An RTI salute to Kuldip Nayar

In recent interactions, he said that the RTI movement must take on the threat of fascism by making sure that access to information, democracy and human rights go hand in hand

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media

Nikhil Dey with MKSS

On April 16, 2018, Kuldip Nayar (Kuldipji as we called him) launched the book “The RTI Story” at the Gandhi Peace Foundation (GPF), and a few days later at the India International Centre (IIC) in Delhi. For the many veterans of the RTI movement in Delhi, the book launch was an opportunity to share moments and feelings of nostalgia; to celebrate 22 years (and more) of a dynamic and growing people’s movement that has helped change many things in India for the better; and for the coming together of so many people who had contributed so much to the issue and the movement.

Kuldip ji had to be there for many reasons – not least of which was his active involvement from the time when the RTI began its transformation from a local struggle, to a national campaign and movement. At 94, the senior most of the ‘veterans’ amongst us, was once again infusing his spirit in the very same place where 22 years earlier he had first made a commitment to, and joined the movement. In 1996, he was already 72, and since then, has been a ‘senior campaigner’ of the RTI movement for over two decades, demonstrating just how much (and for how long) age and experience can contribute to progressive change.

In the passing away of Kuldipji, not just journalists and writers, but also the Human Rights community and the RTI movement have lost a towering pillar of support. His contribution to the RTI movement is perhaps the lesser known of his many contributions as a journalist, a writer and an activist: to human rights, secularism, South Asian peace, resistance to authoritarianism, and commitment to a truly democratic India. This is to acknowledge and pay tribute to his contribution to the RTI.

In recent conversations, and at the book launches in April, he spoke of the undeclared emergency, and said that the RTI movement must take on the threat of fascism by making sure that access to information, democracy and human rights go hand in hand. If the RTI movement nurtures that vision, Kuldipji’s spirit will live on, through us and our efforts.

On a hot day in late March of 1996, looking to build support for a fledgling Right to Information movement in Rajasthan, Aruna (Roy) and I had come to Gandhi Peace Foundation for a meeting where someone had told us “please come, you will find many people you can talk to about your upcoming Dharna in Beawar.” There were many people we talked to that morning, but our short journey to the table where Kuldipji and Nikhilda (Chakravarthy) were talking to a few others, proved to be the beginning of a long journey with the two of them.

We showed them a few papers related to our demands for records and information, and the entrenched resistance that had built up to the demand for information. We told them the story that was unfolding in the villages of central Rajasthan, where extremely poor and marginalised workers and peasants in the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) had made a strategic shift, and decided to ask for information and records of muster rolls, while fighting for minimum wages. They had understood, that records would help them prove that they were not “Kaam-chors” but were honest workers who were being cheated and exploited by the real thieves whose misdeeds were hidden in the records.

Kuldeepji and Nikhilda listened carefully to the story, and told us that they were delighted that ordinary people had decided to ask for right to information. They said that this was a battle that they were very interested in as journalists and citizens, and they would support us in our struggle. When we told them that we were planning an indefinite dharna in the large town of Beawar; even without being able to properly pinpoint where it was, they promptly said – “We will come”!

Aruna and I were not sure if they would come, but indeed they did. We still have a recording of the meeting where they spoke, not just to the few hundred who were on dharna, but also to the town of Beawar. They spoke of the importance of what they called the “big” struggle taking place in a relatively small place. They spoke to the journalists, as mentors, and veteran journalist editors, and strongly suggested that this was not a battle to be merely reported on, but a campaign to be joined.

They spoke to all those who were on dharna, telling them that they had come all the way from Delhi to extend their support to them. They spoke to us as well, before they left, telling us that this was as important as any battle we could fight. Nikhil Chakravarty said that he had reported on the “small meetings” that Gandhiji held, exposing the loot of India by the British. The RTI had the same role to play in exposing the lies and machinations of our home grown leadership against our own people. Kuldipji spoke of his resistance to the emergency, and the importance of bringing truth to the people – no matter what ‘power’ may say.

When they left on the evening of April 10, 1996, we understood that we had made a transition from being enveloped by the immediate ups and downs of the intensity of protests and struggles, into an understanding that this was a long haul about fundamental issues. We were made to realise that the battle, we were fighting, was even more important than we had felt it was. And as a result, we started working simultaneously at two levels – the immediate battles, and addressing the complex process of transformatory change.

