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Was minister not aware of what was being amended in whistleblowers Bill?

By Venkatesh Nayak*
One silver lining in the dark cloud that was the debate on the amendments to the Whistleblowers Protection Act (WPA), passed in the Lok Sabha on May 13, 2015, was the frequent mention made of the power of the right to information (RTI) and the numerous attacks on RTI users. Several MPs cutting across party lines made these salutary references. Even the Minister of State for Personnel, who was piloting the Amendment Bill, justified the amendments as being necessary to further the cause of transparency and accountability and protection of persons combating against corruption, though he did not mention how curtailing the scope of whistleblowing by 90 per cent would help those very public causes.
The National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) was referred to by one MP in the context of the attacks on and murders of RTI users. One National Democratic Alliance (NDA) MP from Maharashtra used the my article (click HERE to read) I forwarded a couple of days ago analyzing the amendment proposals which had reference to “ASATYAMEVA JAYATE” extensively in his speech. Coming from the treasury benches, this was a big surprise as he unequivocally said, he supported the Amendment Bill in his opening remarks. I am not sure if the Government will take the concerns he has raised seriously and further amend the Bill. I thank RTI activist Anil Halagali for briefing the MP well in time for the debate.

Some ‘gems’ from the reply given by the Minister during the debate on the WBP Amendment Bill:

“There has been a reference to a number of whistleblowers, who sacrificed their lives. The nation owes to them; all of us owe to them, whether we sit this side or that side. I have no hesitation or embarrassment to confess that maybe the series of names which were mentioned in this House on both the sides have actually promoted us to go ahead with the urgency, as was being said that some ‘xyz’ got killed during Prime Minister, Mr Vajpayee’s time. Yes, in the journey of a nation and the working of the Parliament issues arise every day; sometimes it is onion price, sometimes it is somebody’s unwarranted death, and we are entitled to get inspired and promoted to act on that.”The ‘xyz’ are whistleblowers like Satyendra Dubey who was murdered when the NDA was in power and S Manjunath who was killed when the UPA was in power. Both names were mentioned by several MPs who spoke on the Bill.
“She [Kumari Sushmita Dev, MP, Assam] has also mentioned that every day in media and public domain we ask the Government to send certain Bills to Standing Committees, which are not sent. Therefore, the natural conclusion, according to her is that there is some amount of element of corruption involved. But, I would just like to bring to your notice, if you look at it rather dispassionately, sending or not sending a Bill to a Standing Committee may not be necessarily attached motives and if the motives exist, they will be other than motives that possibly you are trying to look into this. It could be for motives other than corruption or corruptibility; it could be technical or it could be based on principles or difference of ideologies or difference of opinions which we should rather welcome in a parliamentary practice.”
“You have also mentioned about going beyond the amendments which were brought in by the then Congress-led Government. I do not grudge that and I do not feel bad about that. I would rather like you to appreciate that. We were given an opportunity to revisit the Bill. We were given an opportunity to study the Bill. It is just like where you are my Headmistress and you leave a chapter half and then, you ask me ‘you read the chapter and come back tomorrow’. When I come back, I say ‘Madam, these are three or four extra points also which I have learnt.’ So, like a good student, I revisited that Bill and tried to incorporate what we thought could be more useful. So, you should rather appreciate me for that effort. If it has been done, it has been done in a healthy spirit.”
“Dr Hari [Dr Bhartruhari Mahtab, MP, Odisha] referred to Prime Minister’s authority and asked: If the Prime Minister refers a complaint and our Bill then envisages that in case it is seen to be involving disclosures of unacceptable nature or affecting the sovereignty and integrity, then would it not compromise the authority of the Prime Minister? Yes, you have read it right. We have incorporated that. I think, for that, we deserve to be appreciated. We have made it mandatory even for the Prime Minister to get clearance from the competent authority, in case a complaint is seen to be affecting the safeguards. I think, that is a step towards further transparency which has been discussed about in this House.”The reference to the Prime Minister was not made by Dr Mahtab, MP, but Mr Rahul Shewale, MP, Maharashtra.
“Kavithaji [Kavitha Kalvakuntla, MP, Telangana] has put, what shall I say, an unanswerable question. She said: “Tell me who is the victim?” It is true because it is very difficult to say. Sometimes, a victim may say that I am not a victim. If we go by subjective thing, then I may say that I am a victim, but somebody else may say that I am not a victim. But, yes, we have more objective parameters in place, and there are certain competent authorities, which would decide whether it is a victim, genuine victim or it is a frivolous victim.”The MP was demanding that the WBP Act be amended to include a definition of ‘victimisation’ as recommended by the Law Commission of India.
“As far as your concern for the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is concerned, I would not go into that because that is not directly related to the spirit of these disclosures. Of course, if a whistleblower blows the whistle and tries to make news by asking where are the Indian forces deployed across the borders, then certainly it makes a difference. So, the Armed Forces Act, considering the sensitivity of it, has been excluded from it.” Kavitha Kalvakunthla, MP had earlier said that Armed Forces and Intelligence agencies had been excluded from the WBP Act. That is not true because these forces were brought in by the UPA Government after the Parliamentary Standing Committee recommended their inclusion. The WBP Amendment Bill actually drops the phrase “armed forces” from the exclusion clause contained in Section 2 and keeps only the Special Protection Group out of the ambit of the law. All armed forces are included in the WBP Act. It looks like the Minister was either not fully aware of what was being amended in the Bill, or he had been badly briefed by his bureaucrats or he made a mistake in the rush to get the Bill passed by the House. In any case nowhere in her speech did this MP mention AFSPA.
“Therefore, through Speaker Madam, I would request all the Members of the august House that I think that the Bill is in right spirit. It is not at conflict with what is being felt and desired by all the sections of the House, and it will be in the fitness of things and I think that it will be a tribute to all the martyrs who laid down their lives for this whistle-blow crusade that we pass it unanimously. Thank you, Madam.”
***
I leave it to the readers to draw their own conclusions about the ideas that the NDA government has for protecting whistleblowers and creating a safe and effective mechanism for whistleblowing. Readers might like to go through the verbatim report of the debates at this link on the Lok Sabha website (click HERE, May 13, 2015, 3pm onwards).
Whistleblower protection advocates have their task cut out – this must be done in the next two months. I request readers to send copies of whistleblower complaints they may have submitted to any authority across India till date including the outcomes of such complaints, if any. This will help in showing the Elders (MPs) in the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) how regressive the amendments are. They must start talking to MPs about cases of attacks on RTI users, anti-corruption crusaders, whistleblowing bureaucrats, social justice crusaders who are harassed by the administration or vested interests.

*Programme Coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi

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