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When Silence Is Not An Option

"At a time when fundamentalism and religious obscurantism are gaining a toehold all over the world, it behoves India, as one of the world’s most ancient, tolerant civilisations, to act as the beacon for guiding the world through increasingly stormy waters."
By Venkatesan Ramani

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Sixty-five retired officers from different services came together in early June 2017 to pen an open letter to the public expressing their disquiet at the growing aggression in all forms of public discourse, the open expression of intolerance of the ‘other’ as well as the easy categorisation of all dissent as ‘anti-national’. These officers between them represent over two thousand person-years of public service in various capacities in state and central governments as well as overseas.

What really motivated them to move from their quiet, retired environs into the public gaze, knowing fully well that there is a substantial constituency that would run down their motivations, vilify their reputations and seek explanations for their questioning society (and, by implication, the governments of the day) for acquiescing in, if not actively promoting, an environment that fosters animosity and hatred for one’s fellow human beings and a dogged desire to enforce conformity of behaviour in social and cultural norms, right down to personal choices in respect of food, relationships and dress?

For there is no doubt that the trolls and Doubting Thomases have crept out of the woodwork to attack the recent effort with renewed vigour. The assaults focus on the usual reasons:

  • Why did these officers not raise their voice in the past to instances of vigilante violence and misuse of authority by the state apparatus?
  • Many of them must be officers beholden to the past regime for favours granted to them or must be disgruntled at not being considered for plum post-retirement sinecures by the present dispensation.
  • Did these officers take questionable decisions in their different assignments while in service?
  • Having ruined the country over seventy years with their maladministration of public affairs, these retired officers now seek to demoralise the present government and place obstacles in the way of its effective functioning.

Answering these four issues may cast light on why persons who hung up their boots years ago have deemed it necessary to listen to their inner voices.


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Those who point to the apparent failure of these retired officers to agitate issues in the past forget that these officers (and many of their colleagues) observed the dharma of organisational discipline while in service. Opposing wrong decisions does not require rushing to the press at the first opportunity, though this unfortunate trait has been observed increasingly in recent years. There are several ways of standing up to blatantly wrong political decisions: persuading the politician to change her decision, pointing out one’s inability to implement the decision and, therefore, accepting a transfer. It is not correct to say that retired officers have not expressed their reservations over government actions (and inaction) in the past, be it the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms, the 1993 Bombay riots or the 2002 Gujarat episode. If retired officers did not come together often to voice a collective protest in the past, it was because events did not follow a predictable pattern at that time.

The current hype built up over the dietary habits of a substantial section of the population and the efforts to restrict these, the aggressive responses to perceived threats to the nation and the repeated questioning of the loyalty of significant segments of the population by responsible public figures are a recent phenomenon. Many of the signatories have served in vulnerable areas at times when the nation faced both internal and external challenges. But never in the past was the atmosphere cranked up to such a fever pitch as is the case at present and certainly not at the cost of disrupting what is still a relatively delicate social fabric.

I am not ruling out that, like elsewhere in society, some of my fellow officers cultivate an unhealthily close relationship with political patrons. Speaking for my fellow signatories, I am sure that they are not in the game of repaying favours. Most of us worked under different political dispensations: I, for one, have worked with politicians of all the four major political parties in Maharashtra. While maintaining friendly ties with all, we have kept our distance from developing too cosy a relationship with any one political outfit: call it the survival instinct, if you will.


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We were aware of, and dismayed by, the aimless drift of the previous regime and the difficulties in working with some of the worthies of that coalition government. It amuses many of us that we are perceived as hankering after the fishes and loaves of office post our retirement. A look at the list of signatories reveals that a significant number of them resigned or prematurely retired from government service to pursue their passions or private avenues of employment. Even those who did occupy positions in the immediate post-retirement period were fully aware of the fact that 65 (that magic number again!) was the upper age limit for gainful employment, unless you were fortunate enough to be destined for governorships, ambassadorships or a political career. In any case, a disgruntled person still harbouring ambitions would be shooting herself in the foot by signing such a letter.

The easiest way to target a person is to cast aspersions on his/her character and integrity, especially in relation to decisions taken while in service. It is always easy to be an ex post facto guru, pointing out the apparent errors committed in the past. What is forgotten are the circumstances at the time the decision was taken, the processes followed in arriving at the decision and the quality and quantum of information available to the decision-maker at the relevant time. The civil servant lays no claim to infallibility: s(he) can only vouch for her/his bona fide actions while arriving at a decision. In any case, the issues presently at stake are of a nature where passing of judgments on the past actions of a signatory are of no relevance.

The final charge against us merits the closest attention and rebuttal. Politicians of all hues find it most convenient to blame civil servants for faulty policies, forgetting their role in contributing to the state of affairs. Unfortunately, the aam janata, stuck as it is between the Scylla of one political party’s rule (in one five-year tenure) and its opposing party’s rule (in the next five years) has no further options and lays the blame at the doors of the civil service. Where has the political class provided the inspiring leadership to motivate and guide the civil service to deliver great results?


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My seniors of the Nehruvian era and those of us fortunate enough to participate as (minor) actors in the immediate post-1991 period recall the enthusiasm in the civil services in putting together and implementing plans and programmes for economic development and change. There are many dynamic officers who innovate and bring change in their districts and departments. Alas, there is little publicity for these efforts, especially in the rarefied precincts of Lutyens’ Delhi and Dalal Street. The last thing any retired officer would do is to run down the government of the day. S(he) knows the constraints governments work under, especially at the state level, and always hopes and prays for rapid development and improvement in living standards of her/his countrywomen/men.

What has dismayed us is the approach (or rather, the lack of it) to building a social consensus on issues critical to the survival of the common woman/man. India has, unfortunately, never had participatory governance: the trend towards centralisation has been amplified in recent times, whether it be currency demonetisation, regulation of cattle slaughter or ensuring the dignity of women. Matters are not helped when public functionaries routinely ventilate historical grievances and seek to lecture the public on social norms and traditions. An aspirational society with a positive demographic dividend is routinely fed with tales of past glory (with a specific religious bent), rather than developing a scientific, analytical approach to life that can meet the unpredictable challenges of the twenty-first century. Above all, those controlling the levers of power seem to have conveniently forgotten the intricate mosaic of social and economic relationships that are the hallmark of a pluralist society.

Imposing uniformity and conformity will stultify society and severely damage entrepreneurial abilities. At a time when fundamentalism and religious obscurantism are gaining a toehold (and more) all over the world, it behoves India, as one of the world’s most ancient, tolerant civilisations, to act as the beacon for guiding the world through increasingly stormy waters. Our open letter is an appeal to our fellow countrywomen/men to realise their oneness with all humanity and promote compassion, love and peace rather than intolerance, hatred and violence.


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The author, Venkatesan Ramani, is a retired officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). His work focuses on public policy reform and improving public service delivery systems.

Tweet at Venkatesan: @vramani10



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2 comments

  1. Why is the writer defending the officers who signed and possible motives that can be attributed? They signed and stand by it, period.
    Last two paras r important and I w’d have preferred if he had elaborated our gain if we r tolerant of plurality.

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