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The Plastic Frame of Bureaucracy
|by S. M. Murshed|
The role of a civil servant in the affairs of state has for some time past been increasingly questioned, particularly when government is seen to have been privy to some horrendous acts. We, therefore, need to examine the role a little closely.
The duty of a civil servant is always to record the facts as he sees them in their entirety and to tender to his minister such advice as he thinks fit and proper based on those facts. Thereafter, it will be his plain duty to carry out the orders of the minister, even if they are not in accordance with his advice, provided they are not demonstrably immoral or illegal. It is no part of a civil servant's duty to sit in judgement on the political wisdom of his minister. These may be said to the basic ground rules governing the relationship between a minister and a civil servant.
There is the famous ' or notorious ' case of the film Kissa Kursi Ka during the Emergency days when I was a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in Delhi. Vidya Charan Shukla was Indira Gandhi's hatchet man in the Ministry. The film in question was refused a censor certificate by the Films Censor Board in Mumbai. It came up to me in appeal. I recommended that the film should be granted a certificate notwithstanding that it taunted the Gandhi family in no uncertain terms, arguing that it was so badly made that it would die a natural death at the box office, but withholding the certificate would give it a notoriety value. I was overruled by Shukla. For this, and other, misdemeanors, I was given marching orders and reverted to the state. I had to be content with the dubious distinction that I was one of very few men in this world to have seen the film.
The subsequent history of the film is well known. All copies were allegedly burnt in the premises of the Maruti company by Sanjay Gandhi. In the post-Emergency era, all crimes committed during it were prosecuted. Shukla and Sanjay Gandhi thus found themselves in the dock in a Tis Hazari Court in Delhi. I was called as the main prosecution witness. It was put to me by Ram Jethmalani, prosecuting on behalf of the State, that I was so terrorized that I had to go by all the whims of the Minister and I dare not express my views in any matter. I said the truth was far from what was imagined. I forcefully expressed my views in the case in question and there was the file to prove the point. I said that I did my duty as a civil servant; and the Minister did his as a politician. The two points of view were different. I said to myself after looking at the two forlorn figures in the dock that one did not whip a dead horse. Shukla and Gandhi were acquitted. Shukla become a staunch friend after that and said that when they came back to power, they would remember my gesture. I said that I did not do anything in expectation of any favor on an unlikely (as it then seemed) return to power of the Congress.
That is how a Congress government behaved. The CPI-M has been no different. There was once a t'te-'-t'te between me and a Minister in the course of which he made the fatuous, but apt, remark: 'I am a Communist, not a gentleman', inviting the retort that upon that question his opinion was conclusive and I was in no position to differ from it, but the limited I would want to make is that when he spoke to us, he did so as a gentleman. The Chief Minister was not in station and, upon his return, I submitted to him a written note containing a blow by blow account of what had transpired between the two of us. I concluded by saying that it was a settled principle that where there was an issue between a minister and a civil servant, the Minister stays and the civil servant goes and, therefore, I was prepared to go. I opted for, and was given, the post of Director, Administrative Training Institute. It was a remarkable Institute in that there were no trainees and no building in which the non existent trainees could be trained! That was one of a series of marching orders given to me for doing my duty as a civil servant.
How different were things at the time of my induction into the IAS. My first posting was as Sudivisional Officer, Contai in 1959 in the district of Midnapore (as it then was before its bifurcation). It was distinguished by one memorable event. It was a time of scarcity of food and Government responded with alacrity to the situation. Orders were issued for taking 'stern measures' against all hoarders of rice and paddy. I responded dutifully. I conducted raids in many places and launched prosecutions and put behind bars over a score of persons. Among them were the father-in-law and brother-in-law of the local minister who wielded considerable power in the Cabinet. All hell broke loose. Mr. P.C. Sen was then the Food Minister. I was summoned by radiogram to an audience with him. Present were an assortment of political bigwigs. I was asked to withdraw immediately the cases instituted by me and to release the prisoners. I regretted my inability to do this and said that Government had the requisite power and it might withdraw the cases if it so liked.. The audience ended on this unsatisfactory note and I was asked to see the Chief Secretary immediately in the belief that he would give me the firing that they were unable to give.
The Chief Secretary was Satyendra Nath Ray of the ICS, a sparsely built man with the gaze of a hawk and the grin of a gorilla. Without any trepidation, I walked into his room at Writers' Buildings and recited all the facts and produced the all important order for taking 'stern measures'. He listened in silence, which was broken only by his barking into the intercom, 'Prafulla babu ke dao' (Get me Prafulla Babu on the line). Thereupon the following conversation ensued:
The basic ground rules mentioned by me at the outset are consistently violated, for the Minister desires what is politically opportune in preference to that which is required by good governance. The civil servant has to translate the Minister's wishes into orders of government, for the Rules of Business require that every government order shall be authenticated by the Secretary and the Minister is powerless to issue any government order. The Secretary plays ball for a host of reasons, e.g. the department which is in his charge is a coveted one and he fears a 'demotion' to an inferior department.
This brings us to the question of the role of the Chief Secretary in the administration. The Chief Secretary is the arbiter of what is right and what is wrong for government as a whole. He sets the tone of the entire administration, including the police. He should fearlessly stand by any officer in any sphere of government who does what is right. This paradigm of uprightness is all pervasive, and officers at all levels and in all departments draw strength from it. If this paradigm of uprightness is not liked by political bosses, then the Chief Secretary will be forced to go. And if his successors tread the same path of rectitude, they will soon run out of stock of officers who can be appointed Chief Secretary. Therefore, an administration is as good or bad as the Chief Secretary makes it.
P.S. Appu was an IAS officer of the Bihar cadre. In 1977, he was offered the post of Chief Secretary of the Bihar Government by the Chief Minister. In a note addressed to the latter, he politely declined the offer on the ground that there were several officers senior to him in the cadre and their super-session would augur badly for the administration. This plea was not accepted by the Chief Minister and perforce Appu had little choice but to accept the offer. But he first defined the terms on the basis of which he would accept it. They were the following: (1) a clear definition of the objectives of government with an order of priorities; (2) freedom to restructure the administrative set up so as to ensure the attainment of those objectives in the best possible manner; (3) freedom to take appropriate action against incompetent and corrupt officials and (4) immunity from political interference in matters of administration. These terms were accepted and Appu was appointed as the Chief Secretary to the Government of Bihar. Upon a breach of these terms, Appu resigned from his exalted office and was in due course deputed to the Government of India, under which he was, after some time, appointed as the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie. At the Academy, he strongly advocated the discharge of an IAS probationer on grounds of moral turpitude and worse things. This was not agreed to by the Union Home Ministry, whereupon Appu resigned from the IAS two years before the date of his retirement.
A few other cases like Appus's can be cited. But they are rare. In West Bengal, the only name that comes to mind is that of Amitabha Niyogi, an honest and upright officer cast in the quintessential mould of the steel frame.
Early warnings of the rot in our bureaucracy were given when a war service recruit to the IAS was appointed as Chief Secretary. His religion was the appeasement of the Congress. The rot set in good and proper when an officer was appointed as Chief Secretary, superseding several officers senior to him, on the basis of an uxorial proximity to the ruling party. The officer did not demur like Appu. He actually sought, or lobbied for, the appointment. It is true that government have full discretion to appoint a suitable officer to the post of Chief Secretary. But suitability, justifying the exclusion of senior officers in the instant case, is not discernible. Therefore, it must be held that the reason for the selection of the officer in question is the one given.
Two concrete examples may be cited to illustrate the consequences of the jobbery of the kind noted above. Some years ago, a young District Magistrate of Malda dealt with a riotous situation in his district and in his report to the government he recited the facts, holding votaries of the present ruling party fairly and squarely responsible for the riot. This was not appreciated by the powers that be. And so the Chief Secretary took it upon himself to set matters right. He sent for the Magistrate and asked him in no uncertain terms to change the complexion of the rioters so as to make it appear that the Congress were the guilty party! The Magistrate stood his ground, politely refusing to do what he was told and soon got marching orders for his pains.
Then again there was the case of the senior most IPS officer in West Bengal, with an admirable record of service, being passed over for the post of Director General of Police and an officer a year junior to him, but older than him, was appointed to the post. The Chief Secretary had before him a potential cause celebre in the making. He ought to have firmly put his foot down and argued against the super-session. But men of greater courage and integrity were required for this. In the result, the senior most IPS officer found himself shunted as DG, Firs Services. He happened to bear the wrong name.
The psyche operating needs to be studied. The attitude of officers is colored by the awareness that their political masters will not tolerate any dissenting voice among people they have increasingly, and habitually, come to regard as their slaves. That dissent and an alternative notion, which, if need be, can be rejected in the light of logic, form the essence of good governance is forgotten.
What happens with such an officer? He toes the party line in every matter, often bending backwards in the process, for at stake is his survival in the coveted position. The example can be cited of a District Magistrate sporting a red scarf in attending a meeting called by the local unit of the CPI-M! The stage is thus set for the emergence of the meretricious officer who will barter his soul to stay in office. Great will be his gains, not only during his tenure in service but also after his retirement when he can look forward to many lucrative assignments.
The Chief Minister has been in business long enough to be able to distinguish a 'convenient' Chief Secretary from an upright one and he opts for the former, who, from that time onwards, is busy protecting his turf and looks forward to prizes to be dispensed after retirement for good behavior. Thus a slave to political expediency is born and nurtured. And the rest of the bureaucracy (including the police), with some exceptions, follows suit.
The time seems to have come when one must sing a requiem for the bureaucracy and one must mourn the demise of the steel frame. That structure, alas, has been pulled down bit by bit and in its place has risen a new structure which may be called the collapsible, plastic frame.
The author is a retired IAS of West Bengal cadre and served as advisor to the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir.
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