NEW DELHI: It is an emotionally loaded term like ‘faith’, ‘nationalism’ and ‘family’, that is often used by the middle-classes to provoke strong feelings of anger and disgust against politicians. And yet on closer scrutiny the phrase ‘corruption’ turns out to be a fuzzy concept, that fails to capture how power and injustice really operate in human societies.
In its popular interpretation, ‘corruption’ refers to the way rules are bent or power misused to gain access to resources and accumulate wealth. Typically, those targeted as ‘corrupt’ include politicians, bureaucrats, police or anyone who works for the modern state machinery, though businessmen are also recognized as the drivers of corruption. Many claim that everything will be well in a country if only ‘corruption’ were to be rooted out.
However, the version of ‘corruption’ as ‘violation of law’ has nothing to say about the many other ways in which assets are accessed or acquired disproportionately, due to the special advantages derived by some people based on their identities, professions, social/cultural background and other historical factors. In most of these cases it is the law itself that facilitates and protects the breaking of ethical and moral principles like equal opportunity, no double standards and compassion for the weak.
One simple example of this phenomenon historically, is the way colonialism operated around the world – whereby several European nations forcibly occupied and systematically looted resources from Asia, Africa and Latin America for several centuries. Since they were the ones in the seat of power they made laws that whitewashed the fact they were simply stealing other people’s goods. The poverty and misery they created not just killed millions but left the colonized countries – including India- debilitated for decades.
Since the end of colonialism around half a century ago none of the colonized countries have been compensated in any way for the theft of property, lives, resources of their citizens. Instead, what the world witnesses regularly is that sordid spectacle of former colonizers pretending to be the only ones who uphold ‘rule of law’ and the former colonies as being run by ‘lawless’, ‘corrupt’ regimes. The motto seems to be ‘No one is allowed to break the law once WE have finished OUR looting’!
It is indeed a fact that the greatest concentrations of wealth in modern times have also happened with the aid of new laws that are designed to enrich those who lobbied for them in the first place. A good example of this are the ‘intellectual property laws’ framed by Western nations and rammed down the throats of their former colonies, resulting in massive transfers of wealth away from poorer countries to the already rich ones. Microsoft and its owner Bill Gates could not have become the wealthiest entities in the world without such laws.
In the Indian context itself, there are at least ten ‘avatars’ of corruption around that hardly get any attention despite the fact they have helped make a tiny section of the country’s population very rich or make some sections of the population highly privileged. Here is the list, by no means exhaustive, but illustrating the different shapes and sizes in which ‘corruption’ happens in real, day-to-day life.
1) Caste: This is the oldest form of corruption in the Indian sub-continent and one that continues to this day- the historical hegemony of the ‘upper’ castes over the ‘lower’ ones. In traditional India laws were always discriminatory in content, prescribing as they did different kinds of punishment to people from different rungs of the caste ladder for the same crime. It is common in many parts of India for a savarna to go scot-free after murdering a Dalit, while the latter can be lynched for even skinning a dead cow. People of the same caste favour each other over members of other castes all the time in different sectors of Indian life from government and business to sports and even crime. The domination of Bollywood by the upper castes is easily evident from the simple fact that the hero of every movie is either a Singh, Sharma or a Verma and almost never an Ahir, Topno, Pramanik or Sutar. For that matter, there are very few in the English and Hindi language media too with such non-savarna surnames.
2) Class: Money power has become the biggest bender of established rules in India as the wealthy get away with almost anything and everything from evading taxes and stealing common resources to changing national policies to suit their personal or business interests. Across political parties today members of parliament have become puppets of different big Indian and even foreign corporations and act against the interests of the ordinary Indian people. Even more than the politicians, who are mostly middlemen, it is the Tatas, Ambanis, Adanis and Mittals who wield real power in India and are the ultimate ‘lawmakers’.
The distortion of priorities, principles and institutional processes due to the exercise of money power is obvious, but don’t expect most politicians to ever ever say, ‘I will not shake hands with Mukesh Ambani, because he might try to grease my palm!’
3) Race: When Arogya Bharati, a RSS-affiliated outfit in Bengal recently announced it has the secret formula to help produce babies with ‘fair complexion’ the ‘white supremacist’ mindset of the forces that are in political power in India today was amply evident. Racism of skin color and looks is deeply rooted in a lot of Indian society and is a constant source of discrimination in not just public behavior but also national policy and politics. What else, if not racism, could be the reason that every depiction of ‘Bharat Mata’ be of a fair skinned Aryan looking lady with pink lips and not one with dark skin or curly hair or non-savarna looks?
