By Amelia Gentleman International Heral Tribune Thursday, April 26, 2007 Social Watch India, a political watchdog, reported last year that 125 of the 538 members of Parliament have criminal cases pending against them. Around half of these cases relate to relatively minor allegations, the other half concern serious charges that could lead to jail terms of five years or more.
NEW DELHI: India likes to treat its VIPs well. Traffic is stopped for them, armed escorts are provided, queues are swept aside. Police handle politicians and celebrities with obsequious respect and even airport officials quaver at the sight of a dignitary flanked by bodyguards. This culture of extreme deference seems to have been exploited in the latest political corruption scandal to dismay a nation already weary of the antics of its politicians.
Babubhai Katara, a member of Parliament with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, is in custody as the police investigate his alleged role in a people-smuggling operation, which apparently relied on the special privileges meted out to politicians at airport check-in. Armed with the diplomatic passport granted to all politicians, Katara sent his staff ahead to ease him through immigration last week, hoping to board a flight to Canada with two companions. Because of his status, he was subjected to "fleeting scrutiny," the Indian media reported. It was only a last-minute check by a lone vigilant airline official that revealed that the veiled woman traveling with him who was carrying his wife's passport was not his wife and that the teenage boy carrying his son's passport bore no resemblance to his son. As police inquiries began, several other politicians came under suspicion of abusing their position in the same way.
During interrogation this week, the agent accused of putting Katara in touch with his traveling companions swiftly gave the police the names of four other elected members of Parliament who he claimed were also in the business of smuggling migrants abroad. "One of the accused has claimed that these men were involved," Rajan Bhagat, a spokesman for the Delhi police, said in a telephone interview. All four have been invited to help with the investigation, but two have already told the police that they are currently too busy to answer questions. "We hope that they will cooperate and that we will not be required to take further steps," Bhagat said. Katara's lawyer has said that his client is innocent, simply the victim of a "conspiracy." Meanwhile, newspapers reported Thursday that a fifth lawmaker and four locally elected politicians were under investigation for an apparently unconnected people-smuggling scheme in the southern city of Hyderabad. The incident served as the latest uncomfortable reminder of the extraordinary wealth of corruption flourishing in the Indian Parliament.
Social Watch India, a political watchdog, reported last year that 125 of the 538 members of Parliament have criminal cases pending against them. Around half of these cases relate to relatively minor allegations, the other half concern serious charges that could lead to jail terms of five years or more. The growing number of corrupt politicians represented "a cancerous growth in the Indian body politic, threatening the rule of law and the very basis of Indian democracy," the report stated. "This has led to a very undesirable and embarrassing situation of outlaws becoming lawmakers and moving around under police protection." Late last year, an Indian cabinet minister was given a life sentence after being found guilty of kidnapping and then murdering an aide. A televised sting operation recently caught 11 M.P.s on camera as they accepted bundles of notes in exchange for asking questions in Parliament. The electorate is so jaded by these recurrent scandals that few now can muster the energy to express outrage. A poll by Transparency International revealed that around 98 percent of the population believes that politics is affected by corruption. Himanshu Jha, a researcher with Social Watch, said he was "not surprised in the least" by the allegations of a people-smuggling ring. "This is not abnormal behavior for our M.P.s. These are not stray cases," he said.
Some politicians fought to get elected primarily because they saw holding office as a "business opportunity," he said. "A culture of corruption has emerged in Parliament which allows people to feel that they can misuse their privileges and abuse their position. They feel they can do what they like; they know that nothing will ever happen to them." Part of the problem lies with India's notoriously slow-moving justice system. Politicians facing corruption charges can bask for years in the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, as trials meander through the courts. Editorial writers responded this week with muted distress. The Times of India noted mournfully: "Even by the standards of political morality in India, Babubhai Katara's involvement in human trafficking touches a new low." Tavleen Singh, a columnist in the Indian Express, caught the general mood of depressed cynicism. "It surprises me that it continues to surprise us every time one of our elected representatives is caught indulging in criminal activity," she wrote. "What's the big deal? Human trafficking is a white-collar crime, compared to murder, rape, armed robbery and kidnapping, and we know that across our unfortunate land we are increasingly being forced to elect people who have been charged with one or the other of these crimes." All political parties are touched by the problem, and in Parliament the affair has descended into cross-party mudslinging. Katara has been suspended by his party, the BJP, pending investigation, but party officials have emphasized, rightly, that it is not only their M.P.s who are prone to criminal activity.
During an all-party meeting convened to discuss how to restore "the image and dignity" of Parliament on Wednesday, politicians could come to no agreement - aside from resolving not to refer the case to an internal ethics committee on the grounds that the allegations did not directly concern Katara's parliamentary work. The affair has underlined the lucrative nature of India's people-smuggling business. The economic boom here has yet to touch the rural majority, and thousands of illegal migrants take huge risks to flee the country every year in search of a better life abroad. A down payment of around $2,500 was passed to the agent who allegedly recruited Katara to help get the woman and her son out of the country, relatives of his traveling companions said this week; a second payment, several times that amount, had been agreed on successful completion of the mission. Officials are working with embassies in New Delhi to investigate a number of earlier trips made by the M.P. For anyone inclined to abuse his privilege and position, this is a profitable line of work.