Shooting the messenger
As the country is still recovering from the shock of the death of journalist Akshay Singh, the daily deaths of people associated with the Vyapam scam, the murder of a witness in the Asaram Bapu case, one would think that our elected representatives would be contemplating how they should protect those with information against the mighty and the powerful who engage in corruption and criminality. Far from it. In the monsoon session of the Parliament, that is due to begin in a few weeks, amendments to the Whistleblowers Protection Bill are likely to be tabled in the Rajya Sabha; amendments that dilute the Bill and reduce the protection to those who expose corruption.
The Whistleblowers Protection Bill came about after a sustained outrage and campaign after the deaths of Satyendra Dubey and Shanmugan Manjunath. In 2003, Dubey, an Indian Engineering Services officer, had written to the then Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpeyee, exposing massive corruption in the Golden Quadrilateral project. Soon after this letter was written, he was shot dead on the streets of Gaya. In 2005, Manjunath (an Indian Oil Corporation officer) was killed after he sealed a petrol pump in Lakhimpur Kheri (UP) for selling adulterated petrol.
These two honest officers are not the only one’s to get killed for exposing corruption. Since 2007 more than 40 people have been murdered for accessing information under the Right to Information. RTI activists constantly face threats and harassment. The reasons are clear, and we all know them. There is corruption in high places. The nexus of corruption ties together businessmen, contractors, criminals, politicians, bureaucrats and even the judiciary. They all receive their share of kickbacks from public money, and work to protect this nexus and each other from being exposed. An honest official who wishes to expose this corruption, faces possible backlash from financial, criminal and political power. And yet scam after scam has been exposed by honest officials who have chosen to becomes whistleblowers, often at great risk to their lives.
Far from considering the acts of these whistleblowers as epitomes of patriotism that should have been honoured, our legislature has shown a remarkably lackadaisical attitude towards their protection. This is not surprising since those tasked with bringing this law, are from the very class that are beneficiaries of the nexus of corruption. While the Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha in 2011, it was passed by the Rajya Sabha only in February 2014 and got Presidential assent in May 2014. But even thereafter it has not been notified for the past year. The existing Bill had many shortcomings and needed to be strengthened. One would have hoped that a government led by a Prime Minister who claimed a commitment to ‘na khaoonga, na khaane doonga’, would have encouraged citizens and honest officials to expose corruption by strengthening their protection under this Bill. It has done exactly the opposite.
The Modi-led government passed amendments to this bill in the Lok Sabha in May that substantially dilute the provisions of the existing Act. On the pretext of protecting ‘national security’, the amendment has removed the clause that protected whistleblowers from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act (OSA). It has drawn up a long list of restrictions that cannot be disclosed, and therefore do not entitle the whistleblower for protection. So if whistleblowers bring forward corruption in any of these domains, they can be prosecuted under OSA, even if their disclosure is found to hold water. And the very fact that the reference to OSA has been dropped will discourage bureaucrats from making disclosures on any issue, as it effectively takes away the ‘safe option to silence’, the very principle that underlies all legislation for Whistleblowers protection. By this single amendment, the very intent behind this legislation has been overturned.
Of course national security is important. Conditions could have been included for such disclosures to be made to specific institutions in sealed envelopes. Yet that was not done. What have been introduced are two provisos that can be used to scuttle any investigation on the pretext of ‘national security’. First, in the new Bill anyone specified as the ‘designated authority’ by the government has the right to a final decision as to whether any issue pertains to national security, and that decision is binding. Second, information that pertains to ‘national security’ has been defined in an extremely broad manner as that which can ‘…affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state, relations with foreign state, or lead to incitement of an offence.’ With these two provisions in place, lies the possibility of halting any uncomfortable investigation under the garb of a threat to national security.
When asked about the threat to whistleblowers, the Minister of State, Jitender Singh, who tabled this amendments said that the ‘designated authority…has not come across any attack/killing of (whistleblowers)…since April 2014.’ Absolutely. We all know that whistleblowers, witnesses and RTI activists all die natural or accidental deaths. None of them are attacked or murdered. They just seem to be more prone to the risk of natural deaths. And now with the new amendments, whistleblowers face a new risk, that of prosecution under the ‘Official Secrets Act’. Is the intent of the government to discourage whistleblowers from exposing corruption? If these amendments get made into law, the nexus of corrupt and powerful would have succeeded yet again in protecting themselves from being exposed. In the fight against corruption, the battle lines are drawn clearly: you are either on the side of whistleblowers, RTI activists, encouraging and protecting them and punishing the corrupt or you are on the wrong side.On which side are you, Mr. Modi?
(Atishi Marlena is an Advisor to the Govt of NCT Delhi. Views expressed are personal)