Indian bureaucrat hounded out of office 43 times for fighting graft


Ashok Khemka stands in his garden with his wife Jyoti, in the northern Indian town of Chandigarh after being demoted, allegedly for ordering a probe into shady land deals involving politically connected individuals. (Simon Denyer/The Washington Post)
October 22, 2012

Ashok Khemka is a troublemaker.

A senior career bureaucrat, he simply cannot tolerate corruption, and so, in every job he takes, he does his best to put a stop to it.

Not surprisingly, that does not always go down very well with his bosses.

In 21 years as a government worker in the northern state of Haryana, Khemka’s determination to follow the rules has seen him transferred out of his job 43 times — or moved to another department every six months on average.

In his last job, he survived just 80 days. But this time, Khemka turned himself into a national celebrity by taking on the might of the Nehru-Gandhi family, which has dominated Indian politics since independence. With resentment against official graft running high and the media hungry for scams, Khemka was eagerly seized upon as a hero.


Ashok Khemka makes a phone call in his new office in the northern Indian town of Chandigarh. (Simon Denyer/The Washington Post)

Khemka’s rise to fame began this month when anti-corruption activists accused Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of India’s most powerful politician, Sonia Gandhi, of amassing tens of millions of dollars through a series of shady land deals since Gandhi’s Congress party came to power in 2004. Vadra denies the charges.

Khemka, then director of land registration in Haryana, saw a newspaper report alleging that the deals occurred in four districts for which he was responsible. He immediately ordered an inquiry, asking for the relevant land records to be sent to his office.

“If the allegations being made are wild in nature, let it be exposed and we can show that we are fair,” he said. “If the allegations are correct, then action should follow. Robert Vadra is an ordinary citizen, and he is under the rule of law of this country.”

Khemka said that three days later, bureaucrats in two districts told him they could not comply with his request for the land records because of instructions “from the top.”

“I said, ‘Look, Robert Vadra is not above the law. If you don’t do it, I will address you a letter and it will become a media storm,’ ” Khemka said.

At 10 o’clock that night, a note arrived at Khemka’s apartment notifying him that he had once again been transferred, demoted to a more junior role running the state seed development corporation.

Khemka said that the government feared “a big exposure” but that he does not know whether his demotion was linked to the Vadra case or other investigations he had begun into a host of similar cases.

India’s anti-corruption activists embraced Khemka and vowed to stand with him.

“We are fully with Khemkaji,” India Against Corruption leader-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal told reporters, using a traditional Hindi honorific. “We salute his struggle and will offer any help he requires. I appeal to all honest Indians to show some courage in their districts like Khemka did and expose corruption.”

‘Nightmarish experience’

Khemka, who passed one of the most competitive examinations in the world to enter the Indian Administrative Service and has a PhD in computer science, is clearly a man who respects the rules — his conversation is dotted with references to sections of the administrative rule book, to land laws and to the constitution.

Despite multiple appearances on Indian television, he has stressed that he is not criticizing government policy in the media, something that is, in itself, against the rules of service for a bureaucrat.

“Crony capitalism and corruption is not government policy,” he said. “I am just lending my voice against my superior decision-makers in the hierarchy, who are blatantly disobeying government policy and engaging in this kind of racketeering.”

In 1993, Khemka, then a local magistrate, was asked by the then-chief minister of Haryana to procure government trucks to transport people to a Congress party rally. He refused. Later, he successfully fought the use of asbestos in warehouse walls and water pipes, overcoming a powerful asbestos lobby in league with local politicians.

He blew apart a cartel supplying poor-quality bricks to the government and exposed the illegal transfer of prime land just outside New Delhi to a builder at a cheap rate, winning a national anti-corruption award in 2011. He says he donated the prize money to cancer and tuberculosis research.

“I have a sixth sense of seeing where a scam is,” he said. That has not always made him popular with his colleagues — especially now.

“In the last one or two months, most of my friends, or some of them, have deserted me, for the reason of fear, or part jealousy,” he said. “I will not walk into an office very comfortably. Sometimes I feel a sense of uneasiness, that I am not one of them.”

Nevertheless, Khemka said that his juniors are often proud to be associated with him. He has received messages of support this month from retired senior bureaucrats and Indians all over the world, he said, something that has helped him through this “nightmarish experience.”

The government, however, has challenged Khemka’s version of events.

Haryana’s chief minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, denied that Khemka’s transfer was a punishment and promised that the allegations against Vadra would be investigated. But if they were found to be false, he told reporters, then “appropriate action” could be taken against the bureaucrat.

The integrity challenge

Meanwhile, a whisper campaign began in New Delhi about Khemka’s character. Government loyalists asked whether he was simply someone who could not hold a job.

“Is he the only Mr. Right and all others evil ogres, or is there a fundamental problem that is being overlooked?” asked Congress party spokesman Manish Tewari.

But journalists and lawyers here in Chandigarh say Khemka has an unrivaled reputation for honesty.

“In my experience, there are two kinds of government officers — officers who work only to please their political masters, and other officers who work to uphold the law, who work for justice and the poor,” said advocate Kuldip Tiwari. “I put Mr. Khemka in category two. So far as his honesty and integrity is concerned, no one can doubt it.”

The stress is clearly affecting Khemka, who says he has also received death threats.

“People like me who fall foul of the system, who see through their game, they try to badger you, to bully you. All these kind of threats, they make life horrible for you.”

In an interview in his bare new office, sitting on an orange-checkered couch, he sounded a tone of defiance, vowing to fight to change the system from within “until the date of my retirement.”

Rama Lakshmi and Suhasini Raj contributed to this report.

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
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