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No country for honest officers?

Senior bureaucrats must stand by younger officers when their honesty and commitment are not in doubt, Muthusamy Varadarajan writes.

india Updated: Aug 14, 2013 22:05 IST
Muthusamy Varadarajan

When I first heard about Durga Shakti Nagpal, the young IAS officer who was suspended for doing her duty, I was reminded of my own days as a minnow in the service. Then, as now, local politicians often took a dim view of what young officers did in their backyard, but they seldom had their way in the face of their superiors as well as the higher bureaucracy’s own commitment to the rule of law.

In 1959, as a young magistrate in Uttar Pradesh barely two-and-a-half years into the IAS, I had to order firing on a mob that had set my jeep and a police truck afire. Two died and some were injured in the incident. A senior MP went to my boss, the district collector, and told him, “If only you had been on the spot and not sent an inexperienced officer this would never have happened.” “Sir,” the collector said sternly, “it is better that I sent a raw officer. If I had gone myself, an entire hospital ward would have been filled”. That was the end of the matter. A magisterial inquiry exonerated me, and later the trial ended in conviction of the mob leaders.

But for the backing of my senior, I would have been finished. In the bureaucracy, seniors must be honest and committed mentors of younger officers. They must stand by them when actions taken in good faith misfire but their honesty and commitment are not in doubt. In Durga’s case, it is reassuring to read that her boss stood by her.

The administrative history of India in recent decades has reinforced the belief that the transfer of a civil servant or a police officer is often upon the whim of a minister, a local politician, or due to money power and influence peddlers. Indeed, frequent transfers are seen as the most effective way of ensuring that the civil service conforms to the politician’s diktats.

This trend can be neutralised in two ways: first, by officers refusing to submit to illegalities even if this means (as it has for at least one IAS officer) 41 transfers in a career that would normally span 35 years; and second, by guaranteeing civil servants a reasonable tenure, as at least 13 states have reportedly agreed to it. In my own case, after 17 years in the service, I was once given four postings in eight months.

Being young, with my children away at hostels, I packed my suitcase and went to the new posting. Not everyone can do this easily and unjustified and frequent transfers can be upsetting. Sometimes it helps to subtly but firmly put one’s foot down. When my chief secretary called me to say that he was contemplating a fifth posting for me and asked me what I thought of it, I told him that he had not asked me for my opinion on any of the previous occasions, so why now. I stayed put.

There is a role that the service associations can perform. It was reassuring to read that the Uttar Pradesh IAS Association did take up Durga’s case with the chief secretary but it is disquieting that this had raised political hackles. A senior Samajwadi Party leader even dared the Centre to withdraw the corps of IAS officers from UP.

The association did not make a public statement, or raise the matter with the media, nor did it rush to the politicians, in the first instance, for a hearing. These would have been against their culture of discipline and their recognition of hierarchy and ‘proper channel.’ Here, I must applaud the maturity of young Durga who amid all the media frenzy day after day, as also ungentlemanly references to her family background, has maintained a dignified silence.

This is not to say that a member of the IAS forfeits the right to voice a legitimate grievance concerning not just individual colleagues but larger issues of governance. That is the inalienable right of each officer qua citizen.

The service associations can improve their credibility if they focus on issues like poverty, food security, health, economic policy, human rights, the rights of women and children, and offer constructive ideas on how to tackle corruption and nepotism, as also the growing culture within the service itself of ‘toeing the line’. They must take up individual cases like Durga Shakti Nagpal in UP, Ashok Khemka in Haryana and Manoj Chowdhary in Rajasthan. Taken up with reason and objectivity, solidarity will pay.

What is needed is the combined might of all right-thinking citizens and the commitment of our political class to change the nation’s attitude towards the civil servant. Only then will we be able to extract the best out of her or him. In the process, the first stone would have been cast at the universally acknowledged politician-criminal-bureaucrat nexus.

Muthusamy Varadarajan is a former IAS officer
The views expressed by the author are personal