The death of P.S. Krishnan on November 10 at the age of 87 marks the passing of a legend who made stellar contributions to Indian society through his sustained commitment and proactive interactions to promote social justice and the liberation of the depressed classes.
An Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer for 34 years, he was invited repeatedly by scores of institutions, including governments at the Centre and in several States, to serve as adviser and consultant on administrative and governance issues, especially relating to Dalits, Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and tribal people. In all of these roles, he was driven by a single motto: “Bending governance towards the deprived”.
This approach was summed up quite early in his civil services career by a senior who recorded an entry in his confidential report as follows: “Undue partiality to depressed classes, strident advocacy of inter-caste marriages, uses his knowledge of Sanskrit to debunk religion, trusts the words of the villagers rather than village officers, acts in a manner that helps subversive elements.”
The educationist Dr Vasanthi Devi, who put together a life story of P.S. Krishnan through a series of long conversations, underscores the fact that beyond officialdom and the positions he held in the bureaucracy, he was, in essence, a social thinker and activist who personified the struggles for social justice in India and their varied manifestations in terms of administrative programmes.
“In his death, India has lost a foremost champion of the socio-economic rights of Dalits, whom he defined to include the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs), Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts), Backward Classes, and the socially and educationally backward sections among the Muslims of the country,” she said.
The depth of his thinking can be inferred even from a cursory glance at the various socially and economically empowering pieces of legislation, enactments and rules and the special programmes that P.S. Krishnan helped formulate and implement.
In 1979, after completing about two decades as a civil servant, he was appointed as a member of the team that worked with the B.P. Mandal Commission, or the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Commission, which in its report recommended 27 per cent job reservation for OBCs in government.
A decade later, when the V.P. Singh-led National Front government decided to implement the commission’s recommendations, P.S. Krishnan, as the Secretary of the Social Welfare Ministry, was the primary force in the civil services carrying out the government’s order.
Special component plan
Even before his appointment with the Mandal Commission he had initiated work on conceiving the Special Component Plan (SCP) for S.Cs and its concrete formulation in the 1978-80 period.
During the same period P.S. Krishnan was instrumental in formulating the Special Central Assistance to the States’ SCPs and the Scheme of Central Assistance to the States’ S.C. development corporations.
Just before he was tasked with implementing the Mandal Commission recommendations he helped frame the law relating to the prevention of atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, in 1989.
He was also responsible for the grant of constitutional status to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes through the Constitution (65th) Amendment Act, 1990, and for the renaming of the Union Ministry of Welfare as the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.
He carried out a sustained campaign throughout his life against manual scavenging, time and again formulating enactments, rules and laws for doing away with this despicable practice. Some of these enactments included the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993,and the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
He was also the force behind the legislation providing S.C. status to Dalit Buddhists.
Indeed, as many of his associates and admirers, including Dalit leader and long-standing Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, pointed out, P.S. Krishnan’s contributions and achievements in the social justice movement in India are far too many to be listed.
Speaking to Frontline , Paswan said: “Krishnanji showed to the entire bureaucracy and administration over a period of six and a half decades, right from his early days in the 1950s, that a committed civil servant can use the Constitution of India as a peaceful vehicle to empower millions of marginalised people.”
He said that after Independence, the civil services were expected to promote national integration and social justice, both materially and at the level of ideas.
“The policy of reservation was conceived by the founding fathers of the Constitution to facilitate the civil services to carry out this objective of integration and social justice. But in actual practice, the elite body of civil servants was found lacking. The partisanship of officialdom along caste, religious and ethnic lines literally crippled the services and the objective they were supposed to achieve. It was in such a context that Krishnanji led by example. He sought to proactively mould governance and public administration into a substantive instrument to provide deliverance to the deprived communities. Of course, he was hounded repeatedly for this by his peers and at times by sections of the political class. But nothing could suppress his zeal to fight for the deprived classes and social justice,” Paswan said.
In an interaction in the late 1990s, this writer had occasion to discuss with P.S. Krishnan the personal zeal that Paswan referred to. P.S. Krishnan said that getting to know as a 10-year-old that something like untouchability existed came as a “rude electric shock” to him. It was from a newspaper article which quoted Dr B.R. Ambedkar as saying that one out of every seven Indians is an untouchable that P.S. Krishnan first heard this term.
“Initially, I could not quite understand the meaning of this statement. In those days, I would go to the Padmanabhaswamy temple in my hometown of Thiruvananthapuram almost every morning with my father. After worshipping at the temple, we would take long walks along the corridors, all the while discussing many public issues. Topics that we would discuss included the Independence struggle, social reform and social revolution movements, and the political theories of socialism and communism. The day I read the Ambedkar quote I asked him as to who Ambedkar was and what he meant by saying that one out of every seven Indians was an untouchable.”
“My father explained to me the phenomenon of untouchability, detailing the inhuman indignities imposed on the lower castes. I asked him if it was not unjust. He affirmed that it was unjust. So, Ambedkar’s statement and my father’s explanation were the first concrete influences that set me on the path against untouchability, and later against the caste system as a whole.”
Later, pursuing education at the Maharaja’s Science College, now known as University College in Thiruvananthapuram, Krishnan got attracted to progressive Left politics that had considerable roots in the erstwhile Travancore state during the 1930s and the 1940s. This trajectory of learning and being affiliated ideologically to progressive politics continued into his entry into the civil services in 1956. Following that, it took the form of administrative interventions for the marginalised.
All these processes were buttressed by his constant learning about the historical wrongs done to the vast subaltern sections of Indian society over centuries. He conducted extensive studies, which made him a walking encyclopedia on the marginalised sections of Indian society and the world.
As a young officer in Andhra Pradesh, he started the practice of officially camping in S.C. hamlets, tribal villages and the residences of OBC labourers, infusing confidence and self-esteem in them and sending a message to his peers in governance. He also carried out massive drives for the distribution of agricultural land and house plots to the landless and the homeless.
The impact of the Ambedkar statement he read as a child was so deep that he refused to enter his caste denomination in official documents and refrained from mentioning the caste he was born in even in private conversations. Once, when this writer sought to find out his caste, P.S. Krishnan asserted that such a question was not going to add any value to the subjects we were discussing at that point of time.
Later, in a more relaxed mood, he disclosed how his daughter, Shubhadhayani, had suffered questions and taunts from her peers, seniors and even teachers for not revealing her caste.
During several conversations with this writer, P.S. Krishnan unravelled his idea of social intervention, repeatedly asserting that there was no point in running away to the fringes and that all transformations had to happen within the ambit of the Constitution.
He emphasised that beyond rhetoric all socially responsible people should find ways and means to engage with the system, identifying loopholes in laws and in orders that allowed the caste system to flourish. That was why, he said, getting the minute details of all government documentation and analysing them closely was important.
At a personal level, he made it a practice to read official documents and even the Budget papers closely to spot deficiencies in allocation for schemes for the underprivileged.
Introducing her book on the life of P.S. Krishnan, Dr Vasanthi Devi says: “Some are born with an obsession; some develop one early in life and then the obsession possesses them and drives them all their lives. The cause and the crusader often become indistinguishable, the triumphs and also setbacks of the cause mark the milestones in the crusader’s life. This piece is both a salutation to the crusader and a re-affirmation of the cause.”
Indeed, those impacted by P.S. Krishnan’s life and the relentless social justice initiatives he took up through his life will continue to get inspiration and drive from this legend.