Dubey may yet inspire Indian whistleblowers
After all, Satyendra Dubey may not have died in vain. His death was neither the first, nor will be the last that vested interests will perpetrate, but Dubey's death uniquely galvanised nation-wide protest. That he was an alumnus of IIT mattered. IIT-ians across the world demanded action. Now at last, India has taken the first tentative step towards a full-fledged law to protect whistleblowers.
There is no occasion to celebrate any political sagacity or remorse that might have caused this development. It did not. The government –one with those around the world– had to be dragged every inch of the way by angry public opinion. The Supreme Court did considerable prodding. The Hon'ble Court was acting on two public interest litigations seeking a permanent mechanism to protect whistleblowers.
Finally on April 21, the Ministry of Personnel issued a notification granting immunity to all employees of the government except those in armed and intelligence services. For the moment, the protector of whistleblowers will be the statutory office of the Central Vigilance Commissioner. He is vested with the responsibility of protecting the identity of informants, follow-up on information received, investigate if thought fit, and initiate criminal proceedings if required. Once the on-going general elections are over, the new government is expected to apply its mind in framing a bill to supercede the current notification. A robust law is however, some years away.
India is about to join an elite club of just four democracies [USA, UK, Australia and New Zealand] which have whistleblower protection. These democracies have not had these laws in place for too long. The US had its law in place only in 1989 and the other countries have followed after that.
K Ashok Vardhan Shetty has written a fine review [in the Hindu] of the role whistleblowers have played in improving transparency in governments. He suggests that Daniel Ellsberg of the USA would easily be the patron saint of modern day whistleblowers. In 1971, Ellsberg released the so-called Pentagon Papers that blew the cover of successive US governments that went about creating the mess called the Vietnam War. Ellsberg was a war veteran and later as an analyst at Rand Corporation had access to sensitive, classified documents. Stung by his conscience Ellsberg leaked these to the public.
He had to pay a heavy price, recounts Shetty: "The U.S. Government responded by prosecuting Ellsberg on 12 charges, leading to a total sentence of 115 years if convicted. That was not all. The dirty tricks department at the Nixon White House launched a smear campaign against Ellsberg; engaged the Watergate burglars to break into his psychiatrist's office in the hope of finding something defamatory; tapped his telephones; engaged thugs to physically attack him; and tried to influence the trial judge with the offer of the post of FBI Director. When these plots were exposed, the judge had to abandon the trial and acquit Ellsberg. Nixon's machinations against Ellsberg formed the basis of two of the three articles of impeachment against him."
The purpose of this rather long-winded narration of what happened to Ellsberg, is to give heart to Indians. All this happened just some 30 years ago in a USA that today stands on high moral ground and lectures the world. A 50 year-old Indian democracy need not despair too much. There is already a right to information law in place. Between that, and an emerging whistleblower law, citizens may hope for greater accountability and better governance in India.
Shetty in his fine article says both laws work best in tandem. He says that with the right to information act, 'Users would have to specify what they wanted to know. But where there is no reason to suspect that something is amiss, no one may bother to ask.' But whistleblowers could pre-empt disasters. He says,'Without whistleblowers, we may not get to learn about problems until it is time to mourn the consequences.' A great responsibility is therefore, about to devolve on individual Indians. We are notorious for pointing fingers, plead helplessness and acquire a collective alibi for 'us ordinary, powerless people'. Indians must now quit this hand-wringing and organise themselves into groups and enter an activist mode.
The pensive gaze on Dubey's face may not be one of satisfaction due to the fact that he was appreciatively mentioned in the government notification cited in the beginning. He may in fact be beseeching you and me to stop grumbling, complaining and start acting.