Truth used to be the proverbial first casualty of war.
But we live in an era where authorities are increasingly wary of the free flow of information, even in democracies, particularly in democracies, because it leads to the organic growth of narratives that cannot be tightly controlled or predicted.
Therefore truth becomes the first casualty in any event of significance.
Whether it is a natural disaster; an examination of the effects of a major policy; a deep-delve into repercussions of climate change, mitigation and adaptation; truth is quickly lost in the fog of war.
Fact-finding missions serve as scouting parties of democracy as rule of law and order is sought to be restored in such situations.
Fact-finding investigations have been a well-established practice in India since the movement for independence. Worldwide too, fact-finding is at the heart of rights advocacy.
However, for the aforementioned reasons and others, there is a tendency of criminalisation of fact-finding missions by the government as well as, ironically, some sections of the media itself.
To illustrate, the Solicitor General of India challenged five fact-finding reports conducted on the riots in Northeast Delhi in 2020 in the Delhi High Court on February 24.
He argued that the citizen groups which conducted the fact-finding were examples of a self-constituted, extra-constitutional, “parallel judicial system”, that did not have any authority in law.
They could not be relied upon by any formal judicial forum, he said; adding that people cannot have their own fact-finding committees, they must go to a competent authority.
How does this criminalisation affect the well-being of democracy? How do we deal with this situation? What does the law say?
These are the obvious questions, and there are others as well.
What are the ethics of fact-finding? How do we distinguish ‘good’ fact-finding from ‘bad’ fact-finding? How do modalities of mens rea and problems of authentication complicate and inform the issue?
What better day to discuss these issues than the birth anniversary of M.K. Gandhi?
From the time of the Mahatma to the present, events orchestrated by abuse of power have been countered by citizen-led fact-finding inquiries, since the defining feature of governmental abuse of power is that it is rendered invisible; official records conceal the suffering of the victim.
One of the earliest Gandhian experiments, the Champaran Satyagraha of 1917, started as an extensive fact-finding exercise. In his autobiography, Gandhi writes that he decided to visit Champaran “to enquire into the conditions of” the indigo planters when he was informed of their distress and the lack of appropriate response by the colonial administration.
Gandhi carried out a detailed investigation with a team of volunteers and recorded the statements of peasants.
Gandhi was a pioneer of social activism and authored a human rights fact-finding report on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre as well.
In an era before the language of civil rights was fleshed out, Gandhi explained the ethics of fact-finding and the tests for a good fact-finding mission.
On the 154th Gandhi Jayanti, The Leaflet brings together jurists, activists, journalists and academics to revisit this grand experiment with truth.