Article 19(1)(a) has been held to guarantee the right to information to citizens. The judgments of Supreme Court on the right to information can be divided into two phases.

In the first phase, the Court traced the right to information to the values of good governance, transparency and accountability. These judgments recognize that it is the role of citizens to hold the State accountable for its actions and inactions and they must possess information about State action for them to accomplish this role effectively.

In the first phase, the Court delineated the scope of the right to information in the context of deciding the disclosure of evidence relating to affairs of the State. Provisions of the Indian Evidence Act stipulate that evidence which is relevant and material to proceedings need not be disclosed to the party if the disclosure would violate public interest. In the 1960’s, the Court framed the issue of disclosure of documents related to the affairs of the State in terms of a conflict between public interest and private interest.

The Court observed that the underlying principle in the provisions of the Indian Evidence Act bearing on the disclosure of evidence related to the affairs of the State is that if such disclosure is denied, it would violate the private interest of the party. So, when a party seeks the disclosure of documents, and when such disclosure is denied on the ground that it would violate public interest, there is a conflict between private interest and public interest.

In subsequent cases, the courts cast the principle underlying the provisions of disclosure in the Indian Evidence Act as a conflict between two conceptions of public interest. Supreme Court held that disclosure of information aids the party to the proceedings. But beyond that, disclosure also serves the public interest in the administration of justice.

Raj Narain Case

In State of Uttar Pradesh v. Raj Narain[1], the respondent sought to summon documents in an election petition. The State made a claim of privilege from disclosure of documents.

In his concurring opinion in the Constitution Bench, Justice KK Mathew observed that there is a public interest in the impartial administration of justice which can only be secured by the disclosure of relevant and material documents. The learned Judge reaffirmed this proposition by tracing the right to information to Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution:

“74. In a Government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries.

They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing. The right to know, which is derived from the concept of freedom of speech, though not absolute, is a factor which should make one wary, when secrecy is claimed for transactions which can, at any rate, have no repercussion on public security.[…]”

SP Gupta Case

This principle was further elucidated in SP Gupta v. Union of India[2]. The Union of India claimed immunity against the disclosure of the correspondence between the Law Minister, the Chief Justice of the High Court of Delhi, and the Chief Justice of India on the reappointment of Additional Judges.

Justice P N Bhagwati while discussing the position of law on claims of non-disclosure, observed that the Constitution guarantees the “right to know” which is necessary to secure “true facts” about the administration of the country.

The opinion recognised accountability and transparency of governance as important features of democratic governance. Democratic governance, the learned Judge remarked, is not restricted to voting once in every five years but is a continuous process by which the citizens not merely choose the members to represent themselves but also hold the government accountable for their actions and inactions for which citizens need to possess information.

Our discussion indicates that the first phase of the jurisprudence on the right to information in India focussed on the close relationship between the right and open governance. The citizens have a duty to hold the government of the day accountable for their actions and inactions, and they can effectively fulfil this duty only if the government is open and not clothed in secrecy.

Second phase

In the second phase of the evolution of the jurisprudence on the right to information, Supreme Court recognised the importance of information to form views on social, cultural and political issues, and participate in and contribute to discussions.[3] Courts recognised that the relevance of information is to not only to hold the government accountable but also to discover the truth in a marketplace of ideas which would ultimately secure the goal of self-development.[4]

Supreme Court also recognised that freedom of speech and expression includes the right to acquire information which would enable people to debate on social, moral and political issues. These debates would not only foster the spirit of representative democracy but would also curb the prevalence of misinformation and monopolies on information.

Thus, in the second phase, the Court went beyond viewing the purpose of freedom of speech and expression through the lens of holding the government accountable, by recognising the inherent value in effective participation of the citizenry in democracy. Supreme Court recognised that effective participation in democratic governance is not just a means to an end but is an end in itself.

This interpretation of Article 19(1)(a) is in line with the now established position that fundamental freedoms and the Constitution as a whole seek to secure conditions for self-development at both an individual and group level.

A crucial aspect of the expansion of the right to information in the second phase is that right to information is not restricted to information about state affairs, that is, public information.

It includes information which would be necessary to further participatory democracy in other forms and is not restricted to information about the functioning of public officials. The right to information has an instrumental exegesis, which recognizes the value of the right in facilitating the realization of democratic goals. But beyond that, the right to information has an intrinsic constitutional value; one that recognizes that it is not just a means to an end but an end in itself.

[1] (1975) 4 SCC 428

[2] 1981 Supp SCC 87

[3] Secy., Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Govt. of India v. Cricket Assn. of Bengal, (1995) 2 SCC 161; Indian Express Newspapers v. Union of India, AIR 1986 SC 515 ; Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras, AIR 1950 SC 124

[4] DC Saxena v. Hon’ble The Chief Justice of India, (1996) 5 SCC 216 [29]