Culture, democracy and right to information in India

By Sudhanshu Tripathi

Although there are many ancient civilizations like the Babylonian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Chinese, Greek etc. to name a few, yet some of the most distinguished and unparalleled traits that are present in Bharatiya or Indian culture are not available in any other civilization in the world. These are particularly the cosmic and distinct features as regards internalizing, practicing and upholding eternal moral values and universal ideals, besides Unity in Diversity, Welfare of all, Aashram Vyavastha ie four-fold classification of human actions orPurushartha Chatushtayaetc. which underline internal as well external balance and harmony and also a sense of belongingness of all living or non-living creatures with each other on the mother Earth including the entire cosmos. In fact, both spiritand mattercontrol life and the quality of life depends on these both; but no quality is permanent and it continuously undergoes transformations towards perfection. Similarly the human life is divided into two aspects: spirit and matter – or temporal and spiritual. In fact, it is the Indian philosophy which associates each body with the eternal soul. What is perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the ancient Indian culture is its particular emphasis on knowledge or gyaan – or to know thyself – which can only liberate a individual self ie the soul, from the mundane world to get union with the Eternal Self or the Supreme Divinity or God or the Brahaman. Thus Indian culture lays emphasis on acquiring knowledge – as the highest end of human life to ensure one’s salvation. The human life, while itself demands knowledge of the temporal self and the material world so as to achieve worldly pleasures and progress on the one hand, it ultimately craves for true knowledge or the spiritual knowledge or Theology so as to realize the supreme end of this worldly existence, on the other. While the supreme end of the human life upon earth is salvation, it may possibly be accomplished in this material world with the help of understanding theology or philosophy or metaphysical discourses meant to explain the desired course towards salvation. Thus the human life is an endless journey to acquire or gain knowledge from the material world to the spiritual world – or from the worldly knowledge to spiritual knowledge – to finally attain divinity or salvation. As obvious, perhaps there exists no other such a humane and humanitarian culture in the world than that in India.

As human beings undergo this journey in the world while living on the earth which is organized in the form of states; and that is described as the best political organization or school or koinonia (in Greek) – a partnership of all best human qualities – in the unforgettable words of the great political philosopher Aristotle of ancient Greece. And out of all available political organizations, democracy is undoubtedly the best form of government, though it is indeed a way of life as well. In fact, it was very much praised as a ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people’by an ancient Greek philosopher Cleon, whose immortal words were later reiterated by a former & very famous American president Abraham Lincoln. A famous English novelist and thinker George Orwell had also eulogized democracy as ‘ours is an age of democracy’. This is so because it provides ample opportunities to all human beings to run the affairs of the state and government themselves and thus they get the opportunity to know and operate almost each and every aspect of the political organization as per their own wishes and aspirations. In fact, it is in a democracy wherein the state ensures transparency, responsibility and accountability so as to serve and protect common interests of all people by making them aware about the polity and its functioning, and that obviously allows them to know the society and also about the worldly existence. Unfortunately, these extraordinary features are unavailable in all other forms of political organizations. Thus both Indian culture and the democracy operate on the same plane and on the same wave length with the same purpose to let the people know or keep possessed with knowledge, both spiritual and temporal. Obviously the right to know about political organization lays the foundation or background upon which the ultimate goal of knowledge ie salvation rests, as propounded by Thomas Aquinas – a great Christian saint as well as the political philosopher of Italy, during middle ages.

Right to Information

It is in this respect the successful passage of the much awaited Right to Information Bill – 2005, had created a land mark in the history of Indian democracy. While this act was to ensure ‘transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority’, there by consolidating Indian democracy, its actual practice has yet not brought the desired result into fruition. Although there is no denial about “democracy” being the best form of government in the world but its long practice has proved it otherwise, particularly in India where the socio-political system is still working in a feudal – monarchic manner even after seven decades of its successful experiment with democracy. In fact, the system is arrogant, insensitive and even hostile to the desires and aspirations of the common people who are hapless lots as against privileged few as Rajas, Rajkumars, Rajkumaris, Kunwars, Nawabs etc. who still run parallel governments in their areas and grace their people (as loyal subjects) as they used to do during their sovereign rule before independence. Added to this is the unholy alliance between money and muscle power and also politicians and criminals and also terrorists, besides rampant corruption in the entire polity as well as society which are continuing unabated. Hence what is needed is a complete overhauling of the social, economic and political system. An important aspect of this process should be total decentralisation of administration providing for maximum popular participation along with clear accountability from top to the bottom. There is an urgent need to reform and update various rules and procedures including criminal procedure codes. Strengthening the criminal justice system to ensure speedy resolution of disputes is also the need of the hour. Our representatives be made accountable to us by introducing the system of recall. The Lok Pal Bill must also include the Prime Minister, ministers and senior officers within its purview. Nevertheless, these macro-reforms need to be matched by the reformist policy for ensuring that the right people are at right jobs, and they have the freedom to act without fear of reprisals. But none of the above is likely to happen to any significant degree unless people themselves become active, responsible and enlightened citizens. Hence what comes out to be most important is the requirement of transparency and accountability in administration and also in all functioning of the government. Thus, information and its smooth flow/circulation among people at every nook and corner, assumes considerable significance. Consequently ‘right to information’ becomes a sine-qua-non of a modern system of democratic governance. While information here only pertains to the material world, yet it will lay the foundation for the onward journey towards realization of the spiritual world too.

