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Civil Servants: The Feudal Lords of Our Time

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By Amartya Banerjee

While perusing through a pile of second hand books in College Street in Kolkata, I came across a two-part book called, The Men Who Ruled India. Written by an ex-ICS officer (back when the IAS was known as such), Philip Mason, the book describes in rich detail the persona of the men who made up the mighty steel frame of the Raj in India. I was always fascinated by the fact that a couple of lakh Englishmen could hold in sway millions of Indians and many more in the world for over two centuries. The answer was simple, “talk about welfare and common good but in practice do everything but that.” Like a magic trick, the audience is kept bedazzled while in reality what they keep watching is actually an illusion.

Reading through the book, I realized that even though the events described were before my father’s or even my grandfather’s time, they were as true then as they are now. The civil servants of yesteryears wielded enormous power and do so even today. In the countryside, the sarkaari babu is almost equivalent to a demi-god with powers that can make or break lives. While interning in a community development block in South 24 Parganas in West Bengal, I found that to be true. Old people, coming from the rural hinterland for claiming their old age pension, were kept waiting because the concerned official