This interview was rescheduled around three times before it could happen, and when it was finally set for a Saturday afternoon, Saket Gokhale was late. By an hour. A meeting had spilled over, he told me amidst effusive apologies. Like almost every other day of Gokhale’s life, this day was brimming. He was between meetings and a friend’s wedding, and set to address a crowd of almost 20,000 people the following day at Park Circus in Kolkata.
I would have rescheduled (again), but I was slightly terrified he would get arrested before we could get down to the interview. An ex-journalist and a full-time RTI activist, Gokhale, you could say, annoys the government for a living. Except he doesn’t make a living from it. He crowdfunds.
“The system is not as broken as we think,” reads a line from his campaign introduction. “It works—although it's incredibly slow—but it works if you push it to work. I will tire them out until the point they realise that this isn't worth it. I'll exhaust them till they realise what the fear of God means."
Every week, Mumbai native Gokhale, 33, slings almost every available legal and democratic tool—Right to Information queries [RTIs], First Information Reports [FIRs] and Public Interest Litigations [PILs]—at the curmudgeonly bureaucratic system.
Recently, he made news after the Ministry of Home Affairs responded to his RTI query saying that they had no information concerning the ‘tukde tukde gang’, whom Home Minister Amit Shah had blamed for the nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act at a political rally. Over the past two years, Gokhale claims to have filed over 40-45 RTIs, perhaps more.
Some of them are serious business, like the time he claimed in a PIL that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had omitted to declare certain land assets in his election affidavits.
Sometimes, his tactics take a turn for the controversial. Earlier this month, he applied twice for permission to chant ‘Desh ke gaddaron ko goli maro salon ko’ [loosely translated as: Shoot all the fucking traitors of the country]. He got it—verbally—but eventually, it was officially refused. His idea was not to actually do it but to prove a point. Peaceful protests are being denied permission, while government officials are freely peddling hate speech. “In the parameters set by the Constitution, I don't think there's a place for this sort of discourse or ideology,” says Gokhale.
Author Samit Basu has described Gokhale’s activism as being akin to performance art. In a tweet, he adds “When the government is the criminal, then the rules are revolutionary graffiti.”
Gokhale, who is extremely active on social media, has a polarising presence. He counts among his Twitter followers the likes of actor Swara Bhaskar, comedian Kunal Kamra, and Magsaysay award-winning journalist Ravish Kumar, but is frequently at loggerheads with filmmaker Anurag Kashyap and even members of the party he supports.
India ranks low on the World Press Freedom Index, and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative has recorded about 446 instances of attacks on RTI activists. In 2018, it was reported that 67 had been killed. Over the years, Gokhale and his family too have received death threats, but they are no strangers to fear and uncertainty. “I've seen very early on how vicious they (the BJP) can be,” he says. “My father was sent to jail by the BJP government… on the day of his retirement.” The senior Gokhale, a police officer, was then lobbying to ban the drug Meow Meow (mephedrone). He was accused of being in cahoots with a drug supplier called Baby Patankar, and then arrested. The charges were later dropped. One police officer is quoted to have said “…over-smartness displayed by (the senior Mr.) Gokhale led us to suspect that he was in touch with Patankar.”
It’s perhaps where Gokhale gets it from.
VICE: You’ve been doing the work you do for almost five to six years. How has it been?
Saket Gokhale: It's tough, to be honest. There are moments of immense toxicity. Sometimes we see resistance even from people on the same side. There will be people questioning, “What is it that you have done? Show us a significant achievement.” Sometimes, the moment you file a case or an application, (well-meaning) people immediately want to know the status within two days. I wish things worked that fast. If you file an RTI, the government has 30 days to respond and if they don't and you file another first appeal, there's another 30 days that go after that. The judicial system, the legal system, the bureaucratic system are all very slow. Results take time.
Has this taken a toll on your mental health?
It’s frustrating. It can also feel very lonely, and having done this alone for a while, it does take a toll on you. You have to keep yourself organised. You have to divide your time; you have to learn how to prioritise.
