A difficult choice

Print edition : December 05, 2003

Bureaucratic behaviour is increasingly marked by greed, ambition and eagerness to execute even illegal orders. True statesmanship on the part of political leaders alone can check this.

THE events in Uttar Pradesh during the tumultuous reign of Mayawati as Chief Minister, the events in Tamil Nadu in the past few years under Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, and some events that took place in Delhi where the Central government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee have brought one particular issue into focus - the role played by civil servants, whether they are secretaries to the government, district magistrates or police officers.

The focus has been, in particular, on police officers; on those in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), who have kept under surveillance, arrested and raided the houses of journalists who worked for the website tehelka. Why? The journalists had used hidden cameras to capture on videotape footage of politicians taking money, of officers of the defence forces admitting to have taken bribes and also of using the services of prostitutes in return for classified information on defence deals. Now, one may debate the ethics involved in using prostitutes just to get a story, but all that really takes us away from the basic issue - what the journalists recorded was the people actually committing crimes. These are misdemeanours that needed to be dealt with firmly and quickly. Instead, the journalists concerned were harassed firmly and promptly, resulting in the closure of the website as it went bankrupt.

In U.P., the Taj heritage corridor issue has exposed the role played by senior government officers, including a Secretary to the Government of India, a Chief Secretary to the State government, the Principal Secretary to the then Chief Minister of U.P. Far from trying to observe the principles of integrity and transparency that officers holding such positions - and, indeed, all officers of all ranks - are expected to, these gentlemen actually displayed an excessive eagerness to do the wrong things, obviously at the behest of someone very powerful. And all this had to be virtually pried out of the recesses of the many cupboards-full of locked files in the State. The officers themselves volunteered nothing; in fact, they tried at first to brazen it out, and then began to plead that they had done nothing wrong.

In Tamil Nadu, there have been instances of another kind - a former Chief Minister was dragged forcibly out of his house, screaming and shouting, and pushed roughly into a vehicle by police officers, persons who not long ago had been saluting him, and standing reverentially aside as he passed by; political leaders were arrested under a law meant to apprehend terrorists; and, more recently police forced their way into the offices of The Hindu to arrest some of the journalists of that paper on the orders of the Speaker of the Tamil Nadu Assembly.

Now, all these officers, whether in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) or the Indian Police Service (IPS), are people who have been selected on the basis of fairly difficult examinations and interviews by boards of eminent personalities, and then trained for two years, during which the one thing they are told repeatedly is that their duty is to the law, to the Constitution, not to any political leader or party. There is an attempt made during these two years to condition them to work for certain ideals, to uphold what is right and just, and reject what is illegal, immoral and unjust. Yet, they appear to think nothing of carrying out orders that are blatantly unjust and illegal, of behaving in a barbaric fashion without any compunction, and, what is more, displaying a zealousness to carry out such orders with even more eagerness and cruelty than necessary.

One thing is of course very clear. They would not have acted in the way they did had they not been ordered to do so by somebody. Perhaps the Chief Minister, perhaps someone who is very powerful in the Central government but the person giving the orders is not the main issue here. It is a fact that these officers, who have sworn to uphold the rule of law, who have been conditioned for two years to behave with the dignity and restraint that is expected of people on whom the responsibility to run the administration is given, forget it all.

The reason is, or must be, the other kind of training they get when they leave their training institutions and begin to work in their States - the training given to them by senior officers who are bent, to a greater or lesser degree and the values that are held up as `realistic' as against the ideals they were instilled in them in their first years. It is `realistic' to lobby for `plum' posts, it is `realistic' to curry favour with powerful political creatures, it is `realistic' to accept trifling gifts like money, jewellery, land and other trifles that they are told by their peers and colleagues are part of being an officer. Not to do these things is to be a fool; if one persists in being a fool, one is given, regularly, inconsequential postings, and if one declines to carry out instructions or orders that are blatantly unjust or wrong or illegal, then one is punished in a variety of ways. In U.P., for example, one very trendy way of dealing with `difficult' officers is to keep transferring them, sometimes from one post to another within 36 hours.

IT is, of course, very wrong, our very patriotic politicians will tell you, to cite British examples; after all, they were the oppressors, the colonisers. But they did leave India an administrative structure that had some sound basic principles, including the principle that they would point out that an order was wrong, or unjust or illegal; that they would not carry out such an order. The politicians who became rulers after the British left were made aware of this and respected these principles. Perhaps some did not, but on the whole they did. And central to all these principles was something Warren Hastings said when he left India: "It is on the virtue, not the ability, of their servants that the Company must rely." The thought, taken away from the context of the East India Company and the taking over of large parts of the country by his fellow countrymen, is one we would do well to consider today. Virtue, not ability. That was, and must still be, the key.

So why is it not? Why have ambition and greed become so rampant in the IAS and IPS, and, more than that, the cold-blooded execution of illegal orders? One is not talking of those IAS and IPS officers who are bent and dishonest, some of whom have been arrested and are, rightly, behind bars. One is talking of the common officers, who do what they think is an honest day's job. Why do they fall in line with wrong and unjust orders and other partisan acts of the political rulers of the day? Perhaps the answer lies in two factors - the process by which persons are selected for the two services, and the kind of training they receive. But even if one were to overhaul the system of selection and redo the training, it is unlikely to prevent officers from giving in to ambition and greed, to the benefits of lobbying for posts and for promotions.

As long as there is a system of substantial rewards that come to officers who lobby and comply with wrong, immoral and unjust orders, there will be some who succumb. And if they succumb, another lot, not wanting to be left out in the cold, will do the same. Only a few will hold out, and they will be the forgotten ones, the ones who will go from one dreary post to another and finally retire. True, they will do so with their heads held high, and they will sleep well at night. But it does not take away from the existence of this cancer within the administrative system.

That cancer can be removed only by the political rulers themselves, when they realise how dangerous it is becoming. But it will take a set of true statesmen, who place the well-being of the state above that of their party and their own ambitions.

At the risk of provoking shrill and indignant cries of outrage, it has to be admitted that what we need are Indian equivalents of Warren Hastings. Hastings saw where the strength of the company he had served lay. If we were to have the statesmen who felt as he did - that it was the virtue of the officers that mattered more than ability, then there would be, in time, an end to lobbying and intrigue by officers, and of their frantic eagerness to carry out the behest of crooked, petty political rulers. Such statesmen can create a working culture in which lobbying, complying with wrong orders and all such acts are seen as being contemptible, and those officers who indulge in it as untrustworthy. Then, and only then, will it be possible to get a set of dedicated and upright officers who will give to the country what was once, long ago, referred to as its steel frame.

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