REMEMBERING NARAYAN VARMA

Shailesh Gandhi

Former Central Information Commissioner 

I first met Narayanbhai Varma in 2006 when we were organizing a big RTI drive in about 40 places across India. We needed volunteers and had decided to get different organizations to take up the responsibility of paying for different requirements so that there was no need for any fund collection. Narayanbhai asked what I expected from BCAS. I requested him to either agree to pay the rent for the fortnight for the hall at Government Law College, or get some volunteers. He first asked me a few questions and then with a twinkle in his eye said he would do both. He agreed to pay for the hall from BCAS and also helped to get about a dozen very good volunteers.  He came up with a small booklet on RTI which was distributed during the camp. After the event was over with over 3000 RTI applications being filed, he showed his appreciation by saying that BCAS would happily give us place for RTI meetings. We held many meetings at BCAS since there was no need to worry about payments.

He had a good commitment and grasp for law, having been a successful Chartered Accountant. This came through very well when we discussed some finer points of the RTI Act.  Despite his age and failing health in the last few years, he happily came to RTI meetings for discussions, planning strategy or holding a RTI convention. I am aware that he was instrumental in getting RTI clinics at BCAS, IMC, Giants and PCGT. He wrote an article on RTI for every issue of BCA journal, which was provided guidance to many users and practitioners of RTI. I am sure BCAS will continue this commitment to RTI. For many years if a RTI event was to be held Narayanbhai would contribute his time, wisdom and money without any hesitation, or seeking any specific recognition.

When I became a Central Information Commissioner he was very joyous and informed many people. When I met him, he embraced me with such warmth and love, I felt I was being embraced by my father who was no more. Narayanbhai always displayed his love for me and would forgive any mistakes very generously. After I went to Delhi he would often praise my work before others who told me of the pride he displayed when referring to my decisions and work.  

There is one incident which I will always remember because it showed Narayanbhai’s unique humility and intellectual greatness. When the 97th Constitutional amendment was passed, he and many other activists thought one implication was that it would have the implication of covering Cooperative Societies in the domain of RTI. He called me and said he wanted to hold a meeting to discuss this issue and would call for a meeting at the IMC. I had not read the amendment but agreed to his request that I should be the main speaker on this subject. On the day before the meeting I carefully read the amendment and the arguments advanced by other RTI activists.  I came to the conclusion that this amendment would not mean that Cooperative societies had come in the ambit of RTI. I called up Narayanbhai and explained the position to him and suggested that there could be some other person as the main speaker. Without any hesitation he said I would be the main speaker and should give my views, even if they did not agree with his. This was a man who readily accepted a different opinion and respected it. He had internalized the fundamentals of freedom of speech and information.

Narayanbhai wrote consistently on RTI and was very keen to empower citizens with it. He had understood the power and potential of this law to bring better governance for India. His demise was a personal loss for me, which I have felt very deeply. Narayanbhai’s contribution is an inspiration for all of us, and we owe it to his memory to bring greater life and vigour to its implementation.  RTI is great tool for our democracy and better governance and Narayanbhai’s contribution to it has been very significant.