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Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Rusted Steel Frame

The occasion for this piece was the open admission of helplessness, by a chief secretary in putting up the file to the government for its order, on my submission, in a matter of grave public importance. 
I wrote this the same evening, in a state of emotional overdrive.  There are many statements which, on more sober reflection, I would like to modify, but I am posting it as it is, to commemorate the integrity and depth of my emotions.  I shall revert to the matter which triggered this meditative piece in due course of time.

The disappointment with the degenerate world is a necessary accompaniment to the process of ageing.  What many of us – retired, or about to retire, civil servants – often fail to see, or deliberately overlook, is our own contribution to the deterioration.  The de rigour refrain – things were different in “our time” – begs the question:  who is responsible for leaving it different.  Did the rot set in overnight?   How did we occupy ourselves while the grass was growing right under our feet? 

This post tries to lend some clarity to my own muddled, confused thoughts on the issue of abdication of both courage and responsibility at the highest level of civil service. 

Intellectuals have a major role to play in the civil society – by civil society I mean that area of intellectual independence and political neutrality where issues are deliberated for their intrinsic worth.  In Bihar, in a limited sense of the term, the higher civil service was also an extension of the civil society; the official file was both a crucible for intellectual honesty as well as a site for resistance.  The opinions of the civil servants, which often ran contrary to the wishes of the chief political executive, expressed fearlessly and with conviction became part of the folklore.  Their careers were as important to them as anyone else, but there was a certain detachment and stoicism about it in the best of them. 

The Indian Administrative Service consciously modelled itself after its more illustrious predecessors in the ICS whom Philip Woodruff described as, “a ruling class, a class apart.  They were hard working in a debilitating climate, incorruptible in a society riddled with bribery, celibate until middle age in a subcontinent which married at puberty.  Above all they were intellectuals. 

Being an intellectual brought in its wake the responsibility to speak "truth to power", in the famous phrase of Julian Benda.  And in the early years of independence, many did conform to these ideals .  They were the Praetorian guards, defending the public service against the onslaughts of corrupt elements from below and above.  Incrementally, but not imperceptibly, the service has lost its independence of thought and, thereby, its identity. 
The steady process of diminution has been noticed by all, but no collective effort has been made to stem the rot.  The service not only rubbishes well-founded criticisms of servility and capitulation, it felicitates itself loudly even though it is aware of the merit of the criticism all the time.  The other strategy to deflect criticism is to outwit and silence the critic with a more vehement self-critical diatribe, an anguished self-loathing of their own, as if the act of advertising could, in itself, absolve the service of all the sins that were being advertised. 

For the Guardians – that is how the ancestor service had been conceived, and the descendants are quick to flaunt their lineage – moral and ethical standards were the first line of defence.  Peer opinion came next.  The deterrence posed by laws figures at the bottom of the pile.  But there are no gold standards now. 

The pursuit of that “bitch-goddess  success” has become part of a collective, coercive creed, so much so that anyone who refuses to believe in it finds himself ostracized. 

The new role models are also the new power brokers in our society, whose non-traditional ascents to key positions in government have challenged the established orthodoxy honesty is the best policy or professional competence can take you to the top.  Stripped of their moral authority, they nevertheless still strut with a phony majesty.  Many of them, their egos already inflated past safety level, are generally a deluded lot who think that they cast a shadow on the world stage, disproportionate to their size and importance.  (Disproportionate wealth would be nearer the truth, but we invariably miss that point.)  

There are, of course, still some – I would not expose them – who have resisted the temptation, in a tragic, almost masochistic, adherence to values which the rest of the service has long since jettisoned.  They are so rare that you have to have the instinct of an archaeologist or the skill of a scuba diver to prise them out.  Or go about in the darkness at noon, like the Athenian cynic Diogenes, lantern in hand looking for courageous civil servants.