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INDIA: Gandhism Returns to Fight Corruption

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Jun 11 2011 (IPS) - Almost 65 years after Mahatma Gandhi used “satyagraha” or “truth force” to lead a movement against British rule in India, Gandhism is back, this time facing an enemy more pernicious than colonialism: corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen stashing stolen wealth abroad.

The two foremost leaders of India’s anti-corruption movement, Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev, are deploying satyagraha’s most potent weapon – fasting – with telling effect on the government.

On Thursday, Hazare staged a symbolic fast at Rajghat, a shrine on the banks of the Yamuna River where visiting dignitaries lay wreaths on a marble slab marking the spot where Gandhi was cremated.

Hazare’s fast was not only against the government’s flipflops over the “Lokpal Bill” that would provide for ombudsman oversight on corruption cases. He also protested the violent police dispersal of an anti- graft rally led by the internationally known yoga exponent Baba Ramdev in the Indian capital New Delhi on Jun. 4.

Police used batons to break up the rally and whisked Ramdev away to his base in the pilgrim town of Haridwar in the northern state of Uttarakhand. There, in a departure from Gandhian tenets of non- violence, he announced plans to raise a cadre of armed youth to resist any future crackdown on his supporters, drawing a dire warning from the central government.

“The law will deal with that,” said Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram at a press conference on Wednesday.


Chidambaram justified the Jun. 4 crackdown by saying Ramdev had started a “political agitation, which is fully backed by the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and its front organisations.”

The RSS, a Hindu militant organisation, provides muscle for the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and was once banned for its alleged involvement in the 1948 assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

But the government seemed to consider Ramdev’s demands legitimate and worrisome. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and three other top cabinet officials received Ramdev at the Delhi airport when he flew in from Ujjain, a pilgrim town in central Madhya Pradesh state on Jun. 1, three days before the rally.

On Thursday, the influential Indian Express newspaper carried in a lead story the names of 18 Indians who had deposited some 10 million dollars in the LGT Bank in the European tax haven of Liechtenstein between 2002 and 2004.

“This is only the tip of the iceberg as even conservative estimates say that more than a trillion dollars have been parked abroad by corrupt Indians,” said Vineet Narain, one of the country’s best known campaigners against corruption and “black money,” referring to illegally obtained wealth.

Narain said the government has shown a “strange reluctance” to name people known to have illegally stashed away large sums of money abroad, let alone move to recover the funds.

“The fact is that the country’s two main political parties fight (during) elections promising to bring back the loot, but do nothing once they are in power,” Narain told IPS. “As a colonial power, the British repatriated money to the home country legitimately, but much more money is moving out of the country surreptitiously, through the hawala system.” Hawala refers to the underground banking system that allows the corrupt to spirit ill-gotten money into secret accounts abroad.

In November 2010, the Washington-based Centre for International Policy said in a study that since it gained independence in 1947, India may have lost 452 billion dollars in illegal transfers abroad and estimated the current annual loss to be close to 20 billion dollars.

Julian Assange, founder of the non-profit media group WikiLeaks that collects and publishes classified government documents, provided more evidence in an interview given to the Times Now news channel on Apr. 26. “There is more Indian money in Swiss banks than any other nationality,” Assange said.

“The Indian government needs to be more aggressive in tracking black money stashed in foreign banks since Indians depositing money in foreign banks are debasing the rupee,” he added. “The Indian government’s response to the disclosures made by us (WikiLeaks) has been the worst in the whole world. The Indian government has been clearly attempting to mislead the people of India.”

Narain said the current agitations against black money and corruption are being fuelled by an unprecedented, almost daily exposure of shady dealings by government functionaries as well as the arrests of high-profile politicians and officials caught with their hands in the till.

Among those jailed and facing charges of corruption are former telecom minister Andimuthu Raja and Suresh Kalmadi, sacked as president of the Indian Olympic Association in April on charges of siphoning away money through the illegal award of contracts for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

On Wednesday, India’s defence minister A.K. Antony acknowledged that there were “some problems” regarding corruption, but he attributed this to the country undergoing a transition to transparent functioning.

“Those holding key positions in India are still not ready for this transition. All the secrecy is crumbling – in politics, administration, religion, business or journalism,” said Antony. “The trend has started and you cannot stop it midway.”

Hazare has now issued a warning that unless Parliament passes a satisfactory Lokpal Bill during its monsoon session, which begins mid-July and lasts for six weeks, he would resume his Gandhian-style agitation on Aug. 16.

Hazare earlier called off a “fast-unto-death” from Apr. 5-9 after the government formed a committee, with Hazare himself and prominent civil society activists as members, to draft a satisfactory Lokpal Bill. But the government appeared to renege; Chidambaram said civil society members could only make suggestions while it was up to elected representatives to actually shape the new law.

“Our country is still not independent; there is no difference between the British Raj and the present government. The white rulers have left, but the black rulers are ruling as they please,” he told some 5,000 of his supporters gathered at Rajghat.

 
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