June 12th, 2017 has to be a red letter day in the history of the civil services in India. For the first time ever 65 retired bureaucrats from a cross section of All India Services, who had occupied the highest echelons of the government, have written an open letter to Prime Minister Modi protesting against the growing authoritarianism, vigilantism, suppression of free speech, lawlessness, targeting of minorities and intellectual intolerance that has become the calling card of the present govt. at the center. Such a protest is remarkable because it did not happen even during the Emergency. The reason perhaps is that the Emergency was perceived as primarily directed at the country’s political structure whereas the current actions of the BJP are seen to be destroying the social, cultural and legal foundations of the country, ripping apart a social fabric and communal harmony that has stood the test of time, inspite of countless riots and killings.
It is not in the nature of civil servants to speak out, constrained as they are by draconian Conduct Rules and an overpowering political dispensation which is a toxic mix of punishment and patronage. ( This is not to defend their silence but to explain it). The carrot of a post retirement sinecure also has something to do with it, but it is not the whole explanation. Your average bureaucrat has few concerns beyond his posting, the perks attached to it, his Annual Confidential Report and empanelment at the Center. If he does not speak out on seminal issues it is not because he does not want to offend the powers that be ( and see !), but because the idea never occurs to him. His is not the silence of the lamb but the silence of the honey-badger, who doesn’t give a shit ! The habit persists even after retirement: forget writing letters, posts or articles, they are even reluctant to comment on them ! Since my retirement in 2010 December I have published more than 150 posts and articles, but I can count the comments by my colleagues and peers on the fingers of two hands. Bureaucrats are used to living in a cocoon of perks and privileges and are loath to step out of their comfort zone. So when 65 of the most senior ones decide to go public and raise their voice it is time to take them seriously: the state of the nation’s affairs must be close to breaking point for them to have broken with their nature and tradition. The significance of this letter does not lie in the fact that it will achieve anything or get a positive response from the govt. but in the fact that the civil service has stood up to a powerful Prime Minister for the first time. It is a timely message to Indian society at large, especially to the apprehensive but silent supporters of liberal and democratic values. It signals that the time has come for them- the artists, academics, writers, intellectuals, media, retired Generals- to also organise themselves and speak out, before they are silenced for ever.
There will inevitably be sceptics and trolls who will deride and traduce this effort ( the counter campaign has already begun), asking questions like: What were they doing while in service ?Why did they wait to retire before speaking out ? What will writing a mere letter achieve ? There are answers to all these questions but it is not necessary to give them here, because such trolling is the classic diversionary tactic of the BJP sympathisers- attack the player, not the ball. The issue is not why they spoke out now, but whether they speak the truth and whether they have done the right thing by speaking out. The answer to both is an unequivocal YES.
There is hatred, violence and fear abroad, on a scale never experienced before in this country. The machinery of the state colludes with vigilantes of all hues and the law abiding citizen is left to their mercies. Institutions are being destroyed systematically, both from within and without. Non-state actors dictate our diet, clothes, relationships, films and view of history. The apparatus of the state is used selectively to suppress dissent. The validity of a faith is tested on the crucible of just one religion only. It appears that the country is being given a simple binary choice- Democracy or Development ? ( Actually, it should be phrased Democracy or Promise of Development, since no real development has taken place in the last three years. But even this doesn’t really mater, because the choice is also being dictated by Big Brother). In any case democracies don’t work on binaries and this is not a choice but an ultimatum. This letter has been long overdue.
A couple of caveats, however. According to my rough calculations there would be about 2000-2500 surviving retired IAS officers but there are only 65 signatories to the letter. Mr. Jawahar Sircar and others should have made a greater effort to involve more of these officers in the campaign- they would have found very wide support. 500 signatures would have negated the criticism already being made- that these 65 are a minuscule minority and do not represent the civil services. After all, the BJP respects only numbers, not ideas! Secondly, the signatories should immediately issue a public appeal to political parties not to co-opt this letter into their anti-govt. campaigns, and they should scrupulously keep them at arms’ length. Politics is the kiss of death for any citizens’ movement.
This letter will probably have no impact on a government and a party that keeps on winning one election after another, and sees this as the only validation it needs. But it will come as a mild shock to Mr. Modi who, like all authoritarian figures, likes to bask in the sunlight of public adulation. It will further affect his image in the global media, already disapproving of his style of leadership and human rights record. It might just provide another slim arrow in the Opposition quiver which was woefully empty till Mandsaur happened. But if you’re waiting for the govt. to take note of the letter and alter course– don’t hold your breath.
Breathe in- and speak out.