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Indian Government Minister Convicted of Murder

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Well, if you're concerned about government corruption in the United States, consider this story from India. For the first time ever, a serving cabinet member of India's federal government has been convicted of murder. The case is raising questions about crime in the world's largest democracy, which is, of course, also a rising global power.

NPR South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves reports from New Delhi.

PHILIP REEVES: S.K. Singh is a man of surprising energy. He's a retired civil servant. You'd think after a lifetime's work, he'd be ready to put his feet up. But he's back at it. He said he's so angered by the amount of graft and general criminality within government in India, that he's become a volunteer for Transparency International - an organization which monitors corruption levels worldwide. He's now helping scrutinize the system of which he used to be a part.

Mr. S.K. SINGH (Transparency International): It's the greed. It's the hunger for power. It's the hunger for money that takes you to crime.

REEVES: Singh believes he can make a difference.

Mr. SINGH: Well, I can make my small bit, that's all.

REEVES: Over the years, there've been plenty of corruption and crime scandals in Indian politics.

(Soundbite of people talking)

But the throng of camera crews gathered outside at New Delhi courthouse yesterday was proof that the latest case belongs to a new category.

(Soundbite of newscast)

Unidentified Woman: The big story, Bill, of this evening is being seen as the biggest conviction of a politician ever.

REEVES: Shibu Soren, the coal minister, was sentenced to life imprisonment for kidnapping and murdering his personal secretary in 1994. He's resigned from his ministry. But here, as India's 24-hour TV news channels were quick to point out, being a convicted murderer doesn't necessarily mean you're out of politics altogether.

(Soundbite of newscast)

Unidentified Man: Under section eight of the Representation of Peoples Act, Shibu Soren, or, for that matter, any other minister or a member of parliament who has been convicted by occupying the (unintelligible) membership, or the (unintelligible) membership, is under no legal obligation to step down from his position.

REEVES: A recent study found that more than one in six of the 545 members of India's parliament has a criminal background. In other words, they've been indicted - not necessarily convicted. Those are the stats for the central government. There are plenty of other criminals at state level.

Shibu Soren isn't the only one in trouble. A former international cricketer and sports commentator, Navjot Singh Sidhu, has just quit parliament after being convicted over the death of a man he beat up in an argument over parking. And this week, another lawmaker turned himself in to face forgery charges after many days on the run.

These men are being called to account, but lawyer and activist Preshen Prushang(ph) says there are many cases of criminals entering politics India because it allows them to avoid just that. He says joining parliament gives them the clout indefinitely to delay prosecutions against them.

Mr. PRESHEN PRUSHANG (Lawyer and Activist): The vast majority of these people are those who have been facing charges for the last 10, 15, 20, 30 years. Shibu Soren, for example - who has been convicted in one case right now - has been facing another charge for the last more than 31 years, and that trial has yet to start.

Mr. BIJI VERKES(ph) (Analyst of Indian Politics): Money plays a role, and so does muscle bound.

REEVES: Biji Verkes is a leading analyst of Indian politics.

Mr. VERKES: And many of these people, they're part of the mafia or mafia leaders - dons - or have mafia connections. Therefore muscle, money come into play. And this is not what politics should be about.

REEVES: Verkes says India has deservedly won plaudits for aspects of its democracy. But he also thinks the presence of criminals in the system is making the public cynical about their leaders and undermines good governance.

Mr. VERKES: It does a great deal of damage because digressions of the law drives good people out of politics, or at least influential voices get stilled because they don't enter or they're heard. And secondly, it means that there's a coarsening of the whole governance process.

REEVES: There have been some recent efforts to clean up Indian politics. A few years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that election candidates must give details of any criminal convictions. India's recently introduced Right to Information Act is widely believed to have helped check corruption.

Sudhir Kumar is a leading figure in the Central Vigilance Commission, a body set up in the 60s to curb official corruption. He's still optimistic, despite the widespread evidence of criminals in high political places in India.

Mr. SUDHIR KUMAR (Central Vigilance Commission): There's a lot of disappointment on account of such conduct. And yet there's a large number of people who have faith in the system, who feel that we will improve. And one thing I think we realize the potential that we are capable of.

REEVES: But everyone agrees - that day won't dawn until crime ceases to play a major role in India's political life.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.