might say out of curiosity that I will give my degree but you (PM) also show your degree…this is too childish…Just irresponsible childish curiosity of someone can’t be said to be public interest” SG Mehta argued before the Gujarat High Court. He also argued that the the then Central Information Commissioner Dr. Sridhar Acharyulu () “suo motu decided the controversy as regards the qualification of the Prime Minister without any proceedings pending before him”, the matter reached the Court after the Gujarat University moved a special civil application before it arguing that the CIC passed the order without serving notice to it.
It was reported that the Commission was considering an application regarding Kejriwal’s electoral photo identity card and in response to that, Kejriwal wrote to the Commission, criticising it of not being transparent. He further stated that he is ready to provide the required information but then Prime Minister Narendra Modi should also be asked to disclose his degree details.Pursuant to this, considering Kejriwal’s response as an “application under RTI in his capacity as a citizen”, the IC directed the PIO to the Prime Minister’s Office to provide a “specific number and year” of Modi’s BA degree and MA degree from Delhi University and Gujarat University respectively. Gujarat University was further directed to provide the degree to Kejriwal.
While, the third parties contended that can’t claim degree certificates, SG Mehta 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.
It is personal information?
Referring to Section 8 (1) (j) of the RTI Act, he argued that information that relates to personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, can’t be disclosed, unless there is an overriding public interest.
“The Degree is already in the public domain…The purposeful interpretation of Section 8 (1) (j) RTI Act is that while seeking information of private nature, the disclosure can be made if it relates to public activity…What I ate for breakfast is not a public activity…You can say what expenditure was made in the public activities…if I am discharging function as a public authority, with regard to my public activity, anything can be asked…Someone else (third person) cannot seek details of the criminal antecedents provided to the Election Commission under the RTI Act…We (Gujarat University) have put the degree in the public domain…The question is can universities be compelled to disclose degrees especially when there is no public activity involved?” SG Mehta further argued.
Reading out the order of the CIC in question, SG Mehta argued that whether the holder of an office is an illiterate person or is a doctorate, cannot be a matter of public activity.
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 lawyer argued that disclosure of educational qualifications is the mandate of law when filing election nominations and hence, the same cannot be barred under the RTI Act. Refuting this argument, SG pointed out that the election laws require disclosure of one’s criminal antecedents and asset declarations too. Using that logic, can anyone seek for chargesheets or income tax returns under the RTI Act, he asked.
Regarding the contention pertaining to the availability of an alternative remedy for the petitioner (Gujarat University), SG Mehta submitted that the alternative remedy is not a bar.
“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, concluding his argument he argued that the plea be dismissed with costs otherwise, he added, it would be a great disservice to the RTI ACT as the same is intended for something else but is being used for something else.
After hearing the arguments of Kejriwal, led by Senior Counsel Percy Kavina and SG Tushar Mehta (for Gujarat University), the Court concluded the hearing in the matter and reserved the Judgment.
It may be noted that the Delhi University in 2017 had challenged an order of the Central Information Commission (CIC) directing the varsity to allow inspection of records of the students who had passed the BA programme in 1978 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also stated to have cleared the examination.
On the first date of the hearing on January 24, 2017, Justice Sanjeev Sachdeva stayed the CIC order.In 2017, the BA Degree Case was listed only twice In 2022,Delhi High Court adjourns RTI Case to May 3,2023.