By Garga Chatterjee
In a game of football, if someone commits a foul and breaks the rules of the game, the referee blows a whistle. The referee in this case is letting everyone know that something wrong has happened. In real life, a whistleblower is a person who reports a wrongdoing, including criminal activities. This term has gained traction especially in the context of public and private entities where ethical people inside these institutions have reported on the unethical/illegal activities they came to know. Additionally, activists have also joined in this just fight by uncovering information of various kinds and reporting them. Whistleblowing is one of the ways to check corruption in a system and push for better ethical conduct and compliance from all institutions. However, whistleblowing often has some costs. Those whose crimes are exposed are not happy and they try to retaliate against the whistleblower. Based on the nature of the expose and the power of the ‘exposed’ person or entity, such retaliation in many cases ends in the murder of the whistleblower. Any society that has some respect for ethics and truth must protect whistleblowers, who by their commitment to truth and ethics at personal risk represent the very best of humanity. They also are living proof that cynicism has not conquered all hope in this world.
In the Indian Union, there have been various kinds of whistleblowers. Most of them we have not even heard of, because they were killed off or bought off even before they could go public (this also shows the kinds of forces who can suppress truth the best – state agencies with can kill with greatest impunity and the rich). The Right to Information Act also brought forward a new set of whistleblowers. Environmentalists Shehla Masood and Amit Jethwa, civil engineer Satyendra Dubey, Right to Food campaigner Lalit Mehta, street-vendor Shahidhar Mishra, social activist Satish Shetty and many others have been killed in recent years for exposing crimes using RTI and various other means. Most of them exposed crimes of the government. About the fate of those of who tried to expose holier cows like army, intelligence agencies, big corporates and other such temples of ‘honesty’ and ‘humanity’, we shall hardly ever know.
Unless whistleblowers are protected, we will encourage a system that systematically favours the criminal and the cynical. The Whistleblowers Protection Act, 2011 aims to give “adequate protection to persons reporting corruption or willful misuse of discretion that causes a demonstrable loss to the government, or commission of a criminal offence by a public servant.” We must remember that police, military, intelligence services, judiciary – all are public servants.
Let us remember this ‘commission of a criminal offence by a public servant’ part to understand what the present government’s amendment plans of the Whistleblowers Protection Act means. You would think that a government committed to governance transparency would broaden the ambit of this law and add tooth to it. It is planning to do precisely the opposite by trying to exclude issues pertaining to national security and sovereignty from it. What this means this, that in some situations, shooting the messenger of truth is official governmental policy. Predictably, the BJP and Congress completely agree on this one. When they do, the people have reason to be very, very suspicious. They most often come together to help public assets get looted or to rob people of basic civil liberties.
Thankfully, there are still people whose love for the people of the Indian Union much, much more exceeds their loyalty to the Indian Union nation-state. ‘National security’ exclusion means that there are criminal activities whose full disclosure makes the nation insecure. If criminality is an inalienable part of a nation-state, can any dharmik person be loyal to such an entity? Do we not know what the army’s role in Kunan Poshpora mass gang-rapes of Kashmir in 1991 or in Kakapothaar massacre of Assam in 1987? Of police, we have too many to list. Of the intelligence agencies, we have none (and that tells much). Now, if sarkar-bahadur claims that disclosures about still unknown and future Kunan-Poshporas will jeopardize ‘national security, what are we to say? What kind of security does criminality buy? Only the victims of such a nation-state can tell. Are we ready to take collective responsibility of criminality of the Kunan Poshpora type to buy security? Do we have no fear of gods?
In the subcontinent, there is often a lot of hand wringing and concern about the fact that rapists, looters, dacoits, fixers, pimps, kidnappers and even mass-murderers rise to the very top of the political system and dominate the inner chambers of power. Given that the formal opportunity of once-in-5-years-vote-casting exists, the masses and their judgments are often held responsible for this sordid state of matters. People get the politicians they deserve, is another contemporary ‘saying’ that tries to make the same point. However, when we look around us, we see a very many honest, kind-hearted, loving, self-less people – far too many to take the ‘society is bad and hence the powerful in society are also bad’ thesis seriously. This stench near the top and much love and humane qualities down the slope thus points to a deliberate design that rewards the worst among us and punishes the best among us. The system comes down the hardest on the best of the best – the people, who at great person risk expose wrongdoings and abuse of power.
Whistle-blowers is a term that at its core refers to those who speak truth to the public against the powerful, having been witness to abuse of power. They are soldiers of truth. The government by its ‘national security’ and ‘sovereignty’ exclusion plans has made clear the depth of its commitment to truth. The government plans to amend the Whistleblowers Protection Act. It might as well amend its sarkari motto ‘Satyamev jayate’ (Truth alone triumphs). We should remember what the martyred poet Paash (1950-1988) wrote in Punjabi -“Jey desh di surakhya eho hondee hai * key be-zameeree zindagi lei shart ban javey * akh di putli vich han ton bina koi bhi shabd ashleel howe * tey man badkaar ghadiyan de samne * dandaut’t jhukiya rahe * Tey saanu desh di surakhya ton khatra hai.” (If a life without conscience is a pre-condition of the country’s security, if anything other than saying ‘yes’ in agreement is obscene, and the mind submits before the greedy times, then the security of the country is a danger to all).