The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The brutal deaths of anti-corruption activists in India

Ranjan Vira, Bhupendra Vira's widow, sits in the exact spot where her husband sat when he was fatally shot. The missing wall tile behind her was removed by police as evidence. The bullet that killed her husband ricocheted off it. (Vidhi Doshi/Vidhi Doshi/The Washington Post)

In the din of Kalina, a low-income neighborhood in Mumbai with wandering ­samosa salesmen and street-cricket championships, nobody heard the gunshot ring out in the night.

Bhupendra Vira slumped in his chair. The 62-year-old had known that his anti-corruption work was dangerous. That is why he kept evidence neatly stacked in folders under his bed. That is why he had asked police for protection.

“There was blood everywhere,” said Ranjan Vira, his wife. “I used my scarf to cover his wound. My nightgown was soaked with his blood.”

According to data collected by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Vira's killing was one of 60 similar cases in India since 2005, when the Right to Information Act was introduced. The legislation is similar to the United States' Freedom of Information Act and allows citizens to request the release of information from government officials. But in India, those who invoke the law risk provoking violent retribution.

Vira had been investigating a local property scam; he said the records he uncovered implicated his landlord, Abbas Razzak Khan, and local authorities. He had sent multiple requests to local municipal bodies and filed complaints on the basis of the information he collected — complaints that led to the razing of a number of illegal buildings in the area.

Indians make approximately 4 million to 6 million public-information requests every year, said Anjali Bhardwaj of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information. Right-to-information activists such as Vira have taught themselves to decipher complex legal documents and navigate India's labyrinthine bureaucracy. They comb through government documents searching for hints of falsification or malpractice.

But there are risks. At least 300 people have been harassed or physically hurt because of their work. Activists say the figure is likely to be a conservative estimate, compiled from news stories, as authorities do not separately record deaths and attacks linked to people’s exercising the right to seek information.

Although India is one of 70 countries with freedom-of-information laws, the killings are “uniquely a South Asian phenomenon,” said Venkatesh Nayak, coordinator of the Access to Information Program at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. “It started in India in 2007-2008, and now we are hearing of cases of assault and intimidation from Bangladesh as well.”

According to a recent report by Transparency International, India is the most corrupt country in Asia, with 69 percent of respondents in a survey saying they had obtained public services by paying bribes.

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“It’s very critical to understand the nature of corruption in our country,” Bhardwaj said. “It’s unlike Western countries, where you have corruption at the highest level but things work at the lowest level. In India, you have corruption at every single level.”

Like Vira, many have lost their lives. Some have been attacked with knives and machetes. Some have been so badly beaten that they have been paralyzed or hospitalized with serious injuries. Others have vanished.

Yet the requests for information keep coming. Many Indians start using the act to seek redress of personal grievances against the government. In one area in southern Delhi, a group started making requests to find out where undelivered food rations were going. In another region, stricken by drought, residents discovered that their local government representative was spending money building fountains instead of ensuring a clean supply of drinking water for the public.

“What people are able to connect with is the link between that information and getting your rations,” Bhardwaj said. “So getting information became a matter of being able to use your other rights.”

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Vira’s crusade against corruption started because his landlord had forcibly taken over his steelworks factory, a building he had inherited from his father and used for storage for his stationery shop. According to a complaint that Vira filed with local police in 2010, his landlord and the landlord’s son broke the padlock on the factory door and seized items worth about $4,700.

“I talked to Mr. Abbas Razzak Khan regarding same, but he threatened to break hands and legs of myself and my sons. And then Abbas Razzak Khan left, putting his own lock on the shop,” Vira’s statement reads.

Vira suspected that Khan had paid local authorities to allow him to take over properties in the area. To prove it, he started filing right-to-information requests. The requests rattled officials, said Sudhir Gala, Vira’s son-in-law. In another complaint, filed in 2016, Vira describes being threatened by a municipal officer.

An officer investigating the case said police think Vira was killed because of the complaints he made to authorities in his right-to-information requests. The officer declined to give his name because the Vira homicide case is pending and because he is not authorized to speak to the news media.

A trial against Vira’s suspected killers is underway. One of them is Khan, who has been released on bail. His son Amjad is still in jail; police found a gun and bullets in his home. Both pleaded not guilty in the case.

It could be years before the slow-moving judicial system delivers a verdict in Vira's killing. In the meantime, Ranjan, Vira's wife, is starting to confront the reality of living her later years without the man she married 40 years ago, when she was 18.

Now, she has two battles to fight: reclaiming her husband’s factory and seeking justice in his killing. “We know we’re right, so we’re willing to risk everything,” she said. But minutes later, her resolve crumbled. “Sometimes I feel I’m ready to go, too,” she said.

The money she earns barely covers her daily costs. “Why go through all this, just to put two rotis in your stomach at the end of the day? For the past week, I ­haven’t been working,” she added. “I’ve become alone. I feel like running away.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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