One of the greatest thinkers of the modern era was a convicted felon. On April 17, 1621, Francis Bacon, the English philosopher, statesman, scientist and author, was fined 40,000 pounds. What was his crime? The lord chancellor, who was responsible for the efficient functioning and independence of the courts, had accepted bribes from litigants.
In 1837 when Benjamin Disraeli got elected to the parliament, a lawyer from his constituency accused the future British prime minister of bribing his way to power. It was embarrassing no doubt but the accusation was the least of his worries. "His electors did not mind the first charge. They lived on bribes," writes biographer Robert Blake. Disraeli's real crime was that he had promised the lawyer a bribe - and not paid. "That was a much more serious matter."
Bribery was such a banal thing in Britain that Disraeli had nothing against it per se. He was just too cheap to pay up. In fact, in 1841 he dumped his original constituency and chose a cheaper seat with fewer voters requiring fewer bribes.
For nearly 200 years, Indians saw the British penchant for corruption up close. Virtually every British civil servant in India had at least one hand in the till. Governor Generals Robert Clive and Warren Hastings were both accused of massive theft. In 1757, Clive received a quarter of a million pounds (an astronomical amount of money in those days) as a reward for winning Bengal for the British. That bounty apparently wasn't enough and he proceeded to steal millions more from the Indians. At his trial, Clive said, with a dollop of chutzpah, that considering the wealth he had seen in India, he was "astounded" at his own moderation at not taking more.
This penchant for greed is indulgently corroborated by the influential Scottish philosopher and imperialist David Hume in his six-volume History of England: "The British conquerors in India directed their pursuits to one object exclusively, the acquisition of money. They considered in every transaction of war, peace or alliance what money could be drawn from the inhabitants. They pillaged not with the ferocity of soldiers but with the cool exactness of debtor and creditor. Before they planned aggression, they calculated the probable proceeds, the debts they might extinguish. They considered war with the natives merely a commercial adventure: by so much risk encountered a certain quantity of blood spilt, and a certain extent of territory desolated, great sums were to be gained. The sufferings of India attached no blame to the nation." Britain has had regular trysts with crooks.
Modern Britain: Mobster's paradise
It is easy to understand why Jet Airways owner Naresh Goyal may have been fleeing to London. Before Goyal, there was Nirav Modi of the great diamond heist and Vijay Mallya who owns more than Rs 9,000 crore to Indian banks. Plus, Britain is home to hundreds if not thousands of less famous Indian fugitives, most of who will never be brought to justice because Britain offers a unique environment in which international mobsters, criminals and terrorists get the red carpet - no questions asked.
But why Britain, why not the United States or France? Well, firstly the United States tends not to be a favoured destination for international fugitives because the Americans ask intrusive questions. Secondly, Indians find it difficult to navigate through continental Europe without the knowledge of German and French.
That leaves Britain. Less than an eight-hour flight from India, it is conveniently located so that the family and friends of the fugitives can visit them over the weekend. The authorities there have handed over only one Indian, Samirbhai Vinubhai Patel in 2016, since both the countries signed an extradition treaty in 1992. Britain has not only rejected a large number of extradition requests made by India on different grounds but is currently sitting on nine cases.
When Indian officials and minister press their extradition demands, Britain's excuse is that it is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. This means if British courts decide that a person could face torture or capital punishment, or the extradition is due to political reasons, they may deny the extradition request. However, the country is using the Convention to shield hardened criminals and even sex offenders from India.
The real reasons for Britain's indulgent attitude towards Indian criminals are different. One is good old greed. Wealthy fugitives escape to Britain with unaccounted cash and wealth which can be deposited - with a wink and a nod - in the tax haven of Isle of Man.
The tens of billions of dollars in illicit funds siphoned to Britain from India, Russia and Africa add up to a hefty chunk of GDP. It is a big deal in a country that is rapidly becoming - as a Russian diplomat famously said - "a little island nobody pays attention to".
