In November 2012, Shailesh Gandhi, a right-to-information activist and former information commissioner, filed an RTI request with the Maharashtra income tax department. He was seeking the income-tax returns and balance sheets of Ajit Pawar, a former deputy chief minister of Maharashtra. A series of public authorities dismissed his petition and subsequent appeals—the public information officer, the first appellate authority, the central information commission (CIC), the Bombay High Court, and finally the Supreme Court, which dismissed his special leave petition in 2015.
The information officers and the courts denied Gandhi’s request citing a 2012 Supreme Court order dismissing a similar special leave petition in the case of Girish R Deshpande vs Central Information Commissioner. The Supreme Court order, passed by a division bench of Dipak Misra and KS Radhakrishnan, states that income tax returns, assets, liabilities, official orders and performance records of public officers are personal information and can be exempted under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act of 2005. The provision exempts from disclosure any personal information that does not serve a larger public interest, or when it can result in the invasion of a person’s privacy. But the broad interpretation of this clause has weakened the RTI Act, allowing authorities to withhold information and protect public officials from public scrutiny.