Information and knowledge

As regards information, it may be seen as a set of coherent and consistent data which are used for communication. A scholar Porat operationally defines information as ‘data that has been organized and communicated.’ Information provides knowledge which gives opportunity and capacity to exercise freedom of choice and also provides confidence and effectiveness in making of decisions. The Freedom of Information Bill, 1997 defines ‘ Information’ as “any material relating to the affairs, administration or decision of a public authority and includes any document or record relating to the affairs of public authority.” Information which is required for daily living in a society are: information of laws, services that human being make use of, the different functions of government, tax benefits, scholarships, social welfare services etc., has till recently, only been available in print, as government publications or as verbal communications from government offices and press briefings as direct written communication between state and individual. Without free access to such information, a modern society would experience great discomfort and would gradually enter chaos. In fact, the information deprived societies slide downwards into an ignorant mess or worse into excessive controlled economies. As obvious it has now become an established fact that openness and accessibility to information about government’s functioning is an essential ingredient of democracy. The hitherto traditional curtain of secrecy which had long overshadowed the activities of governments is gradually waning and this has created a salutary effect on functioning of governments in all free societies. In most of the democratic societies, the right to know is now a well established right created under law. It is a right that has evolved with the maturing of the democratic form of governance. Democracy is no longer perceived as a form of government where the participation of people is restricted merely to periodical exercise of the right to franchise, with citizens retiring into passivity between elections. It has now a more positive and dynamic content with people having a say in how and by what rules they would be governed. Meaningful participation of people in major issues affecting their lives is not a vital component of the democratic governance but such participation can hardly be effective unless people have information about the way government business is transacted. Thus democracy means choice and a sound and informed choice is possible only on the basis of knowledge which obviously has two aspects: temporal and spiritual.

As for knowledge, seeking of information is a pervasive human activity which has a large social dimension in the modern social context. We collect information through a series of sources: universities, libraries, media and now internet to increase our knowledge both for practical reasons and also for comfort. In fact, we want quality information. Evidently, knowledge is not only good for us but is an essential requirement because our very survival depends up on it. Unfortunately, prior to the present Freedom of information Bill, the Indian citizens did not have a constitutional right to freedom of Information – even if that information was linked to his or her survival. There are a plethora of laws, rules and regulations which make it impossible for the ordinary citizen to get access to basic information relating to vital areas such as health, safety and environment.

Transparency needed

All these led to realization of the importance of openness and transparency at all levels. Indeed there have been demands for greater openness and transparency in administration which had gained momentum in the past particularly by the happenings at Ajmer in Rajasthan where villagers fed up with corruption in the panchayat system, started demanding copies of bills, vouchers and muster rolls relating to expenditure incurred by the panchayats. Under the banner of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), they organised public hearings between 1994- 1995, which revealed massive loot of public money in the state and that motivated them to ensure transparency in public expenditure. The slogan they adopted was: Harmara Paise, Hamara Hisab (our money, our accounts). Motivated by the happenings in Rajasthan, a national campaign on the right to information was launched which worked with other groups and an initial draft bill for the right to information was formulated. Subsequently, the Press Council of India formulated its own bill, using the earlier bill of the campaign as a base and involving members of the national campaign committee in the drafting work. This bill was presented to the Government of India which, in turn, setup its own committee to examine the bill. The committee had come up with a report and another draft bill which incorporated many of the suggestions made in the Press Council Bill. These various draft bills were discussed across the country and recommendations for additions and amendments were sent to the government of India. Reportedly this issue received support from political parties too. A consensus also emerged in the Conference of Chief Secretaries held in November, 1996, on the need for an early enactment of the law on Right to Information. This conference also urged for incorporation of specific provision relating to transparency in the draft code of Ethics too the Civil Services and the initiatives to formulate Citizen’s Charter in various organisations under the Government. The terms of reference establishing the above mentioned Working Group formally recognised the need for legislation to affirm the right to information which had received judicial recognition in 1982. Nevertheless there is also a cogently expressed theory of government accountability in parliamentary democracy: Increasingly, the trend is towards accountability in terms of standards of performance and service delivery of public agencies to citizen’s groups they are required to serve. Such accountability is possible only when the public have access to information relating to the functioning of these agencies.


Thus transparency or openness is a primary requisite for the democratic state like India having distinguished cultural identity based upon eternal moral values and universal ideals. And that appeals to the people at large who wish to know about the polity as well as society in the temporal world and also about the ultimate purpose of life and divinity in the spiritual world. While democracy is a participative from of government in which people are expected to play an active role in their governance, their effective participation will be possible only when they have prompt and adequate access to information pertaining to the state. In fact, too much of secrecy in a government leads to arrogance and defective decision making. In a free society it is therefore very necessary to strike a balance between people’s access to information and preserving confidentiality where disclosure would be against public interest. Hence there is a close nexus between democracy and the right to information in this temporal world. Without this right no democracy can ever succeed, as the right is the hinge on which alone can democracy smoothly rotate and become dynamic and vibrant, thereby ensuring the unmatched cultural uplift and civilizational progress to revive the ancient Indian glory in the today’s world. And the successful dissemination of information shall not only ensure a meaningful right to information in the temporal world, thereby contributing to the greater enrichment of democracy in India but may also pave the way towards better realization of the human selfin a more humanitarian perspective and congenial environment to proceed towards sublimation for the ultimate attainment of salvation. This is possible as nothing is beyond human endeavour.

Prof. Sudhanshu Tripathi, U.P. Rajarshi Tandon Open University, Prayagaraj (UP)

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