On 28 April 2018, we carried a story on the Lokniti Foundation, the organisation behind the Public Interest Litigation that led to the government order on the linking of mobile SIM cards to Aadhaar numbers.
Our story prompted debate and discussion on social media platforms, including nuanced conversations on the role of public interest litigations in democracy, the balance of powers between the judiciary, the executive, and the legislature.
Over the weekend, we received a response from the Lokniti Foundation (see below), which we are happy to reproduce in the spirit of continuing this dialogue. The foundation has taken exception to our characterisation of their work, but we note that they have not contradicted us on our facts. Many of the facts in our story, as they note, were provided to us by representatives of the foundation.
While we welcome their contribution to this important debate, we stand by our report and believe that the questions they raise are answered in the report itself.
Editor in Chief
Rejoinder by Lokniti Foundation
We recently came across an article with the headlined, "Lokniti Foundation: Behind Centre's Aadhaar-Mobile Linking Policy Is A Petrol-Pump Owner, A Serving Cop, And A Retired CBI Officer" published on Huffington Post recently.
We are concerned at the basic lack of facts and the shoddy manner, in which conclusions have been drawn. We write to you in the hope that you will publish our rebuttal to the article and give it the same prominence as the published article, in the best interests of free and fair journalism.
We also request that our rebuttal is printed in full, so that your readers are aware of all the facts of the case.
1. You are article claims that we are "...a secretive organisation with no website, no presence on social media, and no public list of trustees." We are registered as a not-for-profit Society under the 'Societies Registration Act of XXI, 1860, Delhi. Our registration number is 63978 of 2008. This was registered on 27th November 2008.
(a) Can a registered society, which is subject to the laws of the land and scrutiny be a "secretive" organization, as claimed in your article?
(b) Is the mere fact that your reporter could not find the details of our registration or our members, make it a "secretive" organization?
(c) Privacy is a fundamental right in India. We appreciate and support the revelation of details, which have a bearing on issues of public interest, but if the members choose to remain lawfully private, then does that make an organization "secretive"? If that be the case, then does it not negate the stand many take against Aadhaar and its purported violations of privacy? can your news website justify these contradictory stances?
(e) If our organization is "secretive" how did your reporter meet the secretary, who also generously gave his time and shared all possible details about the organization? In fact, all the details mentioned selectively about Lokniti comes from him.
(f) We also have a valid Permanent Account Number (PAN), which has been issued by the department of income tax. Does this level of scrutiny make us a "secretive" organization?
2. Your news report states that "...Their registered office is a sealed building in south Delhi's outskirts." Is your news reporter not aware of the fact that there is a Supreme Court-mandated sealing drive underway in Delhi? All the buildings on that road have been sealed just three months ago.
Does the fact that our registered office is sealed for an entirely different reason, take away from the organization's legitimacy?
The office has not been sealed since 2008 and the current status is due to a recent ongoing drive.
Was your reporter unable to find out such a simple fact, which has been widely reported in every news publication in India?
3. Your news report claims: "Lokniti's PILs are often taken up with alacrity by the central government. The Aadhaar-mobile linking is one example." We will be grateful if your reporter can provide us evidence to support this fact that our petitions are "taken up by alacrity by the central government." We are sure that a basic understanding of how India's judicial system works, would have helped your reporter. Please consider the following facts:
(a) Every PIL is filed with all details of the petitioner. If the Hon'ble Supreme Court does not find merit in the petition or the petitioner, then it is likely to dismiss the petition. Does this mean that the Supreme Court also takes up our petitions with "alacrity"?
(b) The Supreme Court, on admitting the petition, issues notice to the Central Government. Is your reporter suggesting that the Central Government does not respond to a notice from the Supreme Court?
(d) Even if we were to accept that the Central Government takes up our petitions with "alacrity", does it also mean that the Supreme Court admits it with "alacrity". If that is the case, as your article imputes, then it is attributing motives to the Central Government and the Supreme Court. Is that not a contempt of the Hon'ble Court?
(e) What is the data sample based on which your news reporter surmised that our petitions are taken up with "alacrity"? Since 2008, we have filed four petitions. The majority of them (three) were filed before May 2014, even before the current government took over after the general elections. Does that mean that the previous government was also taking up our cases with "alacrity"?