I regularly work around 16-18 hours every day. It needs that level of follow-up, commitment, dedication. Literally every alternate day, I'm picking up an issue, I'm filing an RTI, I'm trying to follow up on it. Sometimes you do feel tired and like you're stretching yourself too thin.
And also, there's the thought at the back of your mind that no matter what you do, there's another four-and-a-half years of this government to go.
How do you/we cope with the stress?
It's not like we can wish it away. It's not like 'Oh, we have people protesting now, we've got the government in a trap, and they've been exposed and now there's going to be a re-election'—it's not gonna work like that. The next elections, like it or hate it, are going to be in 2024. This government is going to be in charge.
What we can do in the interim is make sure that we're on the battlefield, that we're fighting. That maybe out of 10 laws they try to push, we try to repeal at least three or four of them.
The idea is to resist. Change is not going to happen till the next election, when people go to the ballot box, even in state elections, and exercise their franchise. Delhi has been a very encouraging example of that; the BJP couldn't make a mark out here.
Where do you get the courage to do this full-time?
A lot of people want to fight but a lot of people are in positions sometimes, where they've got a family to look after, they've got bills to pay, home loans, and all of that. There's a lot of people out there who would like to do it but they've got their obligations.
I'm not married, I'm single and I don't have family (that relies on me). I don't have children.
So I was willing to take the risk of forgoing all this. I want to do this. I want to fight. But also, at the end of the day, the bills have to be paid. Every month there are legal expenses, and I'm living without a salary. Tomorrow I'll be able to do it only if there's support from people. So, I crowdfund. The outpouring of public support for this has been extremely overwhelming. It is also an encouragement that you are doing something right, and people look up to you to keep doing work, that they trust you to do the right thing.
What is the biggest goal behind what you do? Is it a matter of principle, or is there something else?
Right now, my focus is, the BJP has thrown the Constitution out of the window. We are living in an unprecedented and undeclared emergency, there's no other way to describe it.
The priority right now is to overcome that—it is to fight to restore the democratic balance of this country, the secular fabric of this country. I think that is the most important focus today.
Do you worry for your personal safety?
Amit Shah and Modi do not scare me. Sometimes you have adversaries… you don't like them but you respect them. But I don’t respect these guys. They’re bullies. They target people when there are skeletons in those people's closets. They can't send the Enforcement Directorate or the Central Agency behind me because who am I? I'm just an inconsequential person at the end of the day, not a former minister.
People have been killed on the streets, activists have been run over by trucks, Gauri Lankesh was shot. It's something you accept. You can't take on a fight and expect to be protected inside a bubble; that doesn't happen. If they were to do something, they will do what they do best, and I will do what I do best.
Any fight is not about one person alone. I'm sure tomorrow, if something happens to me, there will be 15 or 20 or maybe 200 other people who will carry on fighting in their own ways.
You’re also recruiting some people to work with you. What are the mechanics of that going to be?
I'm trying to make this into a more organised setup. It's happening slowly because with work of this nature, when you bring people together, the primary element is trust. One reason I work alone is because I find that it takes a long time for me to trust. And I'd rather err on the side of caution than throw caution to the wind with something like this.
You don't want somebody that has nefarious intentions, or people who are sympathetic to the other side, or people who are just looking for an opportunity to sabotage.
What’s the plan going forward?
A few people have joined me. We’re planning to bring people on board as allies while five to six people in the core team take on RTIs, legal interventions, open-source intelligence, try to find out where things are going shady so that RTIs can be filed.
Over the next several weeks, I'm travelling to different places, holding workshops and talking to groups of people as to how they can follow this model, and build it up and run it in their own ways. The idea is to empower people with the tools and the understanding of how this process works, how RTI works, how some of the fundamental laws work. If I speak to 100 people and 25 or 30 out of them dedicate eight or 10 hours a week to doing this, I think we'll still see a lot of impact.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about legal interventions/RTI?
People think the Constitution is an esoteric document. It's not—in fact, it's a living, breathing, very comprehensible document. It lays down everything very succinctly. It's written in very simple English that even an eighth grader can understand.
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