Shouldn't the Government's gag order on retired employees extend to politicians ?

Politicians in power are also privy to confidential information and how and why policies are framed. Why should they be allowed then to write, speak and share their knowledge?

Shouldn't the Government's gag order on retired employees extend to politicians ?

MY Siddiqui

The Union Government has issued strict gag orders prohibiting pensioners, both newly retired and older ones, from communicating in the media, writing books and participating in public discourses from sharing their domain experiences without prior permission of the government, failing which their pension can be withheld or withdrawn.

Government service is public service. In the Constitution and the laws framed thereunder, a government servant is known as a public servant. As conceived under Article 209 of the Constitution, service rules have been framed. The broad theme is that a public servant is neutral, free from political affiliations or any other engagement. In addition, government service is a whole-time job with no other engagements allowed.

The NDA Government presumably does not have problems with government employees joining the RSS. Some BJP-ruled states have amended service rules permitting their employees to join RSS activities. The Centre has not done so. Only an informal arrangement is there for fear of getting a bad name for denting the neutrality of public servants.

As is usual with such gag orders, the pretext is national security and public order. This covers ostensibly retirees from security and intelligence agencies but its ambit sweeps All India services like the IAS, IPS and all other central civil services as there is interchangeability of officials from the deputy secretary level upwards from one specialised service cadre to the other on deputation.

The Central Civil Services (Pension) Rules have been amended by a notification issued on May 31, 2021 to give effect to this gag order. The new rules stipulate an undertaking by retiring officials that in case of public communication in violation of the Pension Rules, they agree to withdrawal or attachment of their pension. This rule is part of ongoing attempts to emasculate the media including print, TV, web-based news and current affairs portals, social media and Internet based OTT platforms. The design is to ensure that people read, hear and watch what the Government wants them to. While not spelt out in so many words, it is understood that praise of the Government and Government policies would be ignored. The new rule therefore will enable the Government to control public narratives and curb public criticism of the government.

Such sweeping amendments in Pension Rules restrain retirees from security and intelligence wings from writing books and articles or otherwise communicating to the media and people their domain knowledge and experiences gathered while in public service without the prior permission of the head of the organisation from where he/she retired.

‘Sources’ in the Government have been quoted as saying that the proposal was on the anvil for the last four years and that a book published way back in 2008 had first prompted plans for such restrictions. But the immediate provocation for such draconian measures is believed to be the recent spate of open letters to the Prime Minister on issues facing the nation. They have ranged from the anti-democratic conduct of this government, violations of the Rule of Law based on the Constitution.

The open letters have drawn the PM’s attention to human rights violations by official agencies, ruling Sangh Parivar cohorts and others, to harms that accrue to people from such autocratic, communal and divisive politics. The rising social tension resulting from such policies, the letters said, hinder peace and progress of the nation and India getting a bad name in foreign media and the comity of nations. Are the people to believe that these letters could have compromised national security or sovereignty?

The Constitution Conduct Group (CCG) comprising senior retired officials from All India and central services have been writing open letters to the PM, urging him to take remedial steps against dying democratic practices, centralised power in a single person and office, death of collective responsibility, debasement of the judiciary, downgrading of public institutions and the gradual break down of the Idea of India. The open letters have been remarkably restrained, factual and politically correct.

In all, the CCG has written 42 open letters to the Prime Minister so far. Books, memoirs by retired bureaucrats and participation of senior bureaucrats on public platforms to address critical issues facing the nation are also said to have provoked the change in rules and the threat to suspend or withdraw pension which the Government had agreed to pay without the restrictions now being proposed. Will such retrospective change in pension rules pass muster? What is more, can such restrictions be imposed on new recruits to the civil services? Are there precedents in other democratic countries?

The amendment in Rule 8 provides that “pension is subject to good conduct”, which means any violation of the new rules will jeopardise a retired officer’s pension. While a 2008 amendment to the Pension Rules had explicitly mentioned existing restrictions within the Official Secrets Act and ordinary criminal law and barred retired officials from writing about “sensitive information”, that would impact sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific, or economic interests of the state, or lead to incitement of an offence, the new notification widens the ambit of the gag order considerably.

Constitutional experts view the restrictions as an undemocratic attempt to silence anyone questioning the Government by branding the retiree as anti-national and framing them under draconian anti-terror laws like the UAPA, NSA and sedition law.

As an aside, should similar restrictions be put in place for the political class who as MPs, MLAs, MLCs, Ministers, members of various parliamentary and legislative assembly committees, representing vital public sectors, who may also have been privy to official secrets and who also draw pension from the public exchequer? That would meet the ends of justice, equality and fair-play.

(The writer is a former civil servant. Views are personal)

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