A new low for the IAS

What happens when our supposedly non-partisan civil servants start waving party flags

Indira Bhawan at Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie
Indira Bhawan at Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie

Avay Shukla

There could be no better — if that is indeed the right word — indication of the progressive decay of the ethos of our civil services than a Facebook post this week by a very senior IAS officer of the Maharashtra cadre.

One Manisha Patankar Mhaiskar, additional chief secretary, in a very opportunistically timed post after the consecration of the Ram temple at Ayodhya, revealed how, as a probationer in Mussoorie, she and some colleagues celebrated the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992 by distributing sweets and eating kesar pedas.

It was, she adds, a "secret" meeting, perhaps revealing its conspiratorial nature. (A sharp contrast to the very blatant manner in which she has now gone public — a sure measure of the changing times!) To further ingratiate herself with the powers in Delhi and Nagpur, she also brought in the Bharat-India divide, by claiming that her group was from "small town India" and the Lutyens Delhi types in the academy did not share her sentiments.

She had been issued a disciplinary notice by the administration at the time, but we are not aware of what happened to that. Presumably nothing, since she has been elevated to the rarefied heights of the apex scale and clearly entertains even loftier ambitions. Her post has attracted a lot of attention on social media and caused a flutter in the IAS fold.

What Ms Mhaiskar did 32 years ago should be of no relevance now, especially as she was a young probationer then, still sowing her wild oats. Her present personal, religious, or political affiliations should also be of no concern to us: she is certainly entitled to them as a free citizen of a (still) free nation.

It is when she goes public with them, in the most brazen and don't-give-a-damn manner, that we should start worrying. The concern, therefore, should be that she has the confidence to publicly proclaim and reiterate those feelings in 2024, after having taken an oath to a (still) secular Constitution and having ostensibly served it for 32 years. There are a number of points to be noted here:

* A serving public servant is celebrating and applauding something which has been declared to be a crime by the Supreme Court. I am not talking here of what she did in 1992, but the fact that in her post she maintains that she holds the firm belief that what happened on 6 December 1992, was "something powerful, something auspicious, something positive". In fact, she goes on to describe it as "seminal".

* By drawing a contrast between "small towns" and "Lutyens Delhi" in a mocking manner, she is again feeding into the right wing narrative that the idea of secularism is an elitist concept nurtured in the metros, and that it is "small towners" like her who represent the true ethos of India. This is the kind of music the bhakts like to hear. (Incidentally, Ms Mhaiskar is no small towner — she comes from Nagpur, which has a population of 3 million and is the second capital of Maharashtra).

* There is, in her post, an obvious ambiguity about her belief in pluralism and secularism. This does not sit well with the oath she took to uphold the Constitution of India.

* That she can publicly go on record with her feelings and beliefs with such aplomb and impunity clearly indicates that she is confident no action will be taken against her, unlike the notice issued to her in 1992. She can, obversely, expect a lot of support on social media, a manifold increase in number of followers, a few approving phone calls from Delhi, and envious glances from her colleagues who would be kicking themselves for not having thought of a similar stratagem.

* The timing of the post indicates that Ms Mhaiskar's repeat epiphany is not a spontaneous Wordsworthian 'my heart leaps up in delightmoment, but more a Shakespearean 'a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortunemoment. It appears to be a well thought out move; one could be excused for thinking that she has observed the rising tide in the Sarayu river and decided to take the plunge. The conduct rules can wait.

* This well-timed confession is also a measure of the deterioration of our civil services. It is bad enough that more and more retired civil servants (not just the re-employed ones) and defense forces veterans are jumping on to the majoritarian band wagon, but it is now abundantly clear that the rot has spread even to the serving officers — this is an ill wind that can blow no good.

For it is the apolitical, religion-neutral and non-partisan civil services and the army (not the politicians) which have held this country together for 75 years through wars, riots, changes of government and insurrections.

Their capacity to continue to do so in the even more tumultuous times ahead will be seriously eroded and compromised if they begin to align themselves with particular religious beliefs and political ideologies in their public life.

A democratic government functions on the basis of trust between public servants and the public, on the belief that civil servants are impartial and apolitical; once large sections of the public lose this trust, the efficacy of governance itself gets compromised.

On the plus side, of course, Ms Mhaiskar has suddenly improved her chances of becoming chief secretary of Maharashtra, but she will have made a Faustian bargain to do so. I, for one, would not have much trust in the kind of administration she would be heading. My primary worry, however, is this: now that the sacred 'Lakshman rekha' has been crossed, will there be a stampede by others to do the same, in the classic FOMO or lemming pattern?

Avay Shukla is a retired IAS officer and author of The Deputy Commissioner’s Dog and Other Colleagues. He blogs at avayshukla.blogspot.com

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