Published on: 01 April 2023 at 20:16 IST
In what came as a double whammy for Arvind Kejriwal who is the Chief Minister of Delhi, the Gujarat High Court has in a most learned, laudable, landmark and latest judgment titled Gujarat University vs M Sridhar Acharyulu (Madabhushi Sridhar) & 3 other(s) in R/Special Civil Application No. 9476 of 2016 that was pronounced as recently as on March 31, 2023 has ruled decisively that Prime Minister’s Office is not required to furnish the graduate and post-graduate degrees of PM Modi while quashing the Central Information Commission (CIC) order that was issued in 2016 directing Gujarat University to furnish information regarding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Master of Arts (MA) degree to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. The Court also imposed a fine of Rs 25,000 on Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal for seeking the details about PM Modi’s degree certificates. Kejriwal has been given four weeks to deposit the amount with the Gujarat State Legal Services Authority.
Besides, the court also refused to grant a stay on the judgment.
With this, we thus see that the Single Judge Bench comprising of Hon’ble Mr 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 must be mentioned here that the judgment in this all-important issue was reserved on February 9 after hearing the concerned parties quite extensively.
At the very outset, this brief, brilliant, bold and balanced judgment authored by the Single Judge Bench comprising of Hon’ble Mr Justice Biren Vaishnav sets the ball in motion by first and foremost putting forth in para 1 that, “Rule returnable forthwith. Learned counsels appearing for the respective respondents waive service of notice of rule on behalf of the respective respondents.
1.1 The present writ petition has been filed by the petitioner-Gujarat University seeking appropriate writ and order for quashing of the order dated 29.04.2016 passed by the Central Information Commission (CIC) in proceeding No. No.CIC/SA/C/2015/000275. The following prayers have been made in the writ petition:
“(A) YOUR LORDSHIPS may be pleased to admit and allow the present petition;
(B) YOUR LORDSHIPS may be pleased to issue a writ of certiorari or any other writ in the nature of certiorari, order or direction in the nature of certiorari quashing and setting aside the order dated 29.04.2016 passed in Proceeding No. CIS/SA/C/2015/000275 by respondent No.1 (Annexure-A);
(C) Pending the admission and final hearing of the present petition, YOUR LORDSHIPS may be pleased to stay order dated 29.04.2016 passed in Proceeding No. CIC/SA/C/2015/000275 by respondent No. 1 (Annexure-A).
(D) Any other and further reliefs as deemed fit in the interest of justice may kindly be granted.””
Briefly stated, the Bench states in para 2 that, “The case of the petitioner, briefly stated is that Information Commissioner [IC] of the Central Information Commission [CIC] while hearing the Second Appeal No. CIC/SA/C/2015/000275/2015 filed by a third party [Neeraj Saxena] for supply of information about transportation request of Electoral Photo Identity Card of Respondent No.2, has passed the impugned ‘adjunct order’, whereby, it has suo moto, taken up an oral request of Respondent No.2; converted the same into an RTI application and allowed the said application by directing disclosure of the educational degree of the Prime Minister.”
Be it noted, the Bench then sagaciously observes in para 13 that, “This court finds that the question of whether education qualifications are personal information or not is no more res-integra and already stands authoritatively settled by the Constitution Bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case of Subhash Chandra Agarwal (Supra). In the said judgment the Constitution Bench of the apex court has unequivocally held that personal professional records, including qualification, performance, evaluation reports, ACRs, disciplinary proceedings, etc. are all personal information and such personal information is entitled to protection from unwarranted invasion of privacy. Para 70 of the said judgment which is relevant for the present purpose reads as under:-
“70. Reading of the aforesaid judicial precedents, in our opinion, would indicate that personal records, including name, address, physical, mental and psychological status, marks obtained, grades and answer sheets, are all treated as personal information. Similarly, professional records, including qualification, performance, evaluation reports, ACRs, disciplinary proceedings, etc. are all personal information. Medical records, treatment, choice of medicine, list of hospitals and doctors visited, findings recorded, including that of the family members, information relating to assets, liabilities, income tax returns, details of investments, lending and borrowing, etc. are personal information. Such personal information is entitled to protection from unwarranted invasion of privacy and conditional access is available when stipulation of larger public interest is satisfied. This list is indicative and not exhaustive.””
Do also note, the Bench notes in para 14 that, “The aforesaid judgments of the Hon’ble Apex Court clearly lay down that the education documents, including degrees of an individual are personal information disclosure of which would require an overwhelming public interest. The said information would thus ipso facto be covered by the exception clause provided under section 8(j) of the RTI Act.”
To put things in perspective, the Bench envisages in para 20 that, “In so far as the issue of Universities/Boards etc. holding and possessing the educational documents such as mark-sheets and certificates of a student/citizen is concerned, as per the law laid down by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Aditya Bandopadhyay, case (Supra) and ICAI v. Shaunak H. Satya case (Supra), the apex court has unequivocally held that the documents related to educational qualifications are held in fiduciary capacity, and therefore, would be exempted from disclosure under Section 8(1)(e) of the RTI Act. The said judgments have been quoted with approval in Subhash Chandra Agarwal (Supra).”
