31 March 2023 9:06 AM GMT
The Gujarat High Court today quashed and set aside the 2016 order of the Central Information Commission (CIC) directing the Gujarat University to provide “information regarding degrees in the name of Mr. Narendra Damodar Modi" to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. With this, the bench of Justice Biren Vaishnav allowed the appeal filed by Gujarat University challenging CIC’s order...
The Gujarat High Court today quashed and set aside the 2016 order of the Central Information Commission (CIC) directing the Gujarat University to provide “information regarding degrees in the name of Mr. Narendra Damodar Modi" to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
With this, the bench of Justice Biren Vaishnav allowed the appeal filed by Gujarat University challenging CIC’s order on the ground that the same was passed without serving notice to it. It may be noted that the Judgment in the matter was reserved on February 9 after hearing the concerend parties extensively.
The bench also imposed a cost of Rs. 25,000/- upon the Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal to be deposited with the Gujarat State Legal Services Authority within 4 weeks. The Court also refused to grant a stay on the Judgment.
The case in brief
It was the case of the Gujarat University that Dr. Sridhar Acharyulu (the then Central Information Commissioner) “suo motu decided the controversy as regards the qualification of the Prime Minister without any proceedings pending before him”
The said suo moto order was passed by the Commission while considering an application regarding Kejriwal's electoral photo identity card.
Essentially, during the pendency of the application, 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 to avod any confucion regarding PM's educational qualifications.
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. Against this very order, the Gujarat University moved the High Court.
The main plank of the University's argument was that the University was holding the information (PM’s degree) in a fiduciary capacity and as per Section 8(1)(e) of the Right to Information Act, the 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".
During the hearing in the case, appearing for Gujarat University, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued that the RTI Act was being "misused to settled scores and taking a childish jab at opponents". It was also submitted that hat the University had already put the certificate in the public domain, however, the matter was being argued by the University in principle to address the question as to whether RTI Act be applied for extraneous purposes to satisfy someone's curiosity.
"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.
Referring to Section 8 (1) (j) of the RTI Act, SG Mehta 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.
The case related to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BA degree is also pending, since 2017, before the Delhi High Court (the next date of hearing being May 3).
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.
Case title - GUJARAT UNIVERSITY vs. M SRIDHAR ACHARYULU (MADABHUSHI SRIDHAR)
Case Citation: 2023 Livelaw (Guj) 64