Sentencing of RTI activist Nikhil Dey exposes the travails of idealism and activism in India

A social scientist, as witness and analyst, often confronts the fact that progress and irony blend together in Indian democracy. As spectators and citizens, we have witnessed major institutional reforms and yet watched with distress when the mentality required to energise these reforms lags years behind.

In that sense, one of the greatest achievements of modern Indian democracy is the passing of the RTI Bill. Yet one of its greatest ironies have been the sentencing of Nikhil Dey for pushing through the same ideas. Most papers gave the sentencing of Nikhil Dey a few lines. They probably saw it as non-news referring to a case which was 19 years old.

It is true that as cynics say a week might be a long time in politics, but in law, 19 years, given the gestation period of our cases, might sound like yesterday.

Poignancy

The poignancy of the news and the surprise and consternation it caused was manifold. First, it dealt with a case that had almost been forgotten. Second, it deals unfairly with a man who was one of the main protagonists behind the RTI Bill.

Nikhil Dey is probably the most civilised activist in India. Gentle, a perfect listener, ready to see the humour in any situation, Dey lacks a sense of hysteria, rhetoric or ideological fundamentalism which we associate with many activists today. His gentleness is deceptive because his commitment to democracy and to truth is rigorously impressive.

To accuse such a person of violence and assault is not only surreal but also creates a sense of hypocrisy as a response around the RTI cases. The facts of the case are simple. Remember today we take RTI for granted, proud of it as a fact of life, grateful that such a guarantee exists for the Indian citizen.

But go back 19 years and imagine the situation on May 6, 1998, Dey and six other activists confronted a local sarpanch. As a community they wanted clarity and information about the sarpanch’s activities. The sarpanch, who ironically yet predictably turns out to be the local liquor contractor, had a whole string of allegations confronting him.

dey_061617022324.jpgIt took Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and MKSS decades of struggle to make RTI part of the letter and even the spirit of the law.

These included the usual cases of corruption and inefficiency, including labour payments for development activities, payments for toilets, and Indira Awas houses. Since the office of sarpanch was predictably closed during working hours, the activists visited him at home. The sarpanch and his cohorts assaulted the group.

The case is classic because RTI as a ritual involves talking truth to power and extracting truth from power. Even more impressive is the rituals of dialogue, and persuasion the activists adhere to. They adhere to all the norms and rules of dialogue and display a patience, an openness which is classic.

Despite the assault, Dey decides not to file an FIR or indulge in force, because the spirit of RTI demanded it.

Strange

It was a strange case of a gentleman activist confronting a corrupt sarpanch committed to bully boy tactics, convinced of power of might over the right to information. The case is typical of how entrenched power at the local level reacted to citizens seeking a normative frame of accountability.

The sarpanch retaliates by filing a string of false cases against the activists. His contempt for them is also obvious in the slurs he casts against the woman present. It is a typical act of sarpanch machismo against the gentle but insistent demands of activists pursuing a vision of RTI.

I confess 19 years ago RTI must have sounded like a vision from Mars. It took Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) decades of struggle to make it part of the letter and even the spirit of the law.

Today when RTI is almost every day in its impact, the old cases come back like a bad dream. Oddly, the case was closed on June 30, 1998, and strangely reviewed in 2001. It is a clear case that the powerful neither forget nor forgive those who assert their democratic rights.

The sarpanch, out of his magic hat of corruption, produces a string of false witnesses and the case drags for two decades. The Damocles Sword of revenge and corruption is something activists have to be perpetually sensitive and alert to.

Verdict

The verdict is devastating, even ironic, returning to plague MKSS. The perpetrator of violence pretends to be victim and, worse, wins a verdict. The sentence has been suspended, pending an appeal by four activists in the court of Kisenganj. The case becomes a Kafkaesque fable of the travails of idealism and activism in India.

Power, especially local power, never seems to forget or forgive an act of resistance or affrontery. Worse as a resident group, it has the resources to fight battles for long periods of time, realising that goodness has its limits, boundaries beyond which it cannot go, norms of decency it has internalised and which it will uphold at all cost.

Nikhil Dey and Aruna Roy are exemplars of such a way of politics. They also represent the stamina and the quiet courage of the MKSS as it battles local forces of authoritarianism and corruption. Their track record is impressive but one can sense their desperation and despair as their struggle almost becomes a ceaseless epic.

I think it is time civil society across India responds to the implications of such a case.

First, one is astonished at the meek way in which media reports it as if the case was from yesterday’s newspaper. One needs publicity and storytelling for while the law unravels its viscous self, democracy at least asserts its faith and pride in the integrity of these activists and the remarkable life-giving institutions they have introduced.

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