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How our British rulers “legalised” bribery

The year was 1943 when World War II was at its peak. The place, Kanpur, then one of the premier industrial cities of India. I was living in a college dorm and visiting an elderly relative who was posted in the city as one of the engineers building the well-known Hallet Hospital, named after the British Governor of the province, who had earned notoriety for ruthlessly crushing Gandhiji's ‘Quit India' movement in 1942.

The hospital project had been given to a construction company floated by a former chief engineer, who had been awarded the title of “Raja” by His Majesty for his distinguished services to the Empire. My relative was living with his family in houses built in advance for doctors. We were all taken by surprise when Raja Saheb walked into the engineer's house and made this proposition to him: “I know normally a contractor pays five per cent as commission to the engineer supervising his work but this is a big project and it is difficult to calculate each engineer's share. You being the seniormost among them, I shall bring you on the first of every month a packet containing an amount equal to twice the salary of each member of the engineering staff here and you can distribute it among them.” After consultations with his colleagues, the engineer conveyed their acceptance of his proposal.

The fact is that in 1943 a government officer accepting money for favours rendered in his official capacity was as legal as the unwritten British Constitution, regardless of the stringent punishment provided against it in the written law.

When marrying off a daughter to a government employee the parents always enquired openly about the “outside income” of the prospective bridegroom. Historians specialising in British rule in India are aware of how East India Company agents worked their way into the hearts and minds of Moghul kings and other sovereign potentates throughout the country by liberally bribing the courtiers.

When His Majesty's government took over the reins of the government from the Company, it applied the same principle to its own Indian staff through whom it ruled this huge (then undivided) nation from Peshawar to Dhaka to Kanyakumari. “Keep the officers and men happy to win their loyalty” was their motto. What is called bribe today was then called a “fee” or “commission”, and was given openly across the table and not, as now, under it.

This policy proved a boon to the British Government during critical times like the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 and again during World War II. In the 1840s, my great-grandfather was a supervisor under a British engineer during the construction of the historic dam on the Ganga above Haridwar. Every few months he would trudge about 30 miles through dense jungles carrying on his head a large wicker basket packed with one-rupee notes and concealed in grazing grass to escape being waylaid by robbers.

Those days two rupees was the monthly salary of a labourer was two rupees. What my ancestor carried was presumably money earned by making fictitious muster rolls. Despite this, he was a favourite of the British engineer. My ancestor gave ample proof of his loyalty to the Englishman by concealing him in a secret place during the Mutiny and thus saving his life.

As a reward for this service, he was awarded an estate in the form of zamindari rights over scores of villages. The family never looked back. This is just one example to show that the British rulers could not have succeeded in crushing the Mutiny without the active support of their loyal Indian employees.

The strategy was applied manifold during World War II when all that the Viceroy had to do was to print currency notes in unlimited numbers and leave it to the Indians to spend them on the “War Effort.” Prices shot up by eight to 10 times during the six-year war as contractors, goods suppliers, transporters, bureaucrats, engineers, freshly created industrialists, aristocrats, traders, ration shop owners and other supporters of the regime gobbled up the money but at the same time ensured that work for the War was accomplished in full and beyond the expectations of their masters.

Indians worked day and night at breakneck speed to build aerodromes, hospitals, whole cantonments, new railway yards and a host of other facilities not only to defeat the Japanese attack on India but also to feed the war machine on the western front.

So far as the British rulers were concerned, bribery was not an issue at all. It only enabled the government to keep its employees contented with small salaries and run the administration on a low budget while allowing the employees to help themselves with extra pickings from the public as perks of their jobs.

Partition and the mass genocide that followed it opened the floodgates of corruption on a massive scale. The “war efforts” drill of the British days was revived with redoubled vigour. We were fighting on two fronts now, the war with Pakistan over Kashmir and the campaign to rehabilitate millions of refugees in the shortest possible time. This included providing temporary camps and permanent townships, cleaning vast tracts of forest land, rebuilding swathes of marshes to make them cultivable, expansion of health education, transport and other facilities. Involving oneself in refugee relief work became the shortest route to ‘netagiri' as well as becoming rich overnight. Money flowed like water. An allied field of added attraction was allocation of millions of homes and establishments left vacant by Muslims who had fled to Pakistan. If World War II bred large-scale corruption during the British rule, the aftermath of Partition institutionalised and formalised it. The same administration which had ‘delivered' results during the War came in handy for repeating and multiplying its ingenious practices.

(The writer is a retired Assistant Editor of The Statesman. His email id is saroj_lal@yahoo.com)

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