While continuing in the same vein, the Bench observes in para 21 that, “In the aforesaid judgements rendered by the Hon’ble Apex Court in Subhash Chandra Agarwal case, Kerala Public Service Commission, Aditya Bandopadhyay case and ICAI v. Shaunak H. Satya case (Supra), it has been unequivocally held that educational qualification related documents are nothing but personal information of the student,”.
“In the aforesaid judgments it has also been held that there is a fiduciary relationship between the examining body and the examinee and the exemption contemplated under section 8(1)(e) of the RTI Act, would operate in regard to giving access to the information held in fiduciary relationship, to third parties. Once the examination process is over, the University steps into the shoes of examining body and answer sheets etc. becomes a degree,”.
“This stage is one stage posterior to what was considered by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the aforesaid judgments and as such, on the same analogy and by applying the necessary implication doctrine, it is held that the degrees of a student is kept by the university in confidence and in fiduciary capacity.”
It is worth noting that the Bench notes in para 22 that, “In light of the aforesaid legal position laid down by the Hon’ble Apex Court, this court holds that the educational documents including degrees fall within ambit of personal information of a citizen, disclosure of which is exempted under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act,”.
“Further, the said information is held by the Universities and Boards in fiduciary capacity on behalf of their students which is again exempted under Section 8(1)(e) of the RTI Act,”.
“That being so, the first contention of Shri Kavina that once a student passes examination and qualifies to secure a degree then such degree cannot be treated as private or third party information and the said degree certificate has to be considered as public document generated by a public authority stands rejected.”
Needless to say, the Bench states in para 23 that, “Once it is held that the educational degrees of the student attract the exemption contemplated under section 8(1) (e) and (j), the next question which fall for the consideration of this court is whether there is any public purpose in disclosure of such information under the provisions of RTI.”
Simply put, the Bench observes in para 24 that, “A perusal of the impugned order shows that the CIC expressly noted that the information about educational degrees of Shri Narendra Modi is already in public domain and the same is merely a matter of curiosity in public domain which cannot be equated with ‘public interest’ because only if public is interested in perusing certain information the same would not ipso facto fall within the legal ambit of ‘public interest’ as contemplated under section 8(e) and (j) of the RTI Act,”.
“The Commission has also recorded that the said qualification or degrees have no nexus on the constitutional post occupied by Shri Narendra Modi. Further, the Commission has also recorded that it was also not a case where there was a prescription of minimum educational qualification for holding the position of Prime Minister and where holding of such minimum educational qualification by the Prime Minister was in doubt. The Commission has also recorded the fact that the information sought had no remote nexus either with accountability or transparency in discharge of function as the Prime Minister of the country.”
It cannot be glossed over that the Bench then concedes in para 25 that, “Thus the Commission in the impugned order has itself come to the conclusion that the information sought for was neither in public interest nor the same was relatable to accountability or transparency in discharge of public functions performed by Sh. Narendra Damodardas Modi as Prime Minister of India.”
What also we cannot gloss over is that the Bench then points out in para 26 that, “However, despite expressly noting the aforesaid factual aspects of the matter, the impugned order has nowhere adjudicated the said facts in the context of provisions of RTI Act. The Commission has merely given a cryptic finding that educational qualification related information to public authorities, public servants or political leaders occupying constitutional position is not hit by any exception under Section 8 of the RTI Act,”.
“No reasons have been assigned by the Commission to come to such a conclusion. Instead the only reason which this Court strangely finds as the basis of the direction issued by the Commission, is the assumption of the Commission that when a citizen holding the post of Chief Minister wants to know the degree related information of the Prime Minister, it will be proper to disclose,”.
“The said reasoning in the opinion of this Court is completely unsustainable and outside the scope of jurisdiction vested in the CIC under the provisions of RTI Act.”
Bench mandates in para 27 holding that, “In the opinion of this court, once the Commission came to the finding that the information sought for was neither relatable to accountability and transparency in public functions discharged by Shri Narendra Damodardas Modi nor there was any larger public interest in disclosure of the said information, as in, the disclosure sought for was merely something which was of ‘interest to the public’ and a matter of political curiosity and not something which was in the public interest, then the Commission ought to have strictly applied the exemptions contemplated under section 8(e) and (j) and ought to have refused disclosure of the said information. Instead the Commission has rendered an omnibus finding that educational qualification related information about public authorities, public servants or political leaders occupying the constitutional positions is not hit by exception under Section 8 of the RTI Act,”.
“This Court fails to comprehend the justification or the legal foundation on the basis of which the Commission has arrived at the said finding. The said decision of the CIC, in the opinion of the court is contrary to the legal position and is therefore set aside. This court holds that in absence of any larger public interest, which is neither pleaded nor raised, the educational degrees of Sh Narendra Damodardas Modi are exempted from disclosure under the provisions of section 8(1)(e) and (j) of the RTI Act.”
