By Dr William Gould
‘Merely shouting from the house tops that everybody is corrupt creates an atmosphere of corruption. People feel they are in a climate of corruption and they get corrupted themselves.’ The words of Jawaharlal Nehru, spoken shortly after India’s independence from British rule, seem particularly apt given the overtly Gandhian style of today’s anti-corruption crusader, Anna Hazare. But for most Indians, Hazare’s movement has produced few surprises: there is a long-standing popular critique of the country’s apparently growing crisis of corruption that cuts across nearly every strata of society.
Popular resignation about the permanence of corruption is partly explained by the political purchase of ‘corruption’ as an idea and a term. Accusations of corruption have historically been wielded as a political weapon – a means of tarnishing rivals in the right circumstances. During India’s very first General Election in 1951-2, newspapers and party offices, particularly those of the Congress party, were bombarded with allegations about corrupt electoral candidates. The system of food and civil supply was subject to commodity controls and rationing – a legacy of the war years which had generated complex systems of patronage. These involved deeply entrenched black markets in lucrative industrial and agricultural concerns. This was the background to what was later known as ‘Permit-Licence-Quota Raj’ – the linking of business interests with political brokers. It is partly this nexus that underpins the protests in post-liberalization India.
But it wasn’t just the circumstances of war that generated concerns about graft in the 1940s and fifties. More broadly, the problem of corruption seemed to correspond to phases of rapid political transformation. The first, officially coordinated ‘anti-corruption’ drives, described as such, took place under the auspices of provincial Congress governments in the late 1930s, while the British still ruled at India’s centre. The Congress juxtaposed its democratic principles against ‘corrupted’ systems of colonial despotism.
The Congress governments of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in those years also aimed to project themselves as realistic alternatives to the Raj – regimes which took the notion of ‘public service’ seriously. The Special Police Establishment, which undertook to prosecute (albeit quite ineffectively) instances of government servant corruption, followed from 1941. And in March 1947, on the eve of independence, the Government of India passed the Prevention of Corruption Act. In the wake of Partition’s mass migrations, seizure of evacuee property and mob violence, state governments across India sought to ‘clean up’ their administrations. In Uttar Pradesh, this operation was described by the early 1950s state government as an ‘efficiency drive’ to ‘root out useless officers’. Conveniently, many of them were actual or intending evacuees to Pakistan.
It took a massive (pending) regime transition to initiate official drives for anti-corruption at that time. On the streets too, independence helped to generate citizens’ movements in the late 1940s to protest against corrupt local rationing or police officers. The vernacular and English newspapers, previously muzzled by the British, were replete with corruption scandals, especially those linked to black marketeers. But there was something more profound happening in early postcolonial India, just as there is today. The larger discussions of ‘corruption’ reached to the roots of what Indians thought about the state, and their own sense of national belonging or alienation. The recent criticisms of Anna Hazare bear this out. The writer Arundhati Roy points out the danger of creating another unaccountable anti-corruption ‘oligarchy’. Others argue that Hazare’s proposed Lokpal Bill could jeopardise constitutional protections for disadvantaged communities. Some Dalit organizations fear that Hazare’s Lokpal Bill, the drafting of which has not hitherto involved minority representation, may undermine some structures of reservations. Still others suggest that Anna Hazare’s style, and that of his supporters, smacks of demagoguery and ‘aggressive nationalism’. In some ways, this is business as usual: India has a complex and highly developed system of fundamental rights provisions within its Constitution, and the country is certainly no stranger to vibrant public debate.
Ever since the 2010 protests by the ‘India Against Corruption’ activists, and more forcefully since Hazare’s recent fast, the issue of corruption has led Indians to re-evaluate what the state really means to them. What is its role? How far are its agents accountable, and to what extent does it protect civic and democratic rights? Such questions reflect back on the colonial past. Most stark in both the anti-corruption protests, and the recent critiques of Anna Hazare is something which both sides share – a profound distrust of the state itself. Hazare’s Gandhian style is not only significant in its evocation of the ‘father of the nation’, but also in its reflection of older critiques of the colonial system as being ‘corrupt’, and as a regime which encouraged and nurtured societal corruption.
Despite running a byzantine structure of administrative rules and procedures, the British in India rarely referred to the problem of ‘corruption’ as such. ‘Integrity’ among government servants was expected, but it was poorly policed and based on the assumption that the (largely white British) superior administrator was ultimately the principal figure who could be ‘corrupted’ in a serious way. He, unlike his Indian subordinate, had much to lose and more to maintain as far as the regime was concerned.
When faced with elected Congress regimes’ attempted exposure of administrative and police corruption in the late 1930s, colonial officials fell back on arguments that what Congressmen described as ‘corruption’, might often be better defined as ‘custom’. The British Raj was run on a financial shoe-string, with officers thinly stretched over vast areas and populations. It was heavily dependent on armies of Indian subordinates, and could ill afford to consistently root out the ‘customary’ arrangements which secured its authority in the locality. Powerful landowners might control the local police constable, or compel free labour among the landless poor. The Raj needed him to help maintain law and order, and pay revenue. A local revenue official might take a commission (or ‘dasturi’ – customary payment) to allow cultivators access to land records, or a railway official might accept a ‘gift’ (or ‘daalii’) to arrange faster carriage for consignments of goods.
But for most colonial officials, such arrangements were seen as an intrinsic dynamic of Indian society: classically, British utilitarian thought, represented by the likes of James Mill in the early 19th Century, presupposed the wastefulness, indolence and corruption of ‘Oriental’, ‘Asiatic’ and ‘despotic’ forms of governance, as found in India.
Britain’s supposedly ‘rational’ system of revenue might thereby discipline the essentially corrupt societal interactions of India. The son of James – the philosopher John Stuart Mill – was influential on British administrative thinking about corruption as ‘custom’: the younger Mill in his later political theory, privileged the idea of ‘sentiment’ as much as ‘reason’ in human affairs. Studies of national habits, imagination and traditions were a means of comparing different social institutions across the world, and particularly the difference between Occident and Orient. In studying the permanence of such ‘native institutions’, many advised against their reform, as natural facets of the social environment.
In 1952, following its first General Election, India became the world’s largest democracy. But its political system still rested (as it does today) on a structure of power inherited from the Raj, principally in its administrative and police cadres. The 1950 Constitution was based to a great extent on the colonial constitution passed in 1935. When Indira Gandhi, following allegations of electoral irregularities, declared a State of Emergency in 1975, she was exercising a state power that had underpinned the colonial system. Yet since 1947, and largely because of past struggles against imperialism, citizens have asserted the right to contest these vestiges of authoritarian power. Elements of this right to protest are writ large today – and whatever the outcome of Hazare’s campaign, and whether or not a tough Lokpal Bill finally finds its way into the statute book, it is clear the turbulent relationship between Indian citizens and the state will continue to flourish.
William Gould, Senior Lecturer in Indian History, University of Leeds, is the author of Bureaucracy, Community and Influence: Society and the State in India, 1930-1960s (London: Routledge, 2011)