Plus, there seems to be a deep desire among the British to snub India because of extreme envy at seeing the former colony race for the Moon and Mars. It is intolerable to see India making it to the six o' clock for science, technology and GDP - even as millions of British citizens slide into poverty. The British judiciary's appalling decision to accept Mallya's argument that Indian prisons are not good enough for him is a reflection of that sentiment.
Welcome mat for terrorists
If providing a soft landing for embezzlers and criminals isn't bad enough, Britain is a sanctuary for hardened terrorists as well. Mizo National Front founder Laldenga, who conducted terror strikes against India with Pakistani help, was among the many Indian extremists who were welcomed in Britain with open arms. In 1971 after Bangladesh kicked him out, Laldenga found it remarkably easy to set up base in London.
Jagjit Singh Chohan, the founder of the Khalistan movement that sought to create an independent Sikh state in Punjab also found sanctuary in London in 1980. Secure in his new British home, Chohan declared himself president of the "Republic of Khalistan". On June 12, 1984, Chohan told the BBC: "Within a few days, you will have the news that Mrs Gandhi and her family have been beheaded." On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated.
In 1984 Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre was kidnapped and murdered in Birmingham by Kashmiri Muslim terrorists. Fingerprints recovered from the gun used to kill Mhatre were traced to Mohammed Aslam Mirza, a British citizen, who was arrested in Pennsylvania in 2004. However, British courts let him go after Mirza claimed he had no recollection of the events of 1984 due to severe memory problems.
Laldenga and Chauhan finally surrendered to Indian authorities after sustained Indian military and diplomatic pressure. But Britain refuses to change - it continues to offer a secure space for Kashmiri groups that raise funds for terrorist groups in India.
With 66,000 of its nationals on the run from justice, and a large number of them having found asylum in Britain, Russia is the most affected by Britain's policies. The Guardian explains how Britain has become a haven for some of the most dangerous and murderous criminals in the world: "This is competitive tendering, in terms of law and tax enforcement, and Britain comes in lower than other American and European rivals."
"Apart from the weather, what is there not to like here? An industry has been created to cater for the oligarchs' every need. Former ministers represent them in the Lords; former spin doctors do their PR; lawyers queue up to represent them, using Britain's hideously indulgent defamation laws to slap suits at the first sign of trouble."
"Financial advisers make sure the oligarchs pay as little as possible on their earnings, savings, and even their council tax. Private boarding schools welcome their children and their chequebooks."
Clearly, a customised ecosystem exists in the country that enables crooks and terrorists to either seamlessly integrate into British society or remain in private walled off enclaves in London's most expensive suburbs. This is the ecosystem that attracts the likes of Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Naresh Goyal who can continue to lead lives of affluence in a home away from home. And with London being a brown enough city, Indian fugitives are able to easily blend in too.
What India needs to do
A white collar criminal fleeing the country after wiring a billion dollars or more to his destination is more dangerous to society than a murderer. For, while a killer takes one life, a person who steals thousands of crores may ruin the lives of hundreds of families.
The prosperity of many of these families may be ruined forever; some may enter the ranks of the poor; others may commit suicide and leave behind a wife and children with little or nothing to survive on. This is why white collar criminals in the West often get longer prison sentences than homicidal maniacs.
Perhaps India could look at how Russia deals with white-collar fugitives. In 2003 Russian business oligarch Boris Berezovsky was given political asylum in Britain. British courts repeatedly refused to extradite Berezovsky who was convicted in Russia in absentia for embezzlement.
In 2013 he was found dead in his London home. In 2008 Berezovsky's long-time business partner Badri Patarkatsishvili had suddenly dropped dead. In 2006 their mutual friend Alexander Litvinenko, a KGB defector to Britain, had died of polonium poisoning. After Berezovsky's macabre end, the torrent of oligarchs fleeing Russia with their loot turned into a trickle and then dried up.
One doesn't expect India's political leadership to greenlight the development of polonium darts, but as they say, you have to shoot just one, the rest will get the message.
(The author is a New Zealand-based defence and foreign affairs analyst)
Copyright©2021 Living Media India Limited. For reprint rights: Syndications Today