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Resignations in the IAS. What is troubling India’s elite officers?

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on September 27, 2019 Published on September 27, 2019

Just why: Kannan Gopinathan explains his reasons for stepping away from a decade-old career in the civil services at a meet in Chennai   -  IMAGE COURTESY: YOUNG PEOPLE FOR POLITICS

Discontent is brewing within the Indian Administrative Service, triggering two resignations in the span of one month

On an early September evening at CurioPlay, an experimental activity centre in Chennai’s upmarket Alwarpet area, a small crowd of chirpy millennials is patiently waiting for the guest speaker. The tiny hall is full, and quite a few remain standing. On the makeshift stage are two suitably tall wooden stools, one of which is taken by Radhika Ganesh, convenor of Young People for Politics, a citizen’s collective. A young man in his early 30s, wearing a dark grey t-shirt and dark blue trousers, walks in and sits on the other. He is Kannan Gopinathan, an officer from the 2012 batch of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) who recently resigned from the service protesting curbs on freedom in Kashmir following the erasure of its special status guaranteed by the Constitution. Gopinathan’s resignation on August 21 triggered a national controversy of sorts.

As he begins to speak, the crowd at CurioPlay falls silent. Gopinathan senses their anticipation, and confesses, “I’m quite nervous”. It is a new beginning for Gopinathan. In his less than decade-long career, the former civil servant has chaired and convened several meetings, but this is among the first such interactions where he no longer occupies a position of authority. For the next hour or so, Kerala-born Gopinathan talks about a wide range of issues — from Kashmir to the right to dissent, and on why it is important for youngsters to stop being mute spectators to what’s happening around them.

Gopinathan resigned from the service when he was serving in the Union Territories of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, and Daman and Diu. He maintains his decision was not triggered by personal events. “There is the larger question of freedom of expression where people are not able to question the government without being tagged anti-national,” Gopinathan tells BLink. “Freedom of expression is a right guaranteed by our Constitution and when it is challenged, public servants committed to protecting the sanctity of the Constitution cannot sit back and relax,” he says. Gopinathan’s decision prompted many in the fraternity and outside to highlight the need for more freedom and autonomy in the service, which continues to attract the best among India’s youth.

Gopinathan is not the only one to have put in his papers. On September 6, S Sasikanth Senthil, a 2009 batch Karnataka cadre IAS officer, resigned from the civil services.

Taking a stand: S Sasikanth Senthil, former deputy commissioner of Dakshina Kannada district, says the “fundamental building blocks of a diverse democracy are being compromised” - H S Manjunath   -  The Hindu

 

“Many of us enter the civil services following certain ideals and values, and when those ideals are questioned it becomes difficult to continue,” says Senthil, who was serving as the deputy commissioner of Dakshina Kannada district when he quit saying it was “impossible” for him to continue when the “fundamental building blocks of a diverse democracy are being compromised”.

“At the end of the day, a bureaucrat has to implement the government’s policies,” Senthil points out. He, like Gopinathan, asserts that his decision was not spurred by personal circumstances. On the contrary, it was made to prove a larger point. “I never faced any personal issues during my career as a civil servant. I quit to make a larger point on the direction in which the country has been moving of late,” Senthil says.

The young officers’ decision was their response as individuals to the recent developments in the country. “These are challenging times and I believe, as individuals, we have a duty to respond to such challenges in ways we think are right,” Gopinathan adds.

The idea of a nation, Senthil points out, is not merely a political concept, instead it is based on certain shared values clearly enshrined in the Constitution. “If you read the Preamble of the Constitution, it is very clear what values it enshrines. When those things are touched and tweaked in a way that the majority opinion also supports the changes, it becomes a problem. I personally cannot survive in such a system,” Senthil says.

He worked under three governments and under three different systems and stresses he never faced any political pressure or external intrusions. He had entered the public services with a purpose — to work for social uplift. “When I felt the current situation would not allow me to meet those objectives upholding the spirit of our Constitution, I thought it would not be ethical to stay inside to get the job done,” Senthil says. “The IAS is not the only route to public service.” Gopinathan concurs.

