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BJP govt has attacked right to freedom of expression since it came to power, alleges RTI activist Aruna Roy

The passage of the Right to Information Act was one of high points of Indian democracy. It was a result of years of work by the civil society and an incredible achievement which saw the government enact a weapon which would constantly be used against them. One of the voices at the forefront of the movement was Aruna Roy, a former bureaucrat in the Indian Administrative Services.

Roy and her organisation, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan recently published a volume titled The RTI story — Power to the people (published by Roli Books). The book is essentially a documentation of the entire movement which led to the right becoming a reality.

Firstpost spoke with Aruna Roy about her work at the grassroots level, how powerful protests really are in today's political climate and the role of the media in bringing about change.

You gave up the civil services to work on issues from outside the system. As ironic as that is and even though it happened years ago, is the system simply a shackle? Can honest bureaucrats function the way they want to? Has the RTI Act been successful in addressing co-option between bureaucracy and politics?

Despite the many instances of a compromised bureaucracy that one hears of today, the bureaucratic system is necessary. In fact it has the potential — even if it is not used enough — to protect the people from a political executive that wants to function outside constitutional and legal norms.

The bureaucracy also plays a crucial role in laying out the structure of implementation. After all the entitlements have to be translated into tangible benefits, and effective delivery has to be ensured. Every government, no matter what the ideology, has to work through a bureaucracy which protects the rule of law and the framework of the Constitution. The creators of the RTI, included some honest civil servants. In fact, the LBS Academy hosted the first meeting to discuss the law when NC Saxena was its director and Harsh Mander a course director. But the bulk of the civil service has not pushed the implementation of the RTI. One striking example is that Section 4 which speaks about mandatory disclosure, still remains largely on paper.

The RTI law has in fact enabled officials to implement existing laws. The deterrent of possible disclosure has prevented many aspects of misuse at the cutting edge, for rations, pensions, medicines, school entity, wages etc. and at the decision making level, for policy and grand corruption.

Since the politicians and bureaucrats are equally suspicious of RTI, very few officers believe in transparency as a solution. As a result, only a few have actually used the law to protect themselves against co-option. But those that have, have made news not only for their role, but also for the issue they have exposed. An honest and committed bureaucrat can still play a critical role in preventing the abuse of power. I left the IAS because no bureaucracy can work for socio-political change, which can be addressed only by political parties or by political and social movements.

 BJP govt has attacked right to freedom of expression since it came to power, alleges RTI activist Aruna Roy

Aruna Roy at a protest. Image courtesy: Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS)

At the heart of MKSS' story, is the idea of peaceful protest. The state now possesses more tools than ever to suppress or distract from protests. How then, can they still be effective? Is it the long fight, the patience? Does anything need to change?

Peaceful protest has an educational role, and because of its slower pace allows the rest of society to listen, absorb and travel along. What actually needs to change is the present governments artful and crafty blocking of all rights to self expression which includes aspects of protest. All kinds of preventive methods to stall protest have been strengthened and entrenched, either through government orders, or through allowing violence to intimidate and oppress, suppress and attack peaceful protests. There has to be a concerted and persistent citizen mobilisation against the curbing of freedoms.

The strongest democratic method to mend the arbitrariness of governance that people have is peaceful protest. The streets have remained our Parliament and our theatre. Cutting off constitutional protected spaces of peaceful protest, dissent and self-expression only leads to a vicious cycle of violence and counter violence. Violent protest unleashes the merciless violence of the state.

What we need to concentrate on now is the protection of spaces of protest, guaranteed through freedom of expression under Article 19 of the Constitution. The MKSS is fighting a case in the Supreme Court challenging the excessive and arbitrary use of Section 144 of the IPC by the State to cut off all spaces for protest. Even the inadequate Jantar Mantar has now been taken away.

