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The duty of a true civil servant

Anil Swarup | Updated on March 16, 2020 Published on March 16, 2020

Waiting for ‘orders from the top’, instead of taking steps to stop mayhem and rioting, is plain wrong

 

‘The incidents in Delhi during the past few days are reminiscent of first-hand experience at the beginning of my career as a civil servant in 1984. It was the 19th of December. All hell seemed to have broken loose. Indira Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister, had been assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards in Delhi. What followed was reprehensible and shocking. There was anger being displayed against the Sikh community; a community that was an integral part of Indian society, a community that had fought valiantly for the country on more than one occasion, a community that was committed to serving the poorest of the poor. Just because a couple of its members had chosen to ‘avenge’ Operation Blue Star (the storming of the Golden Temple, Amritsar, to flush out the terrorists hiding inside). The brunt of the reaction was borne by the city of Delhi, but tremors were felt right across the country, including this city of Hardoi, that was around 400 km east of Delhi. I was posted as Sub-Divisional Magistrate.

The goons of a particular party got together and started taking law into their own hands to ‘settle scores’ with the Sikh residents of Hardoi. Advance action, by way of deployment of force, and preventive arrests obviated large-scale damage beyond the burning of a couple of shops owned by Sikhs. The entire administration was on the move and visible to provide comfort to those belonging to this community. In a particular incident, a couple of culprits were caught on the spot indulging in mischief.

Standing up

There was sufficient information against a powerful ruling party MLA for his active involvement in incendiary activities. Hence, I decided to make out a case against him for preventive arrest under the National Security Act (NSA). The District Magistrate was the deciding authority. The case was accordingly sent to him. He patted me for the bold step but he was extremely concerned about the fact that the proposed action was against a powerful MLA. Consequently, he couldn’t muster the courage to take any decision.

Meanwhile, this MLA got wind of the proposed action. He knew that such an action would adversely impact his political future. He was known to be close to the Appointment Secretary (responsible for the establishment of IAS officers) in the State government. He perhaps approached him, as I was summoned to Lucknow by the Appointment Secretary. I was asked why I had prepared an NSA case against the MLA. I explained the entire background and the rationale for action under the NSA against the MLA. He appeared to be convinced about the case, but still asked me to recall the proposal, perhaps influenced by the pressure applied on him.

I wasn’t amused. The DM could easily reject my proposal or even avoid taking a decision, but I was being asked to withdraw the proposal. I told the officer precisely this. I told him that I had sent the proposal to the DM based on my understanding of the issue. The final call had to be taken by the DM. He could easily disagree with me or keep the file without taking a decision. The message was clear that I was not going to withdraw the file. The meeting ended on this note.

Within a couple of days, I was transferred out of the District. To me it was a baptism by fire, but I drew satisfaction from the fact that I had prevented the fire of hatred destroying the peace in the city of Hardoi.

I was touched by what I saw on the railway platform while departing by train to Lucknow on the way to Deoria (I was posted as Sub Divisional Magistrate at Kushinagar, which at that time was a part of Deoria District). The platform was choked with the employees of the Municipal Corporation, who had come to see me off at the railway station along with a number of residents of the city. It was indeed an emotional send-off.

Later on I learnt that there were a number of adverse reports against the MLA for having engineered the transfer of an honest officer. He was also denied a ticket to contest the Lok Sabha on account of his dishonest credentials. He did contest as an independent candidate, but lost. His winning or losing didn’t matter to me. What mattered to me was the love and affection of this wonderful city of Hardoi, where I learnt a lot from efficient officers like Arun Srivastava and a young and dynamic colleague Prabhat Sinha from the State civil services.

Waiting game

There were number of other such experiences in the State of UP, where I spent the initial seventeen years of my career. Not once there was a doubt in my mind when it came to handling a law and order situation. I was firmly of the view that in case of a law and order situation, it was the man on the spot that had to take a call and not to look for “instructions” from elsewhere. Hence, I was a trifle surprised when the Delhi police allowed the situation to go out of hand awaiting “orders” from above. Hence, I had tweeted: “We can blame the politicians for many wrongs, but when it comes to maintenance of law and order, it is the constitutional obligation of civil servants on the spot to carry out their task without fear or favour. The problem arises when the civil servant starts expecting ‘returns’”.

The crisis in Delhi spiralled during the last few days because the officers waited for instructions from the “top”. It was not a question of hindsight wisdom, as a former Delhi Police Commissioner stated while trying to defend the indefensible. It didn’t really require a lot of wisdom. It required action.

The inaction of the police force resulted in loss of lives. They allowed the ruffians to run riot in places like Jawaharlal Nehru University. They appeared “deaf” to the inflammatory speeches of select “VIPs”. These speeches were loud and visible, but they chose to ignore. An impression got conveyed that what was happening was happening in collusion with the police force. This was perhaps unfair to the police force. However, total inaction was indefensible. Some elements in the police force were perhaps waiting for “orders” from appropriate level. They should have instead marched forward to apprehend the rioters and not allowed them to run riot. Delhi ended up paying a heavy price for this inaction.’

Edited extract from Swarup’s upcoming book, ‘Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant’. With permission from Unique Publishers

Published on March 16, 2020
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