Most remarkably, the Bench minces no words to observe in para 28 that, “During the course of the hearing full opportunity was once again given by this court to Respondent No. 2 to place his justification, as to what larger public purpose would be served in disclosing the educational degrees of Shri Narendra Damodardas Modi to him through the RTI route when the same was already available in public domain,”.
“However, in response, the only justification which came forward before this court was that all information about the candidate contesting elections must be available in public domain for it to be scrutinized by public,”.
“This court can only record its disagreement with the aforesaid justification placed by Respondent No. 2 when the degree is already in public domain. The said reasoning is outside the ambit of concept of public interest which has elaborately been pronounced in the case of Subhash Chandra Agarwal (supra) as quoted above,”.
“To borrow the words of their Lordships of the Hon’ble Apex Court, this court finds that the respondent has merely set up a case of “Something which is of interest to the public” rather than setting up a legal case of “something which is in the public interest”. Further this court agrees with the submission of Shri Mehta, learned Solicitor General of India that the insistence of the Respondent No. 2 to get the educational degree of Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Damodardas Modi through RTI route, when the same is already available in public domain, also creates doubt on the bonafide and motive of the Respondent No 2,”.
“In the opinion of the court, the manner in which the request was made and considered by the CIC, squarely falls within the observation made by the Hon’ble Apex Court in para 95 of Subash Chandra Agarwal, (Supra) whereby the honourable Supreme Court has observed that in given cases “motive” and “purpose” may be negative factor while applying the public interest test in case of qualified exemptions governed by the public interest test “when the “motive” and “purpose” is vexatious or it is a case of clear abuse of law”,”.
“In absence of any valid ground of public interest, this court finds that the application made by respondent no 2 also fails to qualify the public interest test contemplated in Subash Chandra Agarwal, (Supra) due to ostensible motive and purpose which appears to this court to be more politically vexatious and motivated, instead of, being based on sound public interest considerations.”
Adding more to it, the Bench hastens to add in para 29 that, “Having held so, this court is of the opinion that information i.e. educational degree of any individual can be sought using RTI Act only when there is a pleading, which is proved by the Applicant and thereafter satisfaction is reached by the authority under the Act that “public interest” requires disclosure of such information. Such “public interest” as used in Section 8(1)(e) and (j) would mean manifest public interest and not just curiosity of the RTI Applicant,”.
“As explained in the judgment of the Supreme Court, the term “public interest” would not mean matters where “public is interested”. There can be certain matter where public may develop interest out of curiosity. Such interest has nothing to do with “public interest” which is the test required to be applied under Section 8(1)(e) and (j),”.
“The present case neither pleads nor establishes existence of any public interest. While the Respondent No.2 was responding as to whether he wants to declare his electoral photo identity card, he very causally gave a conditional consent substantially saying that if Chief Minister is called upon to disclose his electoral photo identity card, Prime Minister should also be asked to declare his degree.
29.1 The Respondent No.2 could have either agreed to divulge such information or could have resorted to Section 8(1)(e) and (j). The petitioner has made a submission that such a course of action would be very childish way of dealing with statutory proceedings governed by statutory provisions, however, this court for the moment is not going into the same.”
Bench holds in para 34 that, “Under the Constitution of India, Article 75 thereof provides for “Other provisions as to Ministers”. It says that the Prime Minister shall be appointed by the President and the Minister shall be appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister,”.
“No educational qualifications have been provided for leaders in order to be eligible for election. It is a well-known fact that barring a few exceptions, most of the candidates elected to the Parliament or the State Legislatures are fairly educated even if they are not graduates or post graduates,”.
“To think of illiterate candidates is based on a factually incorrect assumption. The experience and events in public life and the legislatures have demonstrated that the dividing line between the well-educated and less educated is rather thin. Much depends on the character of the individual, in the sense of devotion to the duty and the concern of the welfare of the people. These characteristics are not the monopoly of the well-educated persons.”
While dwelling on the reason for imposing costs, the Bench held that, “Further despite the degree in question being put on the website of the petitioner University for all to see and despite this fact being made expressly clear with precision in the pleadings before this Court and despite the respondent never ever disputing the degree in question either during the pendency of these proceedings or even during final hearing, the respondent No.2 has persisted with the matter. This is one more reason to impose costs while allowing this petition.”
Finally and far most significantly, the Bench concludes by holding in para 41 that, “Accordingly, petition is allowed. The impugned order dated 29.04.2016 passed in proceeding No. CIS/SA/C/2015/000275 is quashed and set aside. Respondent No.2 is directed to pay costs of Rs. 25,000/- to be deposited with Gujarat State Legal Services Authority within a period of 4 weeks from the date of this judgment. Rule is made absolute accordingly.”
In sum, we see that the Gujarat High Court has very rightly quashed the CIC’s order directing Gujarat University to provide information on PM Modi’s degree giving reasons as discussed herein above. We also see that the Gujarat High Court has imposed cost of Rs 25,000 on Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal for not being able to convince court as to why he was persisting unreasonably as discussed already.