A few years ago, a group of newly elected village headmen (sarpanchs) in Rajasthan had refused to take the usual oath of secrecy and insisted on taking an oath of “transparency”. Their contention was that they could not hide their official work from their electorate who had elected them, and so the men pledged to publicise their assets and their daily official functions.
After affirming allegiance to the Constitution, a minister affirms or swears that he or she will not directly or indirectly communicate or reveal to any person or persons any matter, which shall be brought under his/her consideration or shall become known to him/her as a minister.
On Saturday, when Arvind Kejriwal and his band were being sworn in by Delhi Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung at the Ramlila ground, many activists and volunteers argued that the new government should have taken the oath of transparency rather than that of secrecy. They maintained that since the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was born out of a movement for transparency and right to information, even for symbolism, Kejriwal should have set an example by refusing to affirm to keeping things secret from the very people who elected him. A senior journalist even tweeted suggesting that Kejriwal and his colleagues should have modified the oath.
Experts, however, say the new chief minister of the national capital had little choice but to abide by the rules, and the wording of the oath as enshrined in the Third Schedule of the Constitution. The ministers are mandated to take oath on three counts — integrity, impartiality and that of secrecy, before they can take over their offices. The change in the Third Schedule can be made only through a legislation by the Parliament, they say.
Activists believe that the oath, rooted in the archaic and colonial Official Secrets Act (OSA) of 1923, negates the letter and spirit of the RTI Act. More importantly, it impairs the transparency agenda. Far from an affirmation to transparency, the system enjoins upon ministers to become secretive.
Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, who had played a pivotal role in convincing village sarpanchs in Rajasthan in 2010 to take the oath of transparency, says the decision was not easy even at the lower level. “Everyone knows that it is a big challenge to be a sarpanch and be honest, as each sarpanch handles a Rs 1-crore fund that comes through the NREGS annually,” he says.
Union minister Veerapa Moily, who was the architect of the idea of oath of transparency in India, believes that it was the master key to good governance. But he refused to speak more on the subject since he is himself a part of the government now. “The government has accepted and even implemented a number of recommendations of the Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC). There is an institutional mechanism involving senior officers and above all, a Group of Ministers is working on the implementation of the recommendations. Yes, there are a few (subjects), on which the government has not yet decided,” he said.
As the head of the second ARC, Moily had recommended that the ministers should take an oath of 'transparency and not secrecy' in the future. He had also suggested repealing the Official Secrets Act, 1923 and substituting it with a chapter in the National Security Act and also clearly defining what constitutes a secret.
“This shadow of mystery in the government should be removed. This mysterious shadow of Officials Secrets Acts should be removed as there is no need to hide information. The oath of secrecy being taken by the ministers should be replaced by oath of transparency and if any information is needed to be kept secret for national security reasons then it should be brought under the National Security Act,” wrote Moily in his report as the head of the Commission.
Former financial advisor to the Jammu and Kashmir government, Haseeb Drabu, who is also a critic of the oath of secrecy, insists that the oath of transparency in governance should make two commitments to the people of India; first, it must commit them to institutionalizing the systems of transparent administration in India. Second, it must specifically commit the individual to the full and robust implementation of the RTI, which even in its whittled down form, is key to administrative transparency and accountable governance.
Many provisions of the Constitution, which guarantee a special manner of protection to the permanent civil service of the colonial style, privileges of legislators for MPs and MLAs, give a free hand to these functionaries without being directly accountable. “This contributes indirectly but substantially to the maintenance of a regime built upon secrecy, red tape, corruption and alienation from the people,” he said.