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The gruesome killing of Indian anti-corruption activists

Posted: September 13, 2017 at 6:09 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

In a house tucked away in a teeming, low-income Mumbai neighborhood, Bhupendra Vira began a relentless campaign. The 62-year-old man wanted his steelworks factory back.

Vira’s family claims that his landlord forcefully seized the factory. The landlord owned Vira’s home but had no claim to the factory, Vira said in a police complaint from 2010. Vira had been paying rent for his home regularly and noted in the complaint that he was a law-abiding citizen.

Vira believed local authorities were helping the landlord legitimize claims to properties in the area, his son-in-law Sudhir Gala said. So, to prove that the property was his, he started collecting a mountain of papers under his bed and in his wardrobe — documents obtained through India’s freedom of information legislation.

Vira soon uncovered evidence suggesting that his landlord controlled several unlicensed properties. Authorities took note of his investigation and started tearing down the illegal structures.

Vira always knew his work was dangerous. That’s why he made multiple appeals to his local police station asking for protection. That’s why he made copies of copies, all neatly filed.

Then one evening in October, while he was watching television, someone came into his home and shot him in the head.

“There was blood everywhere, and a hole inside his head,” said Ranjan Vira, Bhupendra’s wife, who found him. “I used my scarf to cover his wound. My nightgown was soaked with his blood.”

An officer investigating the case said police think Vira was killed because of the complaints he made to authorities based on his freedom of information requests, known in India as the right to information. The officer declined to give his name because the case is pending and he is not authorized to speak to the media.

In India, where corruption is rampant and injustices are many, ordinary citizens have turned into investigators. Indians make approximately 4 million to 6 million requests every year, said Anjali Bhardwaj of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information.

But many of those who file right-to-information requests know the risks involved. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative lists at least 60 people who were brutally killed after they filed requests since the act was introduced in 2005. At least 300 others have been harassed or physically hurt. Activists say the figure is likely to be a conservative estimate, compiled from news stories, as authorities do not separately record deaths linked to right to information.

“This is uniquely a South Asian phenomenon,” said Venkatesh Nayak, coordinator of the Access to Information Program at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, speaking about the killings. “It started in India in 2007-2008 and now we are hearing of cases of assault and intimidation from Bangladesh as well.”

India is one of 70 countries with a freedom-of-information law. According to a recent report by Transparency International, India is also the most corrupt country in Asia, with 69 percent of respondents saying they had accessed public services by paying a bribe.

The existence of corruption here is widely known, and a subculture of anti-corruption warriors tries to prove it. These right-to-information activists have taught themselves how to read complex legal documents and navigate India’s labyrinthine bureaucracy. They comb through government documents searching for hints of falsification or malpractice. Many of them start using the act to redress a personal grievance against the government.

“It’s very critical to understand the nature of corruption in our country,” Bhardwaj said. “It’s unlike Western countries, where you have corruption at the highest level but things work at the lowest level. In India, you have corruption at every single level.”

More than half of all requests for information come from people living in extreme poverty, according to a report by the Right to Information Assessment and Advocacy Group from 2014 in which a random sample of applicants were surveyed.

“There is a very strong people’s demand for the right-to-information law,” Bhardwaj said. “It is used and owned by the common and ordinary citizens of the country.”

Since the legislation was introduced in 2005, Bhardwaj said, successive governments have tried to weaken it. Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, which claims to have “not even one taint or blot” of corruption, proposed rules to end appeals to the Information Commission if an applicant dies. If implemented, campaigners say, the rule could prompt more killings like Vira’s. (Applicants appeal to the Information Commission if government offices reject their request.)

Information activists nationwide who take on corrupt officials and mafias have been gunned down or beaten, and some have even been jailed or threatened by police.

Yet the requests keep coming. In one neighborhood in southern Delhi, a group started making requests to find out where their undelivered food rations were going. In another region, stricken by drought, residents discovered their local government representative was spending money building fountains instead of ensuring a clean drinking water supply.

“What people are able to connect with is the link between that information and getting your rations,” Bhardwaj said. “So getting information became a matter of being able to use your other rights.”

Vira, in his quest to recover his steelworks factory, became known as a crusader against corruption. Soon, people from surrounding neighborhoods sought his help in filling out request forms to resolve their own grievances.

The steelworks factory had once belonged to Vira’s father, but he and his sons had begun using the space for storage for their new businesses making photocopies and selling stationery. According to a complaint Vira filed to local police in 2010, his landlord, Abbas Razzak Khan, and his son broke the padlock on the factory door and seized items worth about $4,700.

“I talked to Mr. Abbas Razzak Khan regarding same, but he threatened to break hands and legs of myself and my sons. And then Abbas Razzak Khan left, putting his own lock on the shop,” Vira’s statement reads.

Vira believed Khan had paid off local authorities to allow him to take over properties in the area. To prove it, he started filing right-to-information requests. The requests rattled officials, said Gala, Vira’s son-in-law. According to another complaint filed to police in 2016, Vira describes being threatened by a municipal officer.

Police said they later found a gun and bullets in the home of Amjad Khan, the landlord’s son. Police arrested and charged the pair. Abbas Razzak Khan was later released on bail. The trial against the pair has yet to start, and a verdict could take years in India’s slow-moving legal system. Both father and son will plead not guilty, said Amin Solkar, a lawyer who represented the elder Khan in the bail trial.

As she awaits justice, Ranjan Vira is starting to confront the prospect of living her later years without her husband, whom she married 40 years ago when she was 18.

Now, she has two battles to fight: reclaiming her husband’s factory and seeking justice for his killing. “We know we’re right, so we’re willing to risk everything,” she said. But minutes later, her resolve crumbles.

“Sometimes I feel I’m ready to go, too,” she said. The money she earns barely covers her daily costs. “Why go through all this, just to put two rotis in your stomach at the end of the day?

“For the past week, I haven’t been working,” she added. “I’ve become alone. I feel like running away.”



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