Shah Faesal: Can Decades-Old Rules Help the Cause of Public Interest?

By Amitabha Bhattacharya

It is believed that the rule to seek government permission before an official publishes something critical of public policy was precipitated by Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian in 1951. How much he suffered on account of his irreverence and what the government did to him are now well-known. Things have changed since then and one hopes Shah Faesal’s youthful exuberance and the government’s reaction to it would not result in further acrimony.

Conduct of officers belonging to the IAS, IPS and IFoS is bound by All India Service (Conduct) Rules, 1968 and their performance judged by the ubiquitous Annual Confidential Reports written by their superiors. In addition, other Acts like the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 are meant to keep officers on their toes. At a time of heightened public awareness, a vigilant media, social or otherwise, and an active judiciary, bureaucracy in general and bureaucrats in particular are in public gaze and under constant attack. Do rules framed decades ago to discipline such officers help the cause of public interest or hinder it? Are the rules, in the name of disciplining, making them submit meekly to the powers that be?

“Right to free speech of government employees is rarely talked about.” | Image courtesy: Facebook/TwitterFaesal’s tweet “Population + Patriarchy + Illiteracy + Alcohol + Porn + Technology + Anarchy = RAPISTAN”, reportedly in the context of Kathua gang rape and murder, is sarcastic. But on the face of it, there appears to be nothing that is severely critical of the government or its policies. Hence, seeking his explanation on a charge that his conduct was “unbecoming of a public servant” merits attention. One time-tested method of keeping officers under tight leash is to make such provisions in the rulebook that are ill-defined and all-encompassing in nature. Make the rules harsh and keep them broad and vague – as a tool to harass and instil fear, these are the best commandments.

True, in the higher echelons, officers are required to maintain a degree of discipline and self-restraint. Court rulings also justify “reasonable restrictions” being placed on freedom of speech. Therefore, as long as such court-tested rules exist, they have to be honoured.

The two main issues, in this case, are whether, prima facie, there is a violation of the conduct rules and whether proper application of mind was made to invoke such action against the officer, and whether, in the present context of our society where transparency ought to inform every layer of public administration, such rules require to be modified. If the top officials feel shackled, how can they be expected to facilitate unshackling the vast multitudes of  people from poverty and illiteracy? The public reaction to this issue, based on media reports, suggests two things: perhaps an inadequate application of mind was made and that there is an urgent need to revisit the provisions of such restrictive provisions in the rules/Acts.

Rule 3(1) reads “Every member of the service shall at all times maintain absolute integrity and devotion to duty and shall do nothing which is unbecoming of a member of the service” and then, in great detail, lists what every member is expected to do.

Rule 7, titled “criticism of government”, stipulates none should use public media to make a statement “which has the effect of an adverse criticism of any current or recent policy or action of the government.”

A personal view

In the tweet Shah Faesal seems to communicate that the present “culture of rape” in south Asia is the outcome of our collective failure on various fronts listed therein. Though rather impressionistic and simplistic, this is his personal view that many would endorse and is not a secret that he has unearthed. Despite all attempts, there is no denying we have much to do. The tweets appear to have stemmed from his deep frustration; however, by letting his steam off on social media, he might have shown a degree of helplessness which normally a serving bureaucrat does not indulge in. Can a serving IAS officer who plays a key role in decision making and its proper implementation be publicly critical of our inadequate success on social fronts? Even if he does so, in the name of truth, could his conduct be considered “unbecoming of a public servant?” Would a frank admission of failure tantamount to criticism of government policy and action? What has this to do with the officer’s integrity and devotion to duty? Proper application of mind is needed to negotiate these questions.

It is evident that Faesal is irrepressible. In the older days, senior officers of the service used to advise juniors about the proper path to follow. Since the seniors have failed in discharging their responsibilities, every minor deviation also attracts the heavy hand of the government. As a consequence, in a few years’ time in service, the strong spine of many gets softened by the “system”. Soon they get to learn the rules of the game. Keeping the superior officer and people in power happy becomes their main obsession. Removal of fear and greater transparency in functioning are amongst the keys to unlock this unholy nexus. Any high handed approach adopted by the political dispensation might be counterproductive and destroy the self-confidence of young civil servants.

The need to overhaul the conduct rules has to be examined in this context. Caging senior bureaucrats is reprehensible, but allowing them to become wild elephants would also go against public interest. How to strike a balance is the challenge that today’s state has to encounter. If Faesal’s tweets persuade the state to initiate accelerated action, the purpose of such utterings would perhaps be well served. One hopes that both the officer and the government would gain some lessons from this encounter.

Amitabha Bhattacharya is a retired member of the IAS. He has also served in the private sector and the UN.

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