Pushp Sharma hints he got documents from a source

He said he filed an RTI and got proof of the Centre’s Hindutva bent. Now, after being arrested, Sharma is backpedalling.

WrittenBy:Nikhil M Babu
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Pushp Sharma made the news in March when he said that he had documents to prove that the Ministry of AYUSH was systematically not recruiting Muslims. He made news again in May, when the journalist was arrested after being charged with forgery and promoting hatred among communities. Sharma was sent to jail for allegedly forging a Right To Information (RTI) response. He’s out on bail now and in an interview, he told Newslaundry that he may have acquired the “controversial document” from a source inside the AYUSH ministry, and not through the RTI. Regardless of its source, however, Sharma insists his report, published in Milli Gazette in March, is based on fact.

Citing an RTI response, the Milli Gazette article stated that no Muslim was invited, selected or sent abroad in connection with International Yoga Day as per government policy. The purported RTI response stated: “As per government policy – no Muslim was invited, selected or sent abroad.” Many media organisations like Huffington Post and The News Minute carried the story even before the AYUSH ministry could react to it. Claiming that the RTI response was forged, the ministry filed a case against Sharma, who was arrested on May 13.

Asked if he had obtained the controversial document via a source and was trying to protect him by claiming it was an RTI response, Sharma said in an interview to Newslaundry, “Probably. When you’re under investigation, you’re bound to protect your source. They had jailed me and I had to come out on bail. The case will go on but my source is safe… I wanted to save him and I saved him. Many people give us many documents and we have to protect them.”

Sharma said he had received a lot of information from sources inside the ministry that were included in his report. “Even if the story is based on RTI or a source, it is a fact. You can look at it in whichever way you want,” said Sharma.

Claiming that the police were “pressurising me to disclose my source”, Sharma said he was being harassed by the police ever since the article was published. “The investigation was revolving around me being a converted Muslim. I had my doubts if they were policemen or Modi’s PR team,” he said. “I had filed petitions against Amit Shah in the Supreme Court, I had exposed Sree Ram Sene, I have been trouble for them and they knew that to survive, they have to arm twist people like me.”

Asked about the case, Sharma said he wants to “make it a political voice”. “While I don’t want to be used by any party for their political gains, we want to take this voice to any state where elections are coming up, especially against (AYUSH minister) Shripad Naik, who hails from Goa.” While hinting at contesting elections from Naik’s state, which goes to polls next year, Sharma also spoke of seeking political asylum abroad.

The controversial RTI response

Asked if Milli Gazette cross-checked the controversial RTI response before publishing the story, Sharma shot back, “How can you cross-check an RTI?” He refused to identify the particular department of the AYUSH ministry that issued the RTI response, saying the matter was subjudice.

Initially, Sharma had said all the documents he received were online along with the article. On being told that there was no cover letter accompanying the controversial annexure, he insisted that there was one and that he had no idea why it was not part of the documents uploaded by Milli Gazette.

The existence of a cover letter was denied by Milli Gazette editor-in-chief Zafarul Islam Khan. “There was no cover letter for that particular RTI response. Everything he (Sharma) had given us, we’ve put up online,” Khan told Newslaundry, immediately after Sharma’s arrest. He also said that he continues to stand by the story and the journalist. He did not wish to answer whether he was paying for Sharma’s legal expenses.

On March 13, Milli Gazette released a 44-page documents comprising all RTI responses which Sharma had supposedly received from the AYUSH ministry, two autonomous bodies under it – Central Council for Research in Yoga and Naturopathy (CCRYN) and Morarji Desai National Institute of Yoga (MDNIY) – as well as the Ministry of External Affairs. All the RTI applications had been filed by Sharma on September 17, 2015.

Newslaundry filed an RTI to check the authenticity of one of the responses and found out that it was genuine. Replying to an RTI application with the registration number AYUSH/R/2015/00158, CCRYN sent a two-page response. The first page was a covering letter while the second page answered the questions.

Both pages mention the application registration number and bear the signature of Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) Surender Sandhu. One of the questions is, “How many Muslim candidates were invited, selected or sent abroad as yoga trainer teacher during World Yoga Day 2015?” The response is, “The council has not sent any member abroad as trainers/teachers during World Yoga Day 2015.” There is no mention of any government policy that excludes Muslims.

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The controversial annexure that Sharma has held up as proof of the government’s partisan attitude, however, did not come with a covering letter or a table of questions on which the response is based. Looking at the document, it is not possible to ascertain who has issued it – the annexure does not have a letterhead or bear the signature of a Public Information Officer (PIO). No date is specified and neither is there any mention of an RTI application number.

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“Given the fact that there was no cover letter, signature, date or table of contents for the reply, chances of it being a fake RTI response is very high,” Shailesh Gandhi, former commissioner of Central Information Commission, told Newslaundry.

(With inputs from Sourodipto Sanyal)

The author can be contacted on Twitter @ikasnik


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