A nation state which aspires to be a national security state and a democracy is a peculiar and a paradoxical entity. It is caught between the contradictions of security and transparency.
Transparency demands an openness to ideas, an ease with difference, an ability to withstand gossip masquerading as gospel. One has to live with the understanding that facts rarely exist uncontaminated in history. Transparency allows for disorder while security is almost paranoid about order, often demanding a cordon sanitaire around truth as an official construct. Both debates on history and transparency can ooze melodrama when the two worlds clash.
A wonderful in fact, fascinating example of this case is Information Commissioner Madabhushanam Sridhar Acharyulu’s recent directive that the statement of Nathuram Godse and the relevant records of the Gandhi assassination trial be proactively disclosed and made available on the website of the National Archives. Acharyulu added a set of footnotes, commenting one could disagree with Godse, but that disagreement was not grounds to refuse disclosure.
Two events converge here to create an interesting fable of politics. The first is the Right to Information Act and its creative possibilities, and the second is the folklore around the Gandhi assassination.
The psychologist Ashis Nandy in a fascinating series of lectures has captured much of the folklore around the assassination. He evoked the time of Partition where many Hindus felt that the Gandhian quest was futile and quixotic and that Gandhi was responsible for destroying their lives. Nandy, in a footnote, cited that one indicator of Godse’s popularity is the corpus that was collected by the committee set up to defend the assassins.
Nandy quoted Madan Lal Pahwa, one of Godse’s colleagues, as claiming that Rs 3,00,000 to Rs 4,00,000 was raised. Many among the public felt that Godse had performed “a duty”. The records pertaining to Gandhi’s assassination have been closed and we can only speculate about the reasons: Was it because it was officially felt (1) that it would tarnish Gandhi’s reputation or (2) because it would disclose the level of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s involvement in the event? Either way, the event thrived on folklore and gossip creating a ganglion of suspicions around it.
Oath of transparency
Acharyulu is an independent man proud of his vocation as information commissioner. During his eventful tenure, which involved his ruling over access to Modi’s and Smriti Irani’s alleged educational records, he formulated a set of simple principles, almost rustic in their transparency, a bit like Benjamin Franklin’s dictums. Let me summarise them to capture their quality. Simply put, he has argued that doubt is cleared through proper disclosure. He adds that authentic information is always preferred to “official” information. In a democracy, education and argument should be prioritised over compulsion. He claimed in a secular, everyday way that a minister is not a special kind of man, but a functionary and is subject to the Constitution. In fact, he felt in a proactive sense that the oath of secrecy was passé and what ministers need is an oath of transparency, which fine tunes them for the constitution and democracy.
Acharyulu’s career embodies his philosophy and it should be welcomed. In fact, his open, everyday democratic sense of the Right to Information could lay to rest a whole epidemic of unnecessary controversies and in fact, show that security plays the role that sexuality did a few decades ago. Only, instead of the individual, it is the state that wears the corset. The very matter of factness of Acharyulu shows that security is a Stakhonovite, overworked term which protects the state from critique. Gandhi would be happy that even his assassination worked eventually to widen the democratic imagination. The citizen cannot ask for more in an era which has produced prize paranoids like Narendra Modi and Donald Trump.
Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.