Bureaucracy, he adds, is a reflection of society. “There will always be a section of people who are happy with the way things are. And there will be a section that is unhappy,” he says. The segment of the “unhappy”, he adds, has of late been growing in number. “It is up to the individual to decide whether he wants to stay within the system and do whatever little he can or come out and do whatever he wants to do,” notes Gopinathan.

Gopinathan points to the two factors that regulate administration — the interests of the State and that of the people. When these two factors go their separate ways, it becomes difficult for a civil servant to function. “It became clear to me that I was not doing what I perceived to be in the interest of the people,” Gopinathan says.

While the State is free to pursue its interests, he points out that he has problems with the way it handles dissent. “Difference of opinion is a fundamental right and it should be respected. The Constitution guarantees that right and as guardians of the Constitution we are bound to protect it from misuse and safeguard the people’s right to dissent,” he adds.

The road not taken

Civil servants leaving the profession as a mark of protest is not a new phenomenon. Harsh Mander, rights activist and former IAS officer, quit in the wake of post-Godhra riots in Gujarat after 22 years in service.

Signing out: Harsh Mander quit the IAS in the wake of the post-Godhra riots - K Ragesh   -  The Hindu

 

Social activist Aruna Roy quit the service in 1974. In an interview to a newspaper in 2011, Roy had spoken about her seven years in the IAS. “There is no situation when one doesn’t learn, but what my IAS years taught me was what I didn’t want to do. I also learned about the notion of power and arrogance that comes with a government job,” she’d said.

New turn: Social activist Aruna Roy quit the IAS to actively engage with social issues - HS Manjunath   -  The Hindu

 

The current exits, says Mander, is proof that the young officers have followed their conscience. “I quit when I saw the country was moving towards a different direction in 2002. There were lots of battles that I could have fought within the system, but the battle to defend the idea of India as a secular democracy with equal rights for people of every faith, as enshrined in the Constitution, was what I could not fight by being in the government,” Mander says.

He holds the course the country has taken in recent years has proved his decision right. “Seventeen years later, the society is still moving in the direction I was most worried about. Therefore I feel that I made the right decision.”

When you sign up to become a civil servant, you do not sign up for obedience, but for being true to your conscience, Mander says. “I am first a servant of the Constitution, then of India’s most disadvantaged people, and only then am I the servant of the elected government. My duty, on the one hand, is to stand with the Constitution, and on the other, to stand with disadvantaged people and if that requires me to stand against the elected government, I’ll do so.”

That said, not everyone thinks the officers who have given up their positions are on a moral high ground. A former civil servant alleges that these men are “eyeing” more lucrative careers. “Look at those that quit services earlier; they all went on to become celebrity activists and award winners. These moves are purely motivated by larger career ambitions.”

Uday Balakrishnan, a former civil servant and academic, says disillusionments are bound to happen. “There is this 70-30 rule in the system,” he says. “Even if 30 per cent of the officers go bad, the 70 per cent upright ones will help move the system in the right direction. So these young officers, who are bright and upright, can still have their way if they want to work towards greater common good,” Balakrishnan adds.

But will these resignations demotivate future aspirants? “I don’t think exits such as mine are going to send a wrong signal about the IAS,” Senthil says. “I’d still consider civil service to be one of the best professions for a youngster who wants to make a difference to the society at large,” he adds. He vouches that it is still one of the most challenging and rewarding professions in the country. “I quit because I wanted to tell the world that things are not happening the right way in this country. I left the job to call public attention to the fact,” Senthil reasons.

In Nungambakkam, a few miles away from Alwarpet, Jijo George has been preparing for the civil service examinations for the past three years. George still exudes confidence when he talks about the IAS. “The recent exits tell us that we should be prepared for bigger challenges, brace ourselves for bigger fights to bring justice to the people and uphold the ethos of the Constitution,” he says. George still wants to sign up for that battle. “The IAS continues to be what Sardar Patel called the Steel Frame of India — it’s not the Steel Cage of India,” he asserts.

Published on September 27, 2019
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