The country is both riveted and moved by the extraordinary outpouring of public support, solidarity and goodwill by ordinary people for young IAS officer DK Ravi, found hanging from the ceiling fan in his official apartment.
Independent police investigations will hopefully settle the mysteries raised by murky allegations about what actually caused his tragic and untimely passing. But what is not in doubt that he was a brave, upright public servant who in his short 14-month tenure as the head of the district administration in Kolar won the hearts of the people he was appointed to serve. In Stray Birds, Tagore writes that ‘Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man’.
I am reminded of his words every autumn when invited to address new batches of IAS and IPS officers recruited to the higher civil services in Mussoorie.
When I speak to them of what I understand to be duties of public service — compassion, courage of conviction, taking sides with the poor and oppressed, a fine sense of justice and truth, and the duty of conscience and dissent — I watch many young faces ranged before me lit with idealism, nodding in concurrence.
I cannot but echo Tagore: Each new batch of young civil servants comes with the message that this country is not yet discouraged of its higher civil services. This public faith is fraying badly, with daily evidence of colossal corruption, partisanship and subservience that taint the higher bureaucracy.
Within just a few years of actual engagement with the realities of governance in our country, many young officers I see in Mussoorie rapidly become cynical and jaded, and a not insignificant number actively join the corrupt and oppressive mainstream.
But it is the idealism of unsung, unknown officers like Ravi that still sustains the belief of the country’s faceless citizens in the democratic State.
My work takes me constantly to distant corners of the country, in connection with communal and ethnic violence, hunger and starvation, and homelessness, and in my travels, I am continuously encouraged to meet wonderful young officers who sustain their belief in public service against enormous odds. Small town and rural India rarely make it to national television screens and the national Press.
Therefore courageous contests of these young officers — struggling to ensure a better deal to the poor, standing tall against powerful organisations, which foster caste and communal hatred and discrimination, battling corrupt land, sand, coal and mineral mafias — are rarely celebrated, or even acknowledged, beyond the hearts of dispossessed people they serve.
In rare moments such as Ravi’s death, or the kidnapping by Maoists of a district officer, the rest of the country catches a brief, indeed fleeting glimpse of the heroism and public service of these small band of officers, because ordinary people who they serve find transient space to express their admiration for and solidarity with these officers.
But for the greater part, they are the unsung heroes and heroines of India’s republic, unknown frontline soldiers who stake a great deal for the defence of India’s secular democracy.
It is not just a dearth of vocal and visible public solidarity that renders battles these young officers fight so lonely. Much more grave is the complete absence of support within the system for these officers. Senior officers very rarely stand up for such officers, or defend them when they are maligned, their reputations tarnished, or when they are tossed from posting to insignificant posting, dubbed hot-headed and impractical.
It is very unusual for Karnataka’s serving additional chief secretary Madan Gopal to speak out after Ravi’s death in his support, declaring that rumours to tarnish Ravi’s reputation by his seniors amount to killing him again.
Gopal told me that Ravi was a first-generation graduate from a poor family, and developed a magnificent reputation for public service by making health centres work, amending land records in camps for the poor, clearing land-mafia encroachments, and collecting more than Rs 150 crore commercial tax dues.
He was often frustrated that his efforts to serve the people were blocked. Gopal rightly spoke of the absence of any kind of mentoring system for such officers by their seniors.
Many young people ask me if they should take a bid at the civil service examinations to join the IAS or IPS, whether they can actually accomplish any public good.
I reply that for an idealistic young person, there is still hardly an assignment to match like this one, because in the districts it is these officers who implement the law and programmes for the poor.
But they must be ready to fight completely alone.
I recall my many battles in my years in the civil service, which led me to be thrown from one corner of the state to another every few months.
These battles included ensuring justice for survivors of communal violence by arresting politically powerful leaders, distributing thousands of acres of ceiling surplus land, restoring to tribal people land illegally expropriated from them, ensuring justice to persons displaced by large development projects, defending labour rights and fighting runaway corruption.
I do not regret any of these clashes or their consequences to me.
I had metaphorically taught myself to carry my resignation letter in my pocket. But I recall the utter loneliness of these conflicts, when there was no one to stand with you except your loved ones and your conscience. Therefore my heart goes out to Ravi, whatever finally precipitated his death.
It is even harder today for a young civil servant to stand for truth and justice than in the years of my youth. In my years, at least it was considered legitimate, even laudable, to take sides with the poor.
In the neo-liberal times of today, runaway crony capitalism has become the norm. As people all around you accumulate mammoth illicit wealth and call it nation-building, the officer who still believes in the primary duty to stand by the most dispossessed is an incongruous specimen, a sadly endangered species.
Harsh Mander is convenor, Aman Biradari
The views expressed by the author are personal