IN AN AGE of information explosion and demand for transparency in the functioning of various institutions, the country is seeing an increasing trend where attempts are being made by these institutions to put a lid over their functioning. Of course governments always like to restrict information but now it is the institutions, which are supposed to be transparent in their functioning and expect others to be transparent, are themselves turning opaque.
The latest incident involves the functioning of the Election Commission of India. Its role and decisions in the recent past have been coming under a cloud of suspicion. It is the same Election Commission which at one time was feared by all shades of politicians and its decisions were not questioned by anyone.
During the just concluded general elections, some of the decisions appear to be biased. It delayed taking action and ignored some of the obviously objectionable statements made by certain leaders, particularly prime minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah. It was only after a Supreme Court pulled it up that it initiated some action but even then ignored some highly provocative statements.
Yet it kept a lid on the dissenting note while taking such decisions. It is now well known that one of the Election Commissioners, Ashok Lavasa, a former Haryana cadre IAS officer known for his integrity and efficiency, had opposed some of the decisions taken by the three member commission. However the Commission has not been recording his dissent and gave the impression that the decisions were unanimous. Lavasa insisted that at least his dissent be recorded. However the other two members of the Commission did not agree and rejected his contention by a majority decision.
Institutions, which are supposed to be transparent in their functioning and expect others to be transparent, are themselves turning opaque.
This rule framed by the Commission is questionable. Even in Supreme Court and High Courts, the dissenting judgements are recorded even if the views of the majority of judges on any bench prevail. All that Lavasa was wanting his dissent to be recorded but it was not allowed.
Talking of Supreme Court, its stand in the case relating to a former staffer accusing Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment, also lacks transparency. The highest court itself did not follow proper procedures. What is of extreme concern is that while the committee of senior judges constituted to look into her complaint rejected her claims, it has refused to give a copy of its findings to the complainant.
The courts have themselves stated in numerous judgments that the complainant has the right to be informed about the arguments and findings of any proceedings so that further action, if required, could be taken. It is mandatory to provide copies of judgment to the complainant and the accused.
Certainly it was not an ordinary case of sexual harassment and there could be much more to it as indicated by Justice Gogoi himself, yet it was all the more important that the judiciary should have come clean on the issue. Even if it was a conspiracy, the court could have exposed it but brushing the issue under the carpet has done no good to the reputation of the highest court of the land.
The same lack of transparency is increasingly seen in other spheres of public life. This is despite the Right to Information, a truly landmark initiative, which was aimed to bring transparency in the functioning of government and its various institutions. However efforts are being made by the government as well as these institutions to circumvent the law and hide information by delaying response or giving vague responses. This tendency must be curbed and citizens must be given access to all the information which impacts their lives.
While it is understood that nation’s security and safety comes first and that certain organisations like the armed forces need to maintain secrecy, there is no reason that institutions like the Election Commission or Supreme Court put a cover on their functioning. The spirit behind the Right to Information must be respected and guarded.
(The author, a freelance journalist, is a former Resident Editor of Indian Express, Chandigarh, and reported on the political developments in Jammu and Kashmir, North-Eastern India, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab in his long, illustrious career.)
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