Morality and the bureaucracy

Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

Reports on the recent incident of alleged misdemeanour by a senior civil servant brings to the fore questions about the right to privacy and social responsibility of people in public service.

WE have been regaled in the press, and on television, with the story of a senior Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer being found in what is commonly described as a compromising position with the wife of a Chief Secretary, another senior IAS officer. It was titillating and was much talked about. In all this there was a sort of underlying sense of satisfaction. "These IAS officers think of themselves as high and mighty, just see, they are a bunch of immoral people" was something one heard with variations, over and over again.

The story was investigated by an excited press; pictures of the house in front of which the couple were discovered in a car - according to the reports first put out - were carried in many papers, as were pictures of the officer and of the husband of the woman.

Things got to such a state that the flustered Chief Minister ordered an inquiry. An inquiry into what, was not immediately clear. Into the `compromising position'? Into the affair the two were said to be having? And, what would that inquiry come up with? And, what would the government do with whatever the inquiry revealed. The Chief Minister had clearly not thought all this out.

There were of course some who were indignant over this blatant invasion of the privacy of individuals. Whoever they were, it was argued heatedly, they were entitled to their private lives. How did anything they did reflect on the officer's work? He was reckoned by many to be among the best officers in the Punjab cadre; did his having an affair have anything to do with that? And, why was the press so interested, so eager, to get the details of the incident? There have been officers, it is true, who have been involved in incidents that had to do with their integrity. R.K. Sharma, the Indian Police Service officer accused in the case relating to the murder of Shivani Bhatnagar, a journalist with a leading newspaper, is one such; there have been others, such as the former Chairman of the Central Board of Excise and Customs.

Here, the matter is clearer and, in a sense, simpler. They were accused of acts which were offences under the Indian Penal Code and also violated the Civil Service Conduct Rules. Hence they were arrested and prosecuted. But is having an affair - or getting cosy in a car - a penal offence? Does it violate any provision of the conduct rules? Obviously not. So what was all the gleeful and sordid interest about this incident? This indignation may sound very convincing, as an argument, and to some extent the argument is valid, but not wholly, not substantially. Everyone is entitled to his or her privacy, to lead his or her life in whatever manner is considered desirable, so long as no law or rule is broken. But, this has to be qualified as far as public servants are concerned. Their privacy, like their rights, must necessarily be abridged for a very simple reason. They hold important offices, which means that they have been entrusted with the management of affairs and activities that are of considerable import to the state. Entrusted. There is an unstated question of trust involved.

The decisions they take, the advice they give to their Ministers, all these rest on that trust; the trust that they will do all that is required of them in the public interest. That is the trust that is reposed in them; not only by the political executive or the state administration, but by people in general. It may not be spelt out in so many words but it is definitely there. These people are appointed to the IAS because a degree of trust is reposed in them - trust that they will do whatever work is given to them, keeping in mind the paramount importance of the public interest. Every post to which they are appointed carries that implied trust.

Henry Roberdeau, a judicial officer in the employ of the East India Company, has left a sketch written in 1805 or thereabouts of the nature of the infant civil service, which was to become, half a century later, the Indian Civil Service. This has been quoted with approval by Philip Mason in his definitive book The Men Who Ruled India. Roberdeau wrote, of the officers of his time: "In the public Character, whatever Calumny and Detraction may say to the Contrary, he is minutely just, inflexibly upright, and I believe that no public Service in the whole world can evince more integrity." Perhaps this was a bit over the top, but he was young and had only seen a little of the life in the civil service. Nor was he destined to see much more; he died a few years after he wrote this. Yet, what he - a representative of what became a colonial power - said of civil servants holds good, in essence, even now. Minutely just, inflexibly upright. That was what a member of the civil service - any civil service - ought to be.

That many are not is not the point. It is what is expected of a public servant even today, that is the trust that he is given, namely, that he will be minutely just, inflexibly upright. If, then, that trust is abused in whatever manner by deceit, it becomes difficult to continue reposing that trust in the person guilty of such deceit. That is what the incident has brought into sharp focus. Not the act in itself, but the deception being practised. In private life, it is true. But deceit is deceit wherever it is. You cannot qualify deceit as being relevant in one context and not in another.

This is why the media were so interested in the incident we are talking about. Deceit had allegedly been practised by someone whose position implied total public trust. It made him no different from any other person accused of practising deception, and who would want such a person to hold high office? Public office? That is the unfortunate point. What may be permissible in a private organisation - though one does not know that it will - will simply not do in public appointment. A deceitful man cannot be a District Magistrate and Collector, or a Secretary to the Government, simply because the basis for his appointment is called into question.

Distasteful though it may sound, it is of utmost importance that those appointed to public office conduct themselves in a manner that upholds the implicit trust in that appointment. Many officers may be outraged at this notion, but it is, sadly, true. Behaviour, at all times has to confirm and reinforce the trust reposed in the person when he is appointed to public service, be it an IAS, IPS or any other specific post.

It may well be argued that cuddling up to a fellow officer's wife is not deceit, and even if it is, it is for the husband and the families to decide what to do. This would be totally wrong. Public servants must, at all times, be answerable for their behaviour. True, they were `discovered'. Had they not been, it can be said nothing would have happened. The fault of the officer involved, some argue, was that he was caught, and not that he allegedly had an affair. Again, a bit of faulty reasoning. What he was allegedly doing could never have been totally unknown to everyone; if even one person knew about it, it was enough. And in any case, we are talking of something that the officer himself knew - what of his own conscience?

The plain fact is that, in public service, one has to accept that life will not be free of some degree of responsibility to that service and to the posts to which one is appointed. And here we are talking of the ideal situation, not what we see around us. We are not talking of the R. K. Sharmas in public service, but of the many who remain nameless and faceless, who are known to those who come into contact with them as upright, and just. This is the restraint they have to live with, in order to leave behind memories of having worked in the public interest with honour and dignity.

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