4) Gender: The ratio of women to men in the Indian population has been steadily falling in many parts of the country as a silent genocide takes place every hour with parents willfully killing off their girl children. According to the UNICEF fetal sex determination and sex selective abortion by unethical medical professionals has today grown into a Rs. 1,000 crore industry. Women get routinely discriminated against in job selection, the wages they get and the public and domestic violence they are subjected to. Denying women their equal rights is a form of corruption that not only violates the right to equality enshrined in the Indian Constitution but also basic human principles.
5) Nepotism : This is the most widespread form of corruption in the Indian context with not just politicians but film stars and cricketers promoting their kids over other more competent candidates all the time. Power, wealth, beauty, talent almost everything it seems can be ‘inherited’ without any effort and leads to the accumulation of undue influence in the same few families. The most glaring form of nepotism is practiced by family run business houses of India where, irrespective of their competence or ability, the reins of control keep passing on from father to son or daughter. If Indians want the country to be run solely on merit and transparent rules then they should insist that the CEOs of Indian companies be selected on the basis of an all India examination where everyone can compete equally. A severe taxation on inherited property as practiced in the UK and other countries will also go a long way in promoting a truly merit-based society.
6) Urban Bias: Here I am referring to the discrimination against rural Bharat by urban India of course. Despite being home to nearly 60% of India’s population agriculture and allied sector share only 17.32% of India’s GDP. Whether it be in terms of remuneration for their work and produce, investment in infrastructure, job opportunities, healthcare or education the rural Indian is far worse off than the urban one. While hundreds of thousands of farmers have committed suicide due to economic distress over the last couple of decades there has no been serious change in national policies to divert resources back to the countryside. So while the government promotes ‘Smart Cities’, the money to make them happen seems to be coming from ‘Dumb Villages’.
7) Hindi Chauvinism: Forget about the imposition of Hindi on the people of southern India, it turns out that the ‘national language’ is in fact being forced upon the so-called Hindi speaking states. Over a dozen languages like Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Maithili, Rajasthani, Bundelkhandi, Sadri, Chhattisgarhi are given short shrift by the upper caste, urban and middle-class champions of a highly Sanskritised Hindi in the northern Indian states. The lack of educational materials in their mother tongue has resulted in low literacy rates for both children and adults in these parts of India for decades, keeping them at a perpetual disadvantage. In states where the local languages are properly supported and promoted like in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal and Gujarat there is much greater literacy and also empowerment of the people. The Indian state favouring Hindi over others is a violation of the principle of equal access to opportunities and a form of systemic corruption that has not been properly addressed as yet in the country.
8) Politics of Education: The open economic and cultural discrimination practiced against the ‘uneducated’ people of India is a form of corruption that most ‘educated’ people don’t even want to recognize because such bias obviously works in their own favour. As a result of this prejudice those with degrees – both real and fake- get paid many, many times more than those who never went through school and are confined to manual work of different kinds. Many well-meaning people think that the solution to poverty is to provide ‘education’ to the masses of India, obfuscating the fact that the ‘uneducated’ need food, clothing, shelter and dignified jobs before anything else.
9) Religious Apartheid: Horrendous as it is, the biggest religious discrimination in India is not really against Muslims, who are at least organized and vocal about their problems, but against the Adivasi populations of the country. Subsumed under the category ‘Hindu’ there is no recognition as yet of their spiritual and religious traditions that are distinct from Brahmanical Hinduism in many, many ways. Several Adivasi groups in recent years have been demanding that the Indian government categorise their faiths as a separate religion called ‘Adi-Dharm’ or ‘Sarna’, a call that has repeatedly fallen on deaf ears. Forcing indigenous people, who form over 10 percent of the Indian population, into a religious identity not of their choice is to deny them their Constitutional right to freedom of religion. Instead of imposing Hindu gods on them and seeking to ‘convert’ them to Hinduism they should be allowed to practice whatever religion they want, derived from their own historical roots.
10) Imprisoned Nations: India, for all its ancient glory and history, is really a new nation forged together by first the Mughals and then the British empire. The latter in particular forced dozens of smaller nationalities to become part of the ‘Raj’, whose territory was inherited by the current Indian Republic. Gandhi, more than anyone else in the Indian freedom movement was sensitive to this and had in fact declared his support for the demand for independence of the Naga people. However, the reduction of the entire idea of Indian nationalism to control over territory and domination over smaller nationalities has been the biggest blot on the record of modern India in the last six decades. It has led to countless killings of innocent people and even crimes against humanity in the name of protecting the ‘integrity’ of the nation and is a corruption of every principle of non-violence and humanism that Gandhi espoused.
So, next time someone waxes eloquent about the evils of ‘corruption’, it may be good to remind them the Lord appears in our land in at least these ten different avatars.
(Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health worker)