Forty-nine transfers in 18 years. This is the price Ashok Khemka has paid for being an upright bureaucrat. Over the years, he has seen friends turn to foes in no time. He has been attacked not just by the people in power, but also by many in the media who questioned his integrity. So, it is not surprising that he was sceptical when THE WEEK approached him for an interview.
“Why do you want to meet me?” he asked. “I am not a celebrity. I am a charge-sheeted officer. My refusal to accept that corruption could be part of the government policy has led to this.”
In 2012, Khemka came under fire for cancelling a land deal mutation worth Rs57 crore between real estate major DLF Universal and Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law, citing corrupt practices in the deal. In 2013, the Bhupinder Singh Hooda-led Haryana government filed a charge-sheet against him for “exceeding his jurisdiction”.
The charge-sheet was leaked to the media by the state government and a Hindi daily published it even before Khemka got a copy. Soon enough, he was transferred from the land acquisition department to the archives and archaeology department.
When the BJP came to power in Haryana in 2014, Khemka was appointed as transport commissioner. However, in April this year, he was once again transferred to the archaeology department. The decision came after Khemka unearthed irregularities in the transport licensing system.
Since an inquiry is pending against him, Khemka is not entitled to get a promotion or deputation to the Centre. He cannot go on study leave, too. However, he has no regrets about being a whistleblower who blew the lid off several scams. “I am guilty of all these charges you mention and I will not hesitate to commit them again,” Khemka told the commission formed by the Congress government to probe the charges against him.
Given the pace of the inquiry, it could take years to arrive at a conclusion. But the powers that be are not complaining. Khemka, too, is determined to keep his fight against corruption going. “Corruption is an expression of power of the ruler over the ruled,” he says. “It is demeaning and dehumanising. It is the barbed wire fence that hampers growth.”
He draws strength from the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore and Barack Obama. “To me, honesty is action. It is karma,” says Khemka, sitting in his official residence at Chandigarh, where he lives with his wife, Jyoti.
Khemka was worried about his family’s safety when the scam broke. “My sons [Shreenath and Ganesh] went to school on their bicycles at that time. There were instances where ‘friends’ came and subtly delivered the message that I should be mindful of their safety,” he says.
The family also got threats. “Late at night, there would be blank calls or miscreants would ring our door bell,” says Jyoti, who is originally from Delhi. But Khemka doesn’t want any security cover for himself or his family. “We would be marked,” he says.
Two years ago, when Khemka was embroiled in the land deal controversy, his mother suffered a stroke as she could not handle the stress of seeing her son's name being sullied.
Despite the ups and downs in his life, Khemka follows a fairly strict routine. He starts his day at eight with breakfast made by his wife. His sons are away in Bengaluru and Hyderabad studying law. He reaches the secretariat by 9am where he was allotted a room recently after repeated requests.
So from whom did he get his fighting spirit? Born in a middle-class Marwari family in north Kolkata’s Grey Street, Khemka had a sound upbringing. During his days in St Xavier’s College, Khemka became an active member of the students’ union. He led protests against hikes in power tariff and bus fare in the city.
His father was a learned man. “I have his old writings and letters,” says Khemka. “His handwriting was so good. I also have the rocking chair he used while reading. I keep it in my living room, but I do not use it.”
From the air-conditioned room in the secretariat, Khemka moves to his real office, a dilapidated workshop in the compound of College of Art and Craft in Chandigarh, which is home to the Haryana government’s department of archaeology and museums.
“They send old government vehicles to retire here,” says Khemka, pointing to an array of cars lying outside. Inside, a hall with leaking roof and dampened walls is what Khemka calls his office which he shares with seven other employees. A cubicle of sorts has been created for Khemka using book racks. A wooden table, a couple of chairs and a telephone complete the picture.
Till recently, the hall was filled with discarded furniture, vehicle parts and other junk, say the staffers. Antique figurines, seals and other objects of historical value excavated by the department were also kept in the same hall. While the junk was cleared, the artefacts remain. The highlight among them is an Adinath statue in black stone that dates back to twelfth century and is valued at 010 crore. There are also relics of the Harappan era and later civilisations.
After Khemka took over, he conducted repair work to stop the seepage. He also got an iron grille installed on the window and the ventilator. “I had to do the repairs from the department’s budget and without any additional sanctions since it needed to be done immediately,” he says. “We did it ourselves without waiting for any approval for a tendering process to happen. My staffers laboured hard to make this possible.”
The Khemkas engage in very little socialising. So, when the opportunity for an official visit to one of the archaeological sites came up, he acceded to our request to let his wife, who is an art historian, accompany him. We took off to Bhimadevi temple complex in Pinjore, about 23km from Chandigarh. After taking stock of the twelfth century temple complex and the museum adjacent to it, Khemka settled down for a simple lunch bought by his staffers from a nearby dhaba.
Khemka seemed relaxed despite the long day. So, we asked him the inevitable question. How did he discover the misdoings in the land deal? He gave a cryptic reply: “A rookie gets hold of a driving licence and sells it to Michael Schumacher who came looking for one. The licence that costs Rs7 crore was sold for Rs50 crore. Can you or I do this? Can we sell the licence given to us by the government to our friends?”
Was it then a case of political vendetta? “Robert Vadra is just an individual who got the licence. There are many more like him,” says Khemka. “People think that I am with the BJP or the RSS, and that is the reason why I gave them an issue on which they could win elections. But I had never thought about the result of my actions. It was peripheral. If I had been so thoughtful I would have never been able to act or work to stop this practice.”
But he doesn’t hold any grudges against the ruling class. “It is the prerogative of the elected representatives to decide where they want bureaucrats,” says Khemka. “Otherwise, corruption would become even more rampant if people stick to their positions. Politicians are trustees of our society whom people can bring to task every five years and they should be allowed to have officers of their choice.”
Did he ever get a chance to meet Vadra or his extended family? “They are big people. Very big,” he says. He did meet Hooda two days before demitting office. “I had gone to visit him in keeping with my usual practice of saying goodbye to chief ministers I work with,” says Khemka. “He apologised for the hardships he caused me and requested me to tender an apology so that he could withdraw the state government’s charge-sheet against me. I refused. He seemed truly repentant.”
Does Khemka think that Narendra Modi would be able the curb the menace? “People should not expect a miracle,” he says. “There is a lot of hard work. Right now, the situation is like in the play Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett and everyone is endlessly and in vain waiting for ‘Godot’ to save them. Godot will never come and the frustration will kill us all if we do not act ourselves.”