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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 19, May 1, 2010

Prabhash Joshi and the RTI Movement

Saturday 1 May 2010, by Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, Shankar Singh

TRIBUTE

On May 5 it will be six months since Prabhat Joshi left us. Remembering that towering figure in the field of journalism on this occasion, we are carrying the following tribute which brings out yet another facet of his personality. It was written quite sometime ago but could not be published earlier due to unavoidable reasons.

Prabhash Joshi was one of the most important journalists and thinkers of our times. He was also one of the most controversial. He was a journalist who did not follow current journalist principles—in India’s challenged democracy—he defined them. Committed, caring, eclectic, traditional, unconventional, unpredictable, and, above all, honest with his thoughts and ideas—Prabhashji was a colossus in Indian journalism, and a leading intellectual who believed in the crucial ingredient of integrity in journalism and political activism for a healthy Democracy.

For Prabhashji, the Right to Information movement was the basis of journalism, the lifeblood of democracy, and a live example of the potential of people’s movements in India. From his first contact with the people’s struggle for information in Rajasthan, he saw it as his own issue, and our close association with him, and his sharp and seminal vision, grew organically with the movement.

On the night of the April 13, 1996, Prabhashji stopped at a place called Beawar in central Rajasthan, 60 kilometres from Ajmer. He was waylaid by the MKSS in a manner of speaking, between Jodhpur and Delhi, so that we could get his ear on what had started out to be a local struggle for transparency, but was showing its potential as a very critical issue for Indian democracy. Swami Agnivesh, along with two other leading journalist intellectuals of the country—Nikhil Chakravartty and Kuldip Nayar—had already been to the dharna on April 9, 1996. The MKSS was just completing its first week of what would turn out to be a milestone forty-day dharna for the Right to Information. Prabhashji focused immediately on the fact that it was the People’s Right to Information. This was to be one of the first of many perceptions which helped shape the movement and clarified its own vision.

The MKSS had awaited for a year for the Government of Rajasthan to keep its promise to disclose bills, vouchers and muster rolls on public works in Panchayats to the wage workers in the districts of Rajsamand, Pali, Ajmer and Bhilwara. The promises of the then Chief Minister, Bhairon Singh Shekawat, to disclose Panchayat records made in several places, including the State Assembly, had remained unfulfilled. The bureaucracy dismissed these promises as “mere assurances”. The promises were made in April 1995. The MKSS pursued the matter for a year. When nothing was forthcoming, they began a dharna in Beawar on April 6, 1996. The workers occupied the triangle between the status of Swami Kumaranand (the founder of the CPI in Rajasthan), Gandhiji, and some distance away from the gate erected by the British Army, in front of the busy marketplace at Chang Gate, Beawar.

In Beawar that memorable day, Prabhashji pledged his support at the dharna, with a simple line—“I want to acknowledge and pay my respects to the ordinary men and women who are the real sovereigns of this country and who through this dharna and struggle are asserting their sovereign rights in a democracy.” That was all he said publicly in the nearly 24 hours he spent there—mostly listening to people at the dharna.

When he went back to Delhi he wrote an editorial in the Jan Satta, which defined the battle for the right to know in India. He called the editorial, “Hum Janenge, Hum Jiyenge”. These two words have epitomised and defined the principles and the quintessential truth of the Right to Information struggle in India. “The Right to Know—The Right to Live” became a slogan which contained its essential vision. It explained the enigma of the poor, mostly illiterate, people fighting for the right to know. Poor people using the Right to Information to establish their right to live and survive changed the RTI discourse around the world.

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Prabhashji did not stop with writing a column. It was clear to him and some of the others who had become supporters of the Beawar struggle, that the struggle for transparency and accountability could not be a small, localised campaign. He, along with Ajit Bhattacharjea, then the Director of the Press Council of India, played a crucial role in getting together prominent people to form what Prabhashji suggested be called the “National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information”.

After a broadbased consultation at the Gandhi Peace Foundation, the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) was formed in August 1996. One important objective was to fight for an effective RTI legislation at the Centre and the States. He, along with Ajit Bhattacharjea, took the matter further. They went to the Press Council and convinced Justice P.B. Sawant, the Chairperson, that it could be the mandate of the Press Council to draft a law for RTI. This was especially so, since the Press Council works to enforce ethical journalism. The demand for transparency and accountability was therefore part of its larger agenda.

The law-making process began with the Press Council taking responsibility for drafting the first official Bill for the RTI. Under the Chairmanship of Justice P.B. Sawant, more than 250 people participated in the consultations called by the Council. The Bill was drafted by a drafting Committee set up for the purpose. The official Press Council draft of the RTI was circulated to the Prime Minister and all Chief Ministers in the third quarter of 1996—just a year-and-a-half after the first protests and demonstrations for information began in Rajasthan and four months after the prolonged dharna in Beawar.

The role that Prabhashji played was crucial. Without holding any office or special responsibility, he directed the Campaign to make many of its crucial decisions. He understood many worlds—the political context, the media and its role, he knew the pressures of activism, he was always in touch with people, and he was conversant with the strengths of all these groups. He managed to liaise amongst and between the various pulls and pressures of these varied interests. Prabhsahji soon became a mentor for many of us who were unaware and unskilled in dealing with the murky areas of electoral politics, and its undercurrents. As a seasoned member of the press he chose to share his information; but was even more remarkable was his capacity to take protest, dissent and criticism very well indeed.

For us in Rajasthan, his presence and his open support, and most importantly his advocacy of the RTI movement before Chief Ministers and the political leadership, made the Campaign state its objective clearly and win many battles.

The Central law was drafted many times, with each successive government a new angle to the battle began. His role in the passage of the legislation, especially with the media, print and electronic, and the ease with which he led them to understand and struggle, will be etched in the history of the RTI Campaign. His leadership set an example for the entire media, and especially for all regional media, who espoused the cause as theirs. The innumerable times he went to meetings in small towns, where his extraordinary stature gathered large audiences, were crucial in taking the demand for the national RTI Act further. He was one of the most remarkable of the top journalists who found time to take care of every far-flung stringer and aspirant journalist. He never forgot either that India’s crucial contribution to the international understanding of the RTI was the link it had made with poor people’s lives, and the movements for justice and equality.

His last important presence was when he came to Bhilwara in October to stand firm in the public domain and state in his inimitable way that there could be no compromise with transparency and accountability in the direct political process in a democracy.

The Campaign has lost a pillar, one of its creators, and a strongly ethical voice. The nation has lost one of its most honest and committed sons, who was fearless enough to talk truth to the people in power, regardless of the consequences. We have lost a comrade, a friend, the strength he gave us, the compassion, humour and the lightness with which he faced and resolved the most difficult of problems. But the lamp he lit of courage and the fierce determination to fight for the people on the margins, will take us all forward.

The authors are all leading figures in the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in Rajasthan and prominent activists in the movement for the Right to Information (RTI) that is being spearheaded by the MKSS. They can be contacted at e-mail: mkssrajasthan@gmail.com

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