Freedom of expression is the fountainhead of the peoples’ right to know, and the expression of protest and dissent. This government has attacked the right to freedom of expression, in its plurality from the moment it came to power. Civil disobedience and lawful protest is a process of continuing attrition against the misuse of power. It is at the core of civic action, so important for the health of the polity. A process has begun in India. The ground swell will soon occur.

Of the book’s many narratives, almost all point to the power of the written word – of course the newspapers were stronger then. What have these writings/poems/songs meant for the movement? How inventive did you have to be?

Communication with people is critical in the articulation and shaping of a discourse for change. The movement relied on the oral transfer of knowledge and information — songs, theatre and speeches which allowed for creativity and inventiveness. The creators of songs were often illiterate. That is why their contribution needed to be put together along with the writings of the unseen and unheard. There is also an important role small newspapers have played. They have been vital keepers of records and therefore of local history, through their reporting on events.

Culture plays a critical role in the communication of ideas. The Ghotala rath, with the corrupt neta on top of a pushcart, connected with people through lampooning contemporary political gimmicks. The message was absorbed with immediacy, drawing the people into the campaign. Songs that “went viral” have engaged with issues in an idiom that people understood. The lyrics were composed often by illiterate,but creative singers. The records, and writings have helped support the oral narrative with veracity and it has authenticated their stories.

A Ghotala Yatra being taken out. Image courtesy: Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS)

A Ghotala Yatra being taken out. Image courtesy: Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS)

Taking that thought further, what do you owe to the media, if anything, for the success of years of toil? In what must be a glaring contrast to the media of yesteryear, what do you think the role of the media should be? What according to you is its state today?

The RTI movement must acknowledge the extremely important role played by four senior journalists – Nikhil Chakravarthy, Ajit Bhattacharjee, Prabhash Joshi and Kuldeep Nayyar in unequivocally participating in, and supporting the movement in its nascent stages. Their participation grew from a political understanding that this was an issue that had serious and fundamental potential to transform Indian democracy. These veteran journalists continued to emphasise that the RTI was a peoples movement that concerned all citizens, but information was a lifeline for the journalist community. They encouraged and persuaded the media to not merely be neutral observers but to adopt it as their own struggle.

There was also an important role played by the local media who came and reported, from neighbouring towns. Friends who wrote for larger circulated dailies and magazines were attracted to both the struggle, and the work unfolding in Devdungri and the MKSS. The earliest to write were Rajni Bakshi, Bharat Dogra and Jeremy Seabrook. Later, the Jaipur and Delhi media, carried stories from rural Rajasthan in their publications. Their stories played an important role in dissemination of both ideas and news. The electronic media also made a significant and critical contribution. NDTV covered the very first dharna on the 3rd day in Beawar, putting the 40 day dharna on the national map. It was at a time when news was reported from the field rather than just discussed in talk shows.

The reporters are still interested and many of them given the opportunity would cover a range of activities. But the corporate control of the media and the change in editors to editor/owners has changed the focus of the media, and the nature of their affiliation. News is much more of a commodity, prioritising gloss over substance, and celebrities over people. That is what they think “sells”, or that is what fetches monetary investments in the newspaper and media ‘business’. The battle however continues — some individual journalists and media persons are sensitive and command great respect, even though their level of frustration is growing. Alternative media has found space in the digital world. Social movements and media, have more recently started to work together to face challenges to information and news in an era of corporate control over media. So long as that effort exists, there is hope that platforms will emerge to feed peoples’ need for real news, and the everlasting need for an independent fourth estate.

The passing of the RTI act has also spelled risk and menace to the life of those who intend to use it for welfare. Can/should RTI activists remain largely anonymous like modern day vigilante hackers? Is there an alternative?

Anonymity is not an option for the RTI activists at least in India, it would in fact make them more vulnerable, as the application can always be tracked and the petitioner attacked. The RTI talks of transparency as a ‘peoples right’ and its intent is to create confidence amongst people in dealings with government and power centres without fear.

