A draconian gag order
On May 31, through an amendment to the Central Services (Pensions) Rules, the central government barred all retired officials in intelligence and security-related organisations from publishing any material “which falls within the domain of the organisation”, before clearing it with the current head of the organisation concerned. The move perilously overextends the scope of service and pension rules; deals a blow to the fundamental right to free speech of retired officials; and potentially weakens democratic discourse in India, where those who have the most experience on sensitive subjects are effectively barred from commenting on it, except with the government’s approval. It also reinforces the impression that the regime is not comfortable with distinctive and critical views, even when it comes from those who have served the Indian State with great distinction and patriotism.
Retired officials of security organisations must exercise utmost responsibility. They must also comply with the existing legal framework, which entails them to be responsible with “sensitive information” that may imperil the “sovereignty and integrity of India” and “the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State”. But the current rules widen the scope of restrictions. If you are a former Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) officer, you cannot write about any external security-related issue without checking with the current secretary (r); if you are a former Intelligence Bureau (IB) official, you cannot write on any subject which is related to internal security-related issue unless the director (IB) clears it; and this extends to 16 other organisations.
Given India’s generally opaque security set-up, the refusal to declassify files, rules of secrecy, and norms of access — those who know and serve can’t write; those who write are constrained because of the fear of losing access to those who know — retired officials are a key source of expertise. After years of being in a regimented bureaucracy, they finally can speak and share this expertise with other citizens. At a time when dissenting voices within the system find it hard to take positions, a distinctive view from outside the system only helps the State evolve a more considered policy approach. These officials have spent their entire professional lives safeguarding India’s security. Rather than threatening them with the stick of withdrawn pensions, trust them and allow the space for informed discourse, within the older framework.