Jammu & Kashmir simmers. Even as the ‘whys and wherefores’ are hotly debated, people who have known nothing but strife and unrest continue to die. The tragedy is an ongoing concern. It is in times like these that one searches for a glimmer of hope amidst the violence, corruption and mismanagement that bedevil the state.

The Right to Information (RTI) has recently given us hope. For constitutional reasons, the central RTI Act of 2005 exempted J&K, leaving it behind as RTI improved people’s lives across the rest of India. With the long overdue enactment of our state’s own Act 16 months ago, the RTI’s influence has begun to permeate daily life in J&K.

Though the state information commission remains headless, RTI training programmes have been organised across the state to raise public awareness. Success stories highlighted in the media have inspired many citizens to use the RTI to solve their problems, improve local governance and address some social wounds unique to J&K. This revolution represents a peaceful alternative to the culture of violence and protests so often identified with Kashmir.

These changes are illustrated by our unprecedented use of the RTI to address a custodial disappearance case. Muhammad Ashraf Yatoo was a 35-year-old resident of Chadoora, Budgam district. A father of four, he was an employee of the J&K government’s food and supplies department.

On December 13, 1990, he was arrested from the street by the Border Security Force (BSF) in front of several dozen witnesses. He has not been seen since. When approached by his pleading wife and children, the BSF denied knowledge of his fate. Later, the J&K police declared him innocent of any crimes and the government provided compassionate employment to his widow so she could raise her family with dignity.

After 17 years of uncertainty, the family learned about the RTI. With our help, they filed an RTI application with the BSF to uncover the fate of their husband and father. The BSF returned the application and we, therefore, appealed on procedural grounds. On July 2, the Central Information Commission (CIC) admonished the BSF, and directed them to provide the family all the existing information on Yatoo’s fate. The decision was highlighted in the local and national media, and piqued interest in the RTI amongst many Kashmiris, who flooded us with supportive phone calls and e-mails.

Ashraf’s case shows how the RTI can be used to address allegations of wrongdoing by the security forces. One former director-general of the BSF was supportive of the CIC’s decision and told a journalist with a news magazine that it would make the security forces “accountable”. But another former DG said that we shouldn’t be “asking the authorities inconvenient questions”. We believe any reform without accountability is meaningless. The latter officer and those who share his views do not fully appreciate the importance of the RTI in protecting the constitutional rights of Indian citizens.

Indeed, the RTI brings real power to the people by making the establishment accountable to them. Accountability and transparency in administration produces better governance. It also strengthens grievance redressal mechanisms. Isn’t that what everyone wants?

While the civilian bureaucracy has been slowly absorbing and implementing these principles, the same cannot be said about the state and central security forces when it comes to human rights violations. The partial RTI exemptions for security forces and their entrenched culture of confidentiality have made them resistant to disclosing information on human rights violations. When they have been challenged, they’ve offered the arguments that disclosure would “impede ongoing investigations”, “hurt morale” or “inspire the enemy”.

Such reasons may be genuine in exceptional cases, but they cannot be used as blanket excuses. Isolated cases of excessive retaliation and unnecessary killings can happen in spite of institutional professionalism. The authorities should appreciate that nothing hurts the reputation of a besieged security force more than the distrust of the people it is supposed to protect.

The BSF has now been directed to provide Ashraf’s family with information on his disappearance, but the same information should be automatically provided in other similar cases, past and future. Through such disclosures, the security forces would demonstrate their willingness to operate within the limitations of the law, gain the public’s trust and restore normalcy in J&K.

The political and bureaucratic establishment must also embrace the RTI as an instrument of change in the state, since people’s grievances stem from hardship, suffering and resentment spread by decades of mismanagement, corruption and indifference on the part of politicians and the civilian bureaucracy.

Indeed, real improvements in their daily lives will not blossom from the stagnant air of fruitless debates and grand political bargains, but rather from incremental improvements in governance cultivated by real instruments of change like the RTI Act. The political, bureaucratic and security establishments must, therefore, stop neglecting the RTI in J&K as if it were a “sideshow”, and must instead place it at the centre of a renewed effort in promoting peace and prosperity for all.