While anonymous hackers play an important and socially relevant role in technology based operations, it is a very specialised intervention. It cannot replace the need for public platforms that sanctify debate, challenge and confrontation. Informed choices, so critical to democratic decision making can only be exercised, when critical information under wrap is disclosed and those who operate unethically exposed. It would be ironical if one had to remain anonymous to get one’s rights.

At a more practical level, the information has to be delivered to an address somewhere and the paper trail works both ways. Even the threat to such information seekers can only be overcome with the protective shield of society. It is only then that the government will act to prosecute the vested interests who think that these voices can be silenced through violence and murders.

Anonymity could potentially have its own problems for the champions of the RTI. It can be used for discrediting the information seekers by filing absurd RTI requests. Even the allegation of using RTI for “blackmailing” would reduce, if all questions and answers are put up on the web sites of departments. We need a strong whistle blowers act, that acknowledges and protects those acting on behalf of society to bring out the truth and expose wrong doing. Whistleblowers must be seen like human rights defenders.

It is tragic that more than 70 people have lost their lives. The 60-80 lakh applicants every year, and the determination of RTI users, despite the risks involved, shows that this is a movement that is alive. But transparency is not enough. We need to work towards forms of democratic accountability that will hold the ruling class responsible for their acts of omission and commission. We also need an open government policy which enables the participation of citizens in democratic governance.

The NCPRI convention in Beawar. Image courtesy: Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS)

The NCPRI convention in Beawar. Image courtesy: Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS)

Does the state, regardless of what party is in power, see the RTI as a thorn to their eye? In such a scenario, how does one fully harness the potential of the RTI act – is it largely down to individual will as well?

All political parties reacted unanimously in protesting against their inclusion under the RTI. The CIC decided in favour of disclosure but the case stands in limbo, with the political parties in open violation of the orders of the CIC. The political parties have neither appealed against that order, nor are they implementing the decision of the CIC.

But some parties are worse than others. The BJP came to power promising a number of more powerful laws for transparency and political accountability. Four years later, they have undermined the Information Commission through delayed appointments reluctantly made. They have refused to notify the whistleblower and Lokpal laws. In fact they have tried to amend and weaken them.

Recently, they forced through legislation on electoral bonds enabling and mandating absolute opaqueness — about where, how much, and who gives money to political parties through these bonds. Another set of amendments were brought in with retrospective effect, on the definition of a foreign company, bringing India’s fragile democracy, under more threat than we realise. The decisions of parliament are out for the biggest bidder. Even if the vote is not bought, the party and elected representative will be, and the RTI will not be able to help us prove this hijack, and fight against it.

However, the battle is still on. The democratic polity of people as citizens, civil society members, activists, scholars, media and a host of other categories have already started multiple campaigns to fight the ingrained colonial and oppressive mechanisms that exist. There is much greater understanding amongst the highly decentralised RTI applicants to demand democratic engagement. People have begun to take interest in governing themselves, and being part of the decision-making process. It is these small and large groups and the individuals together that constitute society.

The RTI act stands apart as perhaps the most liberating, single-most democratising act since independence, at least in principle. All these years later, how does it make you, the MKSS and everyone associated with the movement,feel?

We felt extremely privileged to have been a part of the beginning of this movement, that had and has so much to celebrate. As with all people’s movements, the sum is of course always greater than any of its parts. It has left us with hope, that people can come together to bring about change with ethics and understanding.

New challenges and responsibilities keep arising. The state is making a shield of opaqueness — invoking secrecy ostensibly for security; surveillance has come disguised as digital governance; data is now information to be “mined”. In sharp contrast the RTI movement has defined and shaped information to be used by people in the pursuit of knowledge and ethics; to fight corruption, and the arbitrary use of power. We now need to connect it to democracy, enabling platforms and methods to take participation beyond just an idea. The words of a lawyer who came to the Beawar dharna in 1996 remind us of the impossible happening: "You will never win this battle. You are asking a rotten system to take its heart out, it will never happen. But keep trying…." But the impossible did happen.

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Updated Date: Apr 23, 2018 14:32:15 IST