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A RECENT plea by leading activists of the National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information about the contradictory trends in our struggle for accountability and transparency makes for depressing reading. To briefly recap, the national campaign traces its genesis to a two decade old struggle by the MKSS, a movement of poor, rural landless labourers and farmers in Rajasthan for access to the muster rolls in famine relief and employment works to nail the official lie regarding payment of minimum wages.

Subsequently, the movement expanded to cover the development works by panchayats through the innovative strategy of jan sunwayis. This movement elicited wide support, both from those directly affected by corruption in official works as also a wide spectrum of civil society, even affecting the electoral fortunes of many seeking panchayat and zilla parishad offices. Many states were finally forced to legislate a Right to Information Bill and appropriate all India legislation is awaiting central approval.

The ‘success’ of many local struggles around transparency and accountability emboldened civic associations and movements to access and use ‘official data’ to put pressure on public agencies – be it in the struggles over the dams on the Narmada or in exposing official complicity in the recent Gujarat carnage, among others, even managing some progress in forcing all those seeking electoral office to share prior details about their economic assets and criminal record.

Not unexpectedly, none of this has been easy. Not only have different governments (both at the centre and states) tried hard to bring in ‘flawed’ legislations leaving wide spaces for official discretion about what to share and how, recent years have also witnessed a range of restrictive legislations to control dissent, the anti-terrorist POTA being a case in point. Simultaneously, additional curbs have been placed on the functioning of NGOs, academic bodies and independent institutions.

Most distressing, however, has been a systematic and pernicious disinformation and campaign of calumny targeting leading voices of dissent. Be it Tarun Tejpal and his associates in Tehelka, Arundhati Roy being pulled up for contempt of court, Sandeep Pandey charged with fomenting communal discord, or Harsh Mander accused of being anti-Hindu. The list can easily be expanded.

Most recently, historian Romila Thapar (incidentally one of the trustees of Seminar) has been subjected to a vicious hate campaign on being awarded the first Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South at the US Library of Congress. Thapar has of late been a target of communal and fundamentalist forces for her books which advance a ‘secular’ reading of India’s past. Disagreement with her academic/historical work is fine; alternative readings of history are always welcome and need encouragement. Calling names and questioning personal integrity in an unseemly manner reminiscent of McCarthyist witch-hunts is something else. Rarely do these ideological warriors (and their political masters) realise the damage they are inflicting on our fragile institutional structures and processes in demanding that only one view prevail.

The issue, however, is somewhat more serious than which side we choose in the current ideological divide. Nor can we get away by arguing that all we are doing now is what was done to us in the past when the ‘other’ side was in power – a popular formulation when discussing history texts and institutions. True, that many of the erstwhile socialist regimes or dictatorships indulged in systematic witch-hunts. For us, the challenge lies in understanding how even liberal democracies which uphold freedom of expression enforce conformism and discipline dissent – claiming recourse to a national good or correcting past historical wrongs.

Irresponsible name calling is no longer the prerogative of one set of individuals, institutions or ideological camps. Even NGOs and social movements associated with progressive causes are often overly reticent in sharing details about themselves, in particular funding sources and organisational linkages. So far, only one national NGO, the SWRC Tilonia has held a jan sunwayi on itself.

The choice between competing claims in a climate characterized by intense competition over public legitimacy, more so when those being asked to judge may lack both information and expertise, cannot but be contentious. But surely, there is little need to cross the bounds of civility and instead work towards instilling common norms of interrogation. Why not subject oneself to the same rules and processes that we demand of the other. Then might we have dissent that contributes to diversity and pluralism, preconditions for freedom, and not chaos and calumny.

Harsh Sethi

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