For the first time in the history of the Indian Foreign Service, a secretary rank officer has publicly alleged gender bias. It is also a first that the Right to Information Act (RTI) is being used to seek answers to the controversial appointment of a Foreign Secretary. The slow pace of RTI in adequately responding to applications moved under it have also raised issues on the efficacy of the Act.
Mrs Veena Sikri, a 1971 batch IFS officer, is cooling her heels after she returned from Bangladesh in November last year, protesting against being superceded. Sikri was India’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh when Shivshankar Menon, a 1972-batch IFS officer, was appointed Foreign Secretary.
She has sought a review of the government’s decision to appoint Menon over the claims of 16 officers including her.
Menon's appointment saw two Secretary-rank officers, Rajiv Sikri and TCA Rangachari, actually resign their posts, another first for the service. Several others, including another Secretary rank official, Shashi Tripathi, and Sikri herself, are waiting to hear how their services "after more than three decades of service", will be utilised by the government.
While this is not the first time a Foreign Secretary has been appointed superceding other officials, the lack of "closure" in this case has left many very senior officials disgruntled. The MEA officially had no comment on the matter, but officials spoke of the "bitter-sweet fallout" of the incident. Junior officials are thrilled at the increased opportunites, though seniors passed over are "just biding time" and bitter at the lack of response to their claims.
In a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh earlier, Sikri alleged gender discrimination: “I can only regretfully conclude that I have been discriminated against on grounds of being a woman. My supercession contradicts the stated objectives of the Government of India on promoting gender equality and enhancing the representation of women in the highest level of policy making” Sikri wrote.
Stating that the appointment constituted “grave injustice” for gender equality, Sikri’s letter states: “Aspiring to the post of Foreign Secretary is the legitimate aspiration of every Indian Foreign Service Officer. As an officer within the zone of consideration…I have been overlooked. I can only conclude that this is a result of gender bias”.
Last week she raised this point in her RTI appeal stating: “Over the years, the role of women in the IFS and the Ministry of External Affairs has steadily grown. ..Women officers…who have acquitted themselves creditably… should have the confidence that if they are within the zone of consideration, they would not be discriminated against for appointment to any post…This confidence has been seriously shaken by recent events. Not only have meritorious women candidates been overlooked in the selection of the Foreign Secretary, but strenuous efforts are on to pretend that the issue of women’s rights does not exist at all”.
In December last year Sikri appealed under the RTI Act and raised the following issues:
-Why should a deep selection procedure be followed only in the case of Foreign Secretary given that the new secretary R&AW and Chief of Air Staff were on principles of seniority?
-Should senior appointments be made on the basis of objective and transparent criteria or in an arbitrary and personalized manner influenced by extraneous considerations including pressure by various lobbies?
-Would morale not suffer if there is a perception of politicization and the absence of fairness, equity and justice in the administration of the Ministry of External Affairs?
Peeved at the absence of any response from the Government, Sikri alleged “shoddy treatment” of senior most IFS officers who took voluntary retirement on grounds that they would not serve under an officer junior to them as Menon is. It also reinforced the impression of Government’s indifference and insensitivity Sikri wrote.
Confirming this, Sikri told Hindustan Times: “This is my satyagraha. I am seeking justice but have not received a reply to my letters. I had first applied for information and access to files under RTI in November 2006. I sent a letter each to External Affairs ministry, Department of Personnel, Cabinet Secretary and PMO. They are pushing for information to Department of Personnel, which is not responded. I am now constrained to write to Chief information Commissioner which I did last week”.