Mail online India By Shiv Visvanathan
I still remember the first time the poignancy of the lonely epic of whistleblowing dawned on me.
It was not because I met a Julian Assange or an Edward Snowden.
A friend of mine told me a story of a little niece of his, a precarious girl, barely five years old, blowing an aluminum whistle, persistent in her sound effects and yet sounding almost official in her behaviour.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange prepares to speak from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy.
He stopped and asked her and she explained, ‘I am not a referee, I am a whistleblower.’
She realised that hers was a special role. Though she could not cite any names, all she conveyed in her happy way was that she had captured and internalised a moment of history.
Suddenly, a whistleblower, even in his or her anonymity, seemed a larger than life, a Cassandra-like figure, a prophet cast into the wilderness of his own truth.
For me, a whistleblower is a 20th century character.
He has to be differentiated from a dissenter.
A dissenter can range like most intellectuals do over a range of issues, waxing eloquent over dams, rights and nuclear energy.
A dissenter is often more like a general practitioner while the whistle blower is a radical truth teller of a special kind.
He is associated with one epic event with which his name gets imprinted.
One thinks of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, Karen Silkwood on the nuclear plants, or Assange over the WikiLeaks.
It is a revelation so historical that it threatens the very framework of trust and governance.
‘The whistleblower in fact is often for years a devoted, even committed, part of the establishment’
There is an immediacy to the event, a ‘now’ of history different from the loneliness of the prophet predicting a dismal future.
The whistleblower in fact is often for years a devoted, even committed, part of the establishment.
The dawning of truth can be a slow process of realisation, a shattering revelation to be exposed like a scandal.
The moment of truth is only the beginning of the new history.
What you talk about is the years of loneliness, silence and witch hunting that follows that one moment of history.
The whistleblower in that sense is a special kind of creature who could only have been invented in the age of security and bureaucratisation.
The whistleblower usually remains an anomalous figure unable to return to normalcy and routine.
‘The whistleblower usually remains an anomalous figure unable to return to normalcy and routine’
He is the new martyr, the epic moment of sacrifice and revelation that threatens today’s corporations and the national security state.
Such a creature and his act of heroism and sacrifice require a special set of rights guaranteeing against victimisation and witch-hunting by the establishment.
The whistleblower’s vulnerability needs a special kind of protection. No Right to Information Act can be or is complete without this set of provisions.
In fact, there can be a sense of irony even in these provisions. For example, a new provision in the RTI Act allows for the closure of a case in the event of the death of the applicant.
Such a provision virtually cynically says that the elimination of an RTI activist closes the case.
The irony becomes more obvious when one reads that in 2017 alone, there have been 375 cases of recorded attacks against whistle-blowers; and of these, 56 have been murders.
The recent murder of Bhupendra Vira for exposing shady land deals in Mumbai raises a simple issue.
The vulnerability and the role of the whistleblower need to be recognised and protected. He is an activist who cannot be made into a martyr.
His exposure of scandal requires his continued existence as a reminder, a symbolic statement of what ordinary people can do through simple acts of conscience.
One has to understand that the whistleblower can only obtain that special kind of information she has by spending years mastering the rules and proceedings of an organisation.
She has to master the intricacies of the bureaucracy, compile a huge data bank of information, before she exposes the scandal.
Her vulnerability as an individual is huge as she stands alone against a bureaucracy which can be vengeful.
All one needs is a trail of suspicion, a minor suspicion, a departmental enquiry to turn a person’s life and career into shreds.
One has to also realise the mix of everydayness and heroism and even banality that might haunt a whistle-blower after the trauma of revelation.
The resignation, the abandoning a space, of a way of life has to be understood.
Many whistleblowers have their moment of publicity before they fade into years of anonymity.
It is the later years that must be sustained and appreciated. The aura of vulnerability and suspicion is difficult to exorcise.
The whistleblower as informant is subject to every act of humiliation labelled as anti-national, even a terrorist, for this one great act of citizenship.
I am reminded here of the story of Daniel Ellsberg, the man who released the Pentagon Papers, exposing the hollowness and scandal of the Vietnam War, putting an end to such legends of security like defence secretary Robert McNamara.
Daniel Ellsberg was oddly a hawk, a creature happy in the policymaking of think-tanks before he decided that truth telling was important.
Ellsberg, in fact, has made an interesting set of observations recently.
He shows that he was subject to the same rituals of humiliation, assault, accusation, such that Assange was subject to.
The nation state can never forget or forgive a citizen with a conscience.
Security officials, Ellsberg warns, can make threats, which are thinly disguised as extrajudicial steps.
Here again one has to realise the critical role of media in protecting the whistleblower.
The media as rumour-monger can destroy his hard fought attempt to sustain his integrity that is the only blue chip guarantee against a state determined to malign dissenters.
I hope this piece is a small salute to an epic figure who has defined the contours of democracy in today’s era.