The Story of India’s “First Whistleblower:” Stalled Progress in the Wake of Satyendra Dubey’s 2003 Murder

Parliament House in New Delhi, India

This is Part 1 of a WNN exclusive series “Protecting Whistleblowers is Key to Protecting Democracy in India” reporting on efforts within India to incorporate different categories of whistleblowers within a whistleblower protection law that is on the horizon.

The word “whistleblower” tends to immediately elicit a certain image. Most picture a government or company insider who bravely sacrificed their safety to disclose wrongdoing. Many think of a specific name of a whistleblower whose story became a national sensation. In India, that name is Satyendra Dubey, known as the country’s first whistleblower.

Satyendra was murdered over 20 years ago upon exposing corruption involved in the construction of India’s largest highway project at the time, which resulted in poor quality of work and the looting of public money.

Satyendra’s brother, Dhananjay Dubey, was the first to speak in the roundtable workshop on whistleblower protection at the Constitution and National Unity Conference in Karnataka, India in February. The workshop sought to highlight the role of whistleblowers in defending democracy and protections necessary to protect whistleblowers against retaliation, like what Satyendra Dubey faced.

Dhananjay described his brother as somebody with a very high level of integrity and honesty. After no action was taken when he reported corrupt practices internally, Satyendra Dubey sent a letter to the Prime Minister reporting the crimes he had witnessed and asking that his identity be protected.

“Here is one person,” said Dhananjay, “who, despite being aware of consequences, was taking risks with his life to eradicate the corruption in the system without any personal gain. This is what whistleblowers do, and this is what they stand for. Their conscience will not let them ignore and keep silent when they see something wrong happening. Now, how does our system treat these whistleblowers?”

Satyendra’s request for confidentiality was not honored. The Prime Minister’s Office forwarded his letter and his identity sheet to the people implicated in Satyendra’s complaint. When he became aware of threats to his life, Satyendra reported them to the Prime Minister’s Office, yet no action was taken. On November 27th, 2003, he was murdered.

The public outrage in the aftermath of Satyendra Dubey’s murder fueled campaigns for robust legal protections for whistleblowers. However, India still lacks a strong legal framework for receiving whistleblower reports, protecting whistleblowers, and bringing about corrective actions based on whistleblower reports.

The Whistleblower Protection Act, passed by Parliament about a decade ago, has not been notified, which is frustrating for whistleblowers and activists who worked hard to get Parliament to pass these bare minimum protections. However, many consider it a relief that the Act has not been notified, considering that certain provisions put whistleblowers in danger. It fails to protect whistleblowers’ identities and establishes a flawed reporting and investigative framework. The scope of the law is also limited, and there is no functional enforcement mechanism.

“Whistleblowers are very important for society and need to be encouraged to control wrongdoing in the system. This requires a robust law which provides them with a safe framework for information disclosure, protection from victimization and possible incentivization,” said Dhananjay.

He explained that an effective legal framework for whistleblowing must expand the definition of whistleblower, establish an anonymous reporting process, and include mechanisms to protect a whistleblower’s job, financial well-being, and physical safety.

Dhananjay added that the law must provide “clear accountability for the person defined to provide the protection,” including by mandating swift investigation and penalizing authorities who fail to protect a whistleblower’s identity or provide adequate protection to victimized whistleblowers. There also must be “careful thought through rewarding mechanism and capacity building for the enforcement agencies.”

Indian whistleblower advocates envision a law that defines whistleblowers as anybody exposing and fighting against the arbitrary use of power. Satyendra Dubey’s story and the lack of legislative action that has taken place in the wake of his death provide a testament to a strong example of the challenges faced by “quintessential whistleblowers,” or insiders. Protecting and enabling this “insider” class of whistleblowers is essential in defending democracy because they are the first witnesses to wrongdoing within governments or corporations.

Workshop participants hope that progress can begin at the state level. The government of Karnataka promised to pass a whistleblower protection law in their manifesto during the last election. The conversation at the Constitutional and Unity Conference provided a strong foundation from which policymakers can advance discussions on this law.

Check back for the next article in this WNN Exclusive Series to read about further discussions during the whistleblowing workshop at the Constitution and Unity Conference and the other categories of whistleblowers who should be incorporated into this law.

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