The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 20, 2001
Time Off

Red hands and red faces
By Manohar Malgonkar

ONE aspect of the Tehelka exposures has puzzled many people: the smallness of the bribes that are said to have been demanded by our military officers. A lakh is the upper limit for a general, with brigadiers and colonels licking their chops at the scent of a case of Scotch or wide-eyed at the sight of a gold chain — both costing no more than Rs 15,000.

Does that mean that our military officers are rank amateurs in this game of bribe-taking and don’t even know what should be the going rate for their...well, services?

Don’t they even read the papers? — they’re always full of stories about what sort of money is being paid these days to public servants who are true-grit bribe-takers!

Here is an example, so typical as to be almost routine and, as such, reported as an inner-page item in my local daily, Tarun Bharat, published in Belgaum. It concerns the sub-registrar in a small town called Khanapur.

Now a sub-registrar’s function is to register all transactions of land in his book of records. And since the fact of such registration puts the stamp of legality on sales of land, this official, merely by refusing to register, can hold the buyer to ransom. That it is his normal function of office, indeed his duty, to record all changes of ownership of land, is a different matter. Anyhow, this particular registrar demanded Rs 20,000 to register the sale of a tiny plot of land which someone had bought to build a shop on. "He was caught red-handed" by the Lok Ayukta of Belgaum.

Pictures that speak
May 13, 2001
Treasures in princely museums
May 6, 2001
Battle honours for staying power
April 29, 2001
Errors of precision
April 15, 2001
Hats off to the sahibs
April 1, 2001
The fate of trees
February 4, 2001
Indelible memories
January 21, 2001
Small men too can make history
January 14, 2001
Of officers & gentlemen
November 19, 2000
Officers and gentlemen
October 15,2000
Villains and heroes
October 7, 2000
Among the immortals
October 1, 2000
The sad story of unquiet graves
August 20, 2000

Rare manuscripts
August 13, 2000

Letters for sale
July 30, 2000

Retreat from Naulakha
July 16, 2000
The land of goats
July 2, 2000

An everyday happening? Oh, no! This one has a sting in its tail that is worthy of an O’ Henry story. A few months earlier, this same Lok Ayukta had caught the same sub-registrar in the act of taking a bribe in another place.

What it shows is that, even though caught while accepting a bribe, this official was not sent to jail or even dismissed from service, but transferred to another place to carry on as before, and I rather think that the Lok Ayukta must have felt more embarrassed than the sub-registrar when they discovered that they had gone through the same procedure earlier, and that this was like a retake in a film studio.

Oh, well, such are the facts of life, and there is nothing any of us, or teams of Lok Ayuktas, judges, even the Prime Minister, can do to break the mould. But then nor is it the point of this article, which is: the way some of our army officers just walked into Tehelka’s trap for the sake of chickenfeed.

True, a bribe is a bribe, no matter how small—a corrupt practice, a crime. But, as in any other field of human endeavour, there are the big achievers and the small fry. That sub-registrar of Khanapur, for instance. In the order of precedence he may rank with captains and majors. But, assuming that there were no more than 200 land sales in a year in his area, at his rate he made a cool 40 lakh annually—tax free. Enough money to buy Husain paintings, drive a BMW, send his daughter to a Zurich finishing school, or—at Tehelka rates—to lure 40 generals to participate in a fiddle for buying defence supplies.

He certainly set his sights high, that sub-registrar, and it is difficult to match his scale in India itself. Perhaps he has modelled himself on the scale that operates in Pakistan, where, too, they obviously think big.

Well, in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Asif Zardari, are said to have swallowed $ 2 billion of public money.

But the case that shows up the disparity between our financial rip-offs and those of Pakistan is that of the Bank of Commerce and Credit, or BCCI, established by a Karachi businessman, Aga Shahi. The bank went bust, with losses of 22 billion.

How does that compare with our own mother of financial scams, Harshad Mehta’s share ghotala? It was estimated to be worth Rs 600 crore. BCCI’s ghotala ran of with more than a 100 times as much!

The BCCI scam was a classic of is kind, and its promoters and operators, Aga Shahi and his cronies, the Napoleons of the game. Their major investors were gullible Arab Sheikhs who, already glutted with dollars, wanted to make even more money; at that is a high tribute to BCCI’s operaters that they took in some of the most hard-nosed American financial pundits—one of them a presidential adviser, no less—for a ride.

That is the name of the game, these days — not cases of whisky, but dollars in billions.

Which is what Nawaz Sharif is said to have done while he was Pakistan’s Prime Minister. At the high noon of his career, he lived like a king, on a vast estate dotted with designer villas and with its private animal park. Then one day he was arrested and flung into jail, charged with crimes of diabolic malevolence. Then came the drama of his release and exile, giving the impression that some secret deal had been struck. Anyhow, when he arrived at his place of exile, Saudi Arabia, he was received by his hosts as though he were a fellow-sheikh, an honoured guest—not a craven asylum seeker.

As is another woman discredited in her own land, Imelda Marcos. She, too, maintains a lavish lifestyle and thrives on publicity. But neither the Bhuttos nor the Marcos couple can be said to have looted their country bare as Indonesia Suharto family has done.

That really shows up those colonels and brigadiers who soiled their hands for small change dangled before them by Tehelka.

Home Top