Kuldeepji told us that he would talk to the Chief Minister who was a friend of his, and he was sure our immediate demand of records of development expenditure would be conceded. Nikhilda was far more sceptical. He told us that this is a struggle that will have to last not for days and months but for years, and even then success will not be guaranteed. However, he told us we must keep at it, and in whatever way that he could join and support us, he would. Prabhash Joshi also visited the dharna in its initial days, and along with Ajit Bhattacharjee, completed a quartet of senior journalists who became the moral authority of The Right to Information movement. They insisted that the National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) be formed. They insisted that we come to Delhi to convert a state issue into a national issue. They insisted on us meeting lawyers, politicians, judges, public intellectuals, and other activists, and said that this was an issue that had to be fought on the streets, with multiple echoes in the corridors of power. They wrote, they acted, and they were a part of the RTI movement for all the remaining years that they lived.

While writing a blurb for the book - the RTI story, Kuldipji wrote, “I have watched with enthusiasm the growth of a people’s movement from the streets of Beawar, to the State Legislature, and the halls of Parliament and beyond. It is an example of how ordinary people can be empowered by Law to be the sovereign of democratic India… I see myself as one member of this powerful movement”.

Kuldipji’s association with the RTI movement continued after Beawar, and he came several times during the long struggle. He began by telling us that he would speak to the Chief Minister, Shri Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, and after getting a positive response from the Chief Minister he said he was sure that our RTI demands would be granted very soon.

He did not share our scepticism about the “assurances” given by the incumbent Chief Minister of Rajasthan. He felt that he knew the Chief Minister, as they had spent time together in jail during Emergency. He also felt that Bhairon Singhji was proud of, and committed to the Rajput tradition of not reneging on an assurance!

Kuldeepji never went back on his word. He came every time we held a protest, and multiple times during the long ones. As it became clear that the Chief Minister was saying one thing and doing quite another, he became determined and angry. The breaking point came one year later, during a dharna that lasted 54 days at the statue circle in Jaipur. Kuldeepji had told us that he will come and join our protest if his friend, the Chief Minister, did not deliver on his promise.

After meeting the Chief Minister in the morning he arrived in Jaipur, he came to the statue circle, asked for a black band, and said let us begin our ‘Kala Diwas’ to mark the repeated breaking of a promise by the Chief Minister of Rajasthan. Soon after, he was witness to the evolution of the “Ghotala Rath Yatra” which lampooned the Rath Yatra of LK Advani supposedly to remove “bhay”, “bhook” and “bhrashtachar” while his party’s government was not willing to provide people with right to information. Kuldipji went back to Delhi, and wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, and an article explaining why he felt his “friend” Bhairon Singh Shekhawat was not enacting The Right to Information - because he clearly had lots to hide. He demanded that a CBI enquiry be held into the development works of the state of Rajasthan.

This was a huge step to be taken by a journalist; in which many connections and contacts would have been adversely affected. However, it came out of a deep conviction about what he had seen, and what he had to stand by. His ethical support gave us more strength than can be understood or believed.

Later on, Kuldipji became a member of the Rajya Sabha and was a part of the standing committee that examined the Freedom of Information Bill. He asked us for inputs, and made submissions based on all that we had given and shown him. He generously offered the use of his Member of Parliament house on Lodhi Road, in Lutyens Delhi to campaign for right to information in Delhi. He would smile, with happy curiosity when he got daily briefings of the reaction in the neighbourhood, when the Ghotala Rath Yatra hand cart rolled out of his house with chants and bhajans of “Ghotala Raj ki jaya jaya bolo, bhrashtachar kar hari hari bolo”.

He inaugurated the second national convention on the People’s Right to Information in Delhi University in 2005 just before the RTI Act was passed. He stood alongside a range of courageous people who had started using the state laws and made powerful connections between human rights and the right to information. It was his constant endeavour to make us see the connections between Right to Information and human rights. His discussions also helped establish connections between economic, political and social rights. He connected the need for transparency with the need to fight communalism, parochialism and for a far more inclusive India.

In recent conversations, and at the book launches in April, he spoke of the undeclared emergency, and said that the RTI movement must take on the threat of fascism by making sure that access to information, democracy and human rights go hand in hand. If the RTI movement nurtures that vision, Kuldipji’s spirit will live on, through us and our efforts.

(The writer is a noted social activist)

This article first appeared on National Herald on Sunday

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