It was with deep interest but little sympathy that I watched the arrest of P Chidambaram last week. As I watched that small army of officials from the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation enforce their authority on a man who was once their boss, memories flooded back of what happened to me when Mr Chidambaram was Finance Minister. I have told the story in full, gory detail in my book India’s Broken Tryst, but a precis is necessary.
I was staying in the seaside home of a friend. It was a lazy Saturday afternoon. I was half asleep in front of the TV when the study in which I rested filled up with a group of men (and one dwarf-like woman). They screamed in unison that I had to ‘come down at once’. The Government of India, they yelled, we are from the Government of India, and this is a raid. On the way down I accidentally touched the dwarf woman and she screeched ‘don’t touch me’ as if I had molested her. When I got downstairs, I saw that there were around 30 people in the raiding party. Their first purpose seemed to be to intimidate me.
This is not easy. I yelled back when they yelled at me and this calmed them down. But, my protestations that the house they were raiding did not belong to me made no difference. They went through my private things and evaluated every little piece of jewellery I had. When they did not find whatever it was they came in search of, their aggression waned slightly but only slightly. There continued to be menace in their manner as if they were dealing with a criminal who was guilty till proven innocent. These men were from the Enforcement Directorate.
What happened to me happens to thousands of ordinary Indians routinely. Anyone trying to run a business, no matter how small, is constantly at the mercy of officials who handle economic offences. Criminals and terrorists are treated as innocent till proven guilty, but with supposed economic offenders, this basic principle of justice is usually reversed. Anyone who thinks that the platoon of TV reporters who covered Chidambaram’s arrest were there by accident needs to think again. Live television has emboldened officials to make the most of their 15 minutes of fame, so media trials of ‘celebrity offenders’ are now the norm.
It is hard to feel even a modicum of sympathy when political leaders become victims of the unjust system they have created and carefully nurtured. If there are those in Narendra Modi’s government who are gloating privately about what happened to a man who was once a powerful minister, I urge them to stop and reflect. Tomorrow it could be their turn. And, the day after it could be yours. Our investigative agencies have licence to use primitive methods of investigation. Ordinary tax inspectors today have powers to arrest those with ‘black money’. The men who made this law clearly did not notice that these officials are among the most corrupt in the Government of India or that ‘black money’ can be planted and a false case made.
The manner in which Chidambaram was publicly humiliated last week was wrong. There was no reason for officials to start jumping over walls in that fake show of diligence. There was no reason for the media to be informed so that TV reporters could cover every detail of the arrest of a former minister in the Government of India. But, the reason why it is hard to feel sympathy for Chidambaram is because in the many years he spent as Finance Minister and Home Minister he never once tried curbing the powers of agencies like the Enforcement Directorate.
The methods they use are so barbaric that a young businessman jumped out of a window in Delhi’s Loknayak Bhawan once rather than spend another night in the custody of the men torturing him for information. Dr Manmohan Singh was Finance Minister then and I remember drawing his attention to this tragic suicide. He said he was horrified and that he would do something about it, but this was 30 years ago and nothing has changed.
Before he was arrested, Chidambaram made a moving speech in the Congress party’s head office. He said, ‘I believe that the foundation of democracy is liberty. The most precious Article of the Constitution of India is Article 21 that guarantees life and liberty. If I am asked to choose between life and liberty, I shall unhesitatingly choose liberty.’
If only he had remembered this when he was Finance Minister he may have done more to guarantee the liberty of those hounded by his officers in the Economic Offences Wing. It is hard to feel sympathy for political leaders when they become victims of the system they have created.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 25, 2019 under the title ‘Victims of an evil system’. Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh