An upright civil servant

Print edition : February 17, 2017

New Delhi, May 1993: Home Secretary N.N. Vohra (right) with Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Governor N.N. Vohra addressing the joint session of the Jammu and Kashmir Legislature on the first day of the Budget Session in Jammu on January 2, 2017. Photo: PTI

In the civil service, N.N. Vohra had no parallel in terms of the knowledge and consistency with which he spoke on the country’s governance and security.

AT long last, after B.K. Nehru, the State of Jammu and Kashmir acquired a Governor of high administrative experience, diplomatic skill and stern rectitude. B.K. Nehru gave evidence before the Chagla Commission on the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) scandal, which he knew Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru would dislike. N.N. Vohra told The Hindu, of June 10, 2012, how in 1992 Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao aborted a done deal on the Siachen dispute with Pakistan. “We had finalised the text of an agreement at Hyderabad House by around 10 p.m. on the last day. Signing was set for 10 a.m. But later that night instructions were given to me not to go ahead the next day but to conclude matters in our next round of talks in Islamabad in January 1993. That day never came. That’s the way these things go.”

Who is responsible for the human lives lost in the 25 years since; not to forget the bitterness the dispute arouses? It gave a handle to army chiefs to meddle in diplomacy; the worst of the lot was General (Retd.) J.J. Singh, now trying his luck in Punjab politics. He would denounce any compromise on the eve of talks with Pakistan.

The parallel goes further. No civil servant of B.K. Nehru’s time spoke more on the lot of the civil service and on corruption. No civil servant of N.N. Vohra’s time has spoken more knowledgeably and consistently on the country’s governance and security. His lectures at prestigious fora are published in this book. The range is impressive, but not surprising. Vohra has served as Home Secretary as well as Defence Secretary, besides holding other high positions.

He points out: “The I.B. [Intelligence Bureau] has still to be provided a charter of duties and responsibilities, including the manner in which its work should interface with RAW. The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC)—set up as the apex agency to collect, collate and analyse intelligence inputs from all appropriate agencies and draw up threat assessments—has become virtually defunct. The various concerned agencies are reluctant to share available intelligence with the JIC, and little attention is paid to whatever reports and analyses the latter is able to generate. Today, we have a situation where no single authority can be held accountable for major security lapses.”

Vice President Muhammad Hamid Ansari has publicly spoken of the need for such a charter.

The reports of the National Police Commission were ignored by Indira Gandhi because it had been set up by the Janata Party government. “Despite the passage of five decades since we gained Independence, the state police organisations continue to function under a colonial statute, the Police Act of 1861. Enacted by our imperial masters nearly a century and a half ago, this legislation is altogether incompatible with the requirement of policing within a democratic framework. This serious constraint is compounded by the continued neglect and, worse still, the systematic erosion of discipline and professionalism, which is the result of sustained politicisation of the State police forces and interference in their day-to-day functioning. …the most urgent requirement is to depoliticise the functioning of the police departments.…”

But how can you depoliticise the police force when the entire polity is highly politicised and ridden with corruption? Where do you begin? The author has helpfully appended to the book the Vohra Committee’s Report, on the links between the mafia and politicians and “government functionaries” (pages 173-192), which he signed as Home Secretary on October 5, 1993. The article “Autonomously Default” recalls: “Till the time of Home Minister Y.B. Chavan, it was an integral part of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and functioned under the control and direction of the Home Minister (H.M.). However, when Indira Gandhi, impelled by power politics, weakened the H.M.’s role, the Director of the I.B. (DIB) was asked to report directly to the Prime Minister on certain matters. From when on, successive DIBs did not find it obligatory to look to the H.M. for direction and control. The continuing decline of the MHA’s role in governance provided further impetus to DIBs taking their own decisions about who had to be informed about what, and to what extent. The appointment, from time to time, of Ministers of State with independent charge of internal security further weakened the H.M.’s authority and virtually legalised the DIBs ignoring him. The short tenures of H.Ms, some of whom did not have the background needed to effectively oversee and direct the I.B., caused further deterioration.”

Compiling histories

He relates the problems of internal security to those of defence and urges greater attention to the need for compiling histories of the wars the country faced. The obstacles were many. “We succeeded in finalising the histories of the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars despite hesitation in the service headquarters, and the External Affairs Ministry’s traditional view that the sensitive material sought to be published would create problems on various fronts. We resolved the problem by securing the government’s approval to remove all footnotes and references to the original sources and bringing out numbered copies of the three histories for restricted internal circulation. The defence-planning structures and all those involved with security management will benefit if these histories are made public without further delay. Histories of the IPKF (Indian Peace-Keeping Force) operations in Sri Lanka and the Kargil war should also be prepared and published early.”

In this reviewer’s opinion, the piece de resistance is the lecture which the author delivered on “Civil-Military Relations” on December 6, 2013 (pages 91-107). It might have been delivered yesterday, so relevant it is. Read this: “The time has perhaps come to review the entire existing basis of promotions and appointments to the higher echelons in the three services.”

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