PM degree row: 'Irresponsible childish curiosity' not public interest under RTI Act: Gujarat Uni

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Narendra Modi | Mathrubhumi

Ahmedabad: The Gujarat University on Thursday told the High Court here that "irresponsible childish curiosity" cannot become public interest under the RTI Act, as it sought quashing of a CIC order to provide information on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's degree certificate to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

Citing exceptions granted under the Right to Information(RTI) Act for not complying with the seven-year-old order of the Central Information Commission (CIC), Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the university, claimed the 2005 transparency law is being used for settling scores and to make "childish jabs" against opponents.

Mehta also argued that merely because someone is holding a public office one cannot seek private information of anyone that is not connected with his public activity.

He submitted that information about PM's degrees is "already in public domain" and the university had also placed the details on its website in the past.

However, Kejriwal's advocate Percy Kavina claimed the information was not available in public domain.

The senior advocate also referred to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) searches at residences of former US President Donald Trump and his successor in the White House Joe Biden, and said no one is above the law.

After hearing arguments from both sides, Justice Biren Vaishnav reserved his order on the petition by the Gujarat University challenging the CIC order.

In April 2016, the then CIC M Sridhar Acharyulu had directed the Delhi University and the Gujarat University to provide information on degrees earned by Modi to Kejriwal, who is also the chief of the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP).

Three months later, the Gujarat High Court stayed the CIC order asking the Ahmedabad-based university to provide the required information.

The CIC order came a day after Kejriwal wrote to Acharyulu, saying he has no objection to government records about him being made public and wondered why the commission wanted to "hide" information on Modi's educational qualifications.

During the hearing on Thursday, Mehta claimed there was nothing to hide in the first place because information about PM's degrees is "already in public domain" and the university had also placed the information on its website on a particular date in the past.

Citing some past judgements of the Supreme Court and by other high courts about the exemptions granted under section 8 of the RTI Act, Mehta said one cannot seek someone's personal information "just because you are curious about it".

"To be an RTI Activist has now become a profession. So many people who are not connected are curious about so many things...A stranger cannot seek such information. Irresponsible childish curiosity cannot become public interest. The RTI Act is being used for settling scores and to make childish jabs against opponents."

As per section 8 of the RTI Act, a university can refuse to divulge information regarding its students to a third person because of the "fiduciary relationship", a relationship of trust between a trustee and a beneficiary, Mehta submitted.

"One can seek information if it falls in the category of larger public interest. But, you cannot seek private information not related to my public activity. Just because the public is interested in it, it cannot become public interest. Courts' interpretation has established that educational qualification is personal information, whether it is of a politician or any other person," argued the Solicitor General.

Responding to Mehta, advocate Kavina told the court that information about PM's degrees was not available in public domain.

"There is an interview of the PM with (journalist-turned-politician) Rajiv Shukla (in which Modi talks about his education). Otherwise, degrees are not available. This is an ambush hearing. Suddenly you come and say it is available on the internet," said Kavina.

He argued that when the Representation of the People Act(RPA) mandates that politicians fighting elections must disclose their educational qualifications, exemptions about nondisclosure under section 8 of the landmark information legislation does not apply in those cases.

Kavina then gave the example of how the FBI searched residences of former US President Trump and his successor Biden.

"(Contrary to what Mehta said) this information about degrees has a direct connection with public activity and interest...This is how Trump's house and Biden's house are investigated by the FBI. This is how law works. Be you ever so high (in position), you are not above the law."

In his response, Mehta said even if the more than seven-decade-old election law mandates that candidates fighting polls need to furnish details about their educational qualifications at the time of submitting nomination papers, a third person cannot file an RTI plea with the Returning Officer to seek that information.


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