India’s political elite has struck back at the country’s anti-corruption movement by threatening to lock up a Bollywood actor and serving a hefty tax bill on a leading activist pushing for tougher anti-graft laws.
The crackdown has come as the Congress party-led government regroups after being severely wrong-footed by a public hunger strike by social activist Anna Hazare in August.
The protests were a lightning rod for disdain for India’s political class, where many voiced their frustrations with poor governance and the leadership of the world’s largest democracy.
Om Puri, a Bollywood actor, and Kiran Bedi, who is one of Mr Hazare’s close aides and a former senior police officer, face a possible 15 days in jail as India’s parliament considers what were termed “derogatory and defamatory” remarks at public rallies.
Indian law bans disrespectful comments about parliament and those who are deemed to have breached privilege are punishable under the law of parliament. Indian parliamentary privileges are derived from the country’s 1950 constitution, but also from the similar laws of the British parliament. Few penal actions taken and the most significant case was in 1978 when Indira Gandhi, former prime minister, was expelled from the House for excesses during the Emergency.
Mr Puri, a well-known 60-year-old actor who also starred in the British comedy “East is East”, had called politicians “illiterate” and “thieves” in an address at a demonstration at the Ramlila Ground in central Delhi. He was one of a number of Bollywood stars, including Aamir Khan, who expressed their open support for Mr Hazare’s fast.
In a skit at one rally last month, Ms Bedi lampooned politicians for what she said were their double standards, arguing that what they said in public was at odds with their private dealings.
Activists on Friday accused the government of playing “dirty politics” by manipulating agencies of the state to defeat their popular cause.
On Friday, Arvind Kejriwal, a former employee of the Indian Revenue Service viewed as one of the brains behind Mr Hazare’s movement, was also served with an income tax bill of Rs900,000 in what appeared to be an effort to discredit him.
"If the government wants to fight the [proposed anti-corruption laws], they should fight on issues. But it should not play dirty politics," said Prashant Bhushan, a Supreme Court lawyer.
Justice Santosh Hegde, a supporter of Mr Hazare’s cause, described the timing of the tax demand as “unfortunate and deliberate”.
Commentators say that politicians in India’s vibrant democracy are far too thin-skinned, and need to be able to take public dissent without seeking retribution.
Dipankar Gupta, a former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, said that five out of seven of the parliamentarians who moved a privilege motion against Mr Puri belonged to the ruling Congress party, led by Sonia Gandhi. “Spoilt as they are by fawning sycophants, [our politicians] can stomach neither ridicule nor irreverence,” he said.
Mr Gupta also warned that the government was considering a special media accountability group to rein in journalists in a move that would “take our democracy even further away from civilised governments elsewhere”.
Some civil society activists warn that the upshot of the success of Mr Hazare’s movement in putting pressure on parliament to agree new legislation would be a crackdown on non-governmental organisations and social activists who dared to challenge it.
Already activists are under personal threat for exposing irregularities by the state.
The Asian Centre for Human Rights said on Friday that 12 activists, who had used freedom of information laws passed six years ago to seek greater transparency among state officials, had been killed over the past 18 months in India. The latest victim was a young journalist for Outlook Magazine, Shehla Masood, who was shot as she left for work in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh.
Mr Hazare on Friday afternoon addressed a rally in his home town of Ralagan Siddhi in Maharashtra telling his supporters that “the looting of public money” needed to be reversed by the country’s young. It was his first public appearance after his 13 day fast in the capital city.
He told thousands of his supporters that he had scored “a victory for the people” with his hunger strike, but vowed to continue a fight against “all injustice” to give Indians “true freedom”.