Once again Julian Assange is in the news. Once again the subject of the perils of whistleblower is in the news. Is it a crime to blow the lid off truth? Is it a crime to let the world know some dirty secrets, even if they are of the State? Is punishment right for someone who is doing such a great favour to the world by letting us all know as to what happens in the higher echelons of the government?
World over, whistleblowers have never had it easy, rather they have been treated with a lot of scorn and have been put through a lot of trouble like Julain Assange of Wikileaks. Some have even been murdered as we have seen in the case of Satyendra Dubey (Golden Quadrilateral Corridor Project) and S Manjunath (adulteration of petrol). Many would see this as a price for speaking the truth or for telling the world what they should know.
But first things first, who exactly is a whistleblower?
Wikipedia defines Whistleblower as –
“….a person who tells the public or someone in authority about alleged dishonest or illegal activities occurring in a government department, a public/private organization, or a company. The alleged misconduct may be…..violation of a law, rule, regulation and/or ….. fraud, health/safety violations, and corruption.” The word originated from the whistle a referee blows to indicate illegal or foul play. The word was first used in the 70s to avoid the negative connotations that words like ‘informer’ had in those days.
Is it a new phenomenon of putting the whistleblower thru such trouble? In this context, we haven’t really come a long way. In our mythology too, whistleblowers have never had it easy and Greek mythology replete with examples of what whistleblowers have had to go through.
One of the most important examples is of Sisyphus, the King of Corinth, who had some heroic deeds to his credit, but was punished by the gods for the heroism.
Sisyphus was witness to one of the escapades of Zeus, the King of gods. Once he saw Zeus kidnap one of the river nymphs and when the river god came looking for his daughter, Sisyphus revealed the location where Zeus had taken her. Zeus was outraged at this impudence, and as a punishment sent Thanatos, the god of death, to take Sisyphus’s life. But Sisyphus was too smart and decided to cheat the god of death, so that no mortal would ever have to encounter death! He managed to chain the god of death, till the gods came to know about it and sent another god to get the release of Thanatos. After some more events, all the gods were upset with Sisyphus, at his audacity. His crime – first, he revealed the secrets of the King of gods, Zeus, and second, he tried to keep death away from mortals.
His punishment was that he would have to eternally push a big boulder up a cliff, till he managed to put it on top of the cliff. If he stopped, then the boulder would crush him, and if he reached the top, it would roll off on the other end, and he would have to start again this never-ending task.
Another interesting example is related to the Trojan horse. According to a legend, Laocoon, a Trojan priest, tried to warn the Trojans that the gift of the wooden horse by the Greeks was a conspiracy and the horse should be burned down immediately. Hearing this Goddess Athena was angry and she shook the ground around him and blinded him, which the Trojans interpreted as divine punishment for questioning an honest gift by the Greeks. Laocoon would still not give up and threw a spear at the horse when it was wheeled inside Troy. Seeing this Minerva, who was supporting the Greeks, sent two sea-serpents to strangle him and his sons to death. The Trojans interpreted this as yet another divine punishment as Laocoon had insulted Apollo earlier by sleeping with his wife in front of a divine image. (Laocoon’s death has been immortalized in a beautifully carved sculpture shown below)
Here was Laocoon trying his best to warn the Trojans of a Greek conspiracy, and was punished and killed for his act, which ultimately led to the defeat of the Trojans. Many see this as a perfect example of what whistleblowers have to endure on their path to tell the world what they have unearthed.
Finally, an example from the Vedic mythology, with not so serious ramifications though. According to this myth, a beautiful woman by the name of Puloma was betrothed to a demon. Once Rishi Bhrigu (one of the manas-putra of Lord Brahma) saw her and moved by her beauty, immediately married her and took her away with him. The demon discovered her, with the help of Agni and took her away with him. When Bhrigu came to know Agni’s involvement, he cursed Agni that from that day, he would consume everything offered to him. Agni protested that his actions were not wrong as he had only spoken the truth. He went on to say, that according to the laid rules, if one is asked a question and he speaks lies then his seven preceding and seven succeeding generations would be cast into hell. The same happens if one conceals the information, so by telling the demon the truth, he was simply doing his moral as well as religious duty. Subsequently, the curse was slightly ‘modified’, but that’s another aspect of the story.
Can someone who goes against a nation (or against an establishment or a person) for what he thinks is mis-governance or a case of gross failure; be termed as a whistleblower, this time for the ‘other’ side?
Let us take the case of Vibhishan from the epic Ramayana. He defected on Ram’s side and also gave in a lot of inputs to Ram, which enabled Ram to defeat Ravana after a prolonged battle. Vibhishan could be termed as a traitor from Ravana’s point of view, but a whistleblower from the perspective of someone who was trying to establish the rule of law and to rid Lanka from the clutches of an arrogant ruler who defied all norms of decency and kinship by kidnapping someone else’s wife and plunging the whole country in grave danger.
Was this an act of a traitor or a whistleblower? Keeping aside the aspect of faith, this is a subject of debate, similar to dusk being the end of a day or beginning of a night.
As we have seen, the concept of a whistleblower is not new. Nor is the witch-hunt that Mr. Assange is undergoing. What can make a difference is the mass awakening and awareness of such ills. We don’t have to take the dictates of a Zeus or a Bhrigu anymore and debates have to be allowed. If anybody has overstepped his brief then punishment is understandable, but stifling an individual’s right to expression, rather rightful expression, needs to be condemned, even if it is from the no-more-high-and-mighty Mr. US of A!
Finally words of caution – whistleblowers, blow your whistle with caution; unfortunately the Big Brothers are still watching!!