4. Your report states and quotes a retired officer to state: Serving members of the All India Services (IAS & IPS) are required to take permission from the government before working with NGOs, foundations, or societies in any capacity, Sarma said. "Failure to do so is liable to attract disciplinary action from the government."
(a) May we ask if the reporter knows if there are such serving members, and whether they taken permission to be members of the organization?
(b) If the members have indeed taken permission, which they have, then how can such speculation be allowed in a credible news report?
(c) Journalism, we believe, is a reportage of facts. If speculation, assumptions and insinuations are the basis of such a report, then can we still call it a "factual" report?
5. Your report states that "...But controversial is what Lokniti has become"
(a) Please inform us how filing a petition in the Supreme Court makes Lokniti "controversial"?
(b) Can Lokniti control the Supreme Court, the admission of its petition, the issuing of notices to the Central Government? If following a legitimate provision in law is defined as "controversial" then does this loose characterization apply to every petitioner who comes to the Hon'ble Supreme Court to file a PIL?
(c) You news article states that " Satisfied with the government's reply, the apex court disposed the petition in February 2017." This is something that the petitioner has no control over. How is a "dismissal" a desired outcome or "controversial"?
(d) You article also states that "However, a month after the petition order, the Department of Telecom (DoT) issued a circular making it mandatory to link Aadhaar to mobile phone connections, claiming it was following the Supreme Court order."
(a) This is an act of the Central Government. Where is the evidence based upon which, your news reporter imputes that Lokniti had anything to do with the Central Government after the petition was dismissed?
(b) If the Central Government chooses to formulate a policy, which was never directed by the Supreme Court, then is the petitioner to be held responsible for it? We can understand if your news reporter had marshaled facts, documents and details to substantiate this. But if she has, why has it not been revealed in the article?
6. One of your colleagues in India, Mr Aman Sethi writes in a public Facebook post on 28th April 2018 that "Lokniti has the knack for filing PILs about just the sorts of things the government wants.." Below this post he has linked the article in question. May we ask:
(a) If three out of four PILs were filed when the previous Central Government was in power, then which government is he referring to?
(b) Is four PILs - one on ensuring a Transparent Recruitment Program for hiring police constables in keeping with the 2006 Supreme Court order on police reforms and another PIL on implementing the recommendations of the Administrative Reforms Commission for good governance, the kind of PILs, which "things that the government wants"? If the government did indeed want such issues to be addressed, which will end corruption, nepotism and malpractice in governance - then we would have never felt the need to file such PILs. The fact that we file such PILs, is because we want the Hon'ble Supreme Court to direct the Central Government to act on issues of public good. Does that make us "controversial" and a government stooge, as the article and your colleague imputes?
(c) Finally, a lawyer who is part of the team who represents the petitioners in the Aadhaar matter writes in public Facebook post on 28 April 2018, that this was a "dodgy PIL". We respect his opinion but this shows the damage that your article has done.
8. You report terms the petition as "controversial". That made us wonder if the petition was read by the reporter at all. We submit:
(a) Is the misuse of SIM cards, purchased fraudulently for criminal activities or terrorism, a concern for India? why did your reporter not address the key concerns behind the PIL?
(b) The PIL had suggested Aadhaar as only *one* of many measures that ought to be taken.
9. The report mentions Lokniti's secretary as a "petrol pump owner"
(a) Mr Goel is a successful businessman, who runs several concerns. Was the emphasis on only one of his concerns a class statement? He is a business man and an entrepreneur. But that nuance seems to be of little concern to your reporter and raises a higher concern about a class bias
(b) Are petrol pump owners allowed to be concerned about issues of public interest and approach the courts to address them? The last time we checked with the Indian Constitution, this was entirely permissible.
10. Lokniti's lawyer, Dr Ashok Dhamija is described as a former/retired CBI officer in the headline and the story.
(a) He belonged to the Indian Police Service and took voluntary retirement at the zenith of his career to pursue his passion in law. Does his former association with the police service debar him from filing petitions of public interest pro bono? Again, the Indian Constitution or the All India Service Rules have no such bar. Then, on what grounds are these imputations made?
Needless to say, we reiterate the need to support and promote a free press and good journalism. But can these deliberate obfuscation or facts indicate shoddy work, that must be brought to the notice of the editor in chief. We know of the tremendous work you have done with the New York Times and now as the editor of the Huffington Post.
We hope that you will publish our detailed rebuttal in full and send us a link to the same, once published.
On behalf of Lokniti Foundation