Rising authoritarianism curbing space for debate in India

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(Image Source: PTI)

By A.G. Noorani

THIS June, a group of 65 retired senior civil servants published an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi criticising “a rising authoritarianism and majoritarianism, which do not allow for reasoned debate, discussion and dissent”. The group includes Ishrat Aziz and Deb Mukharji of the Indian Foreign Service, Julio Ribeiro and M. Balachandran of the Indian Police Service, and activist Harsh Mander, who has valiantly sought justice for victims of anti-Muslim pogroms.

The letter is noteworthy for setting a precedent as well as for its contents — it pins the blame squarely on Modi. “In Uttar Pradesh, in the run-up to the elections, an odious and frankly communal comparison was made between the relative number of burial grounds and cremation grounds. The question was also asked as to whether electricity was being supplied equally to different communities during their religious festivals.” This is a clear reference to remarks made by Modi while addressing a rally in Lucknow in February.

The letter also cites official acts that have created a “growing climate of religious intolerance that is aimed primarily at Muslims” — to wit, tighter curbs on cow slaughter and violence by ‘cow vigilantes’; a crackdown on NGOs; and charges of sedition levelled recklessly, even on 15-year-olds. It concludes, “[W]e appeal to all public authorities, public institutions and constitutional bodies to take heed of these disturbing trends and take corrective action.”

One wishes that such public-spirited persons would also devote attention to the state of the civil service today. Communal and corrupt politicians in power rule through pliant civil servants. Vallabhbhai Patel warned against the suborning of the civil service in the Constituent Assembly in October 1949: “The Union will go — you will not have a united India, if you have not a good all-India service which has the independence to speak out its mind, which has a sense of security that you will stand by your word and that after all there is the Parliament, of which we can be proud, where their rights and privileges are secure. … This constitution is meant to be worked by a ring of service which will keep the country intact.”

He added, “Today, my secretary can write a note opposed to my views. I have given that freedom to all my secretaries. I have told them, if you do not give your honest opinion for fear that it will displease your minister, please then you had better go.”

British works on constitutional law discuss this topic in detail. Indian works neglect it, despite a long experience of rampant abuse. An independent civil service is as indispensable as any other institution. In Uttar Pradesh, however, the integrity of the civil service has been gravely undermined.

It is to such abuses that the 65 brave retirees of the All India Services and Central Civil Services should now devote their attention. Two in particular merit priority because they lie at the core of the problem, are illegal and are susceptible to reform. One is arbitrary transfer; not seldom at the prodding of a legislator from the ruling party.

A judgment by justice Markandey Katju of the Allahabad High Court in May 1997, stated, “[T]ransfers and postings should be solely in the hands of senior officers of the service concerned and should not be at the behest of, or on the dictates of politicians”.

The distinguished former civil servant Braj Kumar Nehru, who served as Indian high commissioner to the UK, wrote in his memoirs, “I also studied the organisation of the Home Civil Service and how it was that in spite of a vigorous democracy the civil service had retained its independence in that it was guided by the rules and the law and not by the whims and wishes of transient ministers.

“The answer was simple. All the three powers which are exercised by the minister in India to bend the civil servant to his will, namely, appointments, transfers and suspensions, are not exercisable by them at all in the United Kingdom. They are exercised by a very small group of senior Secretaries presided over by the Secretary of the Civil Service Department who reports to the Prime Minister direct. It is they who appoint people, transfer them and punish them, not the ministers.”

A transfer is open to judicial review. A suspension must be followed speedily by a charge-sheet and inquiry. The courts can strike it down if it does not. But their record is uneven.

It is time that distinguished civil servants get together and draw up a paper documenting abuses and proposing effective reforms. A model worth emulating is the UK’s Civil Service Code, which has statutory sanction in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, 2010.

The writer is an author and a writer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, July 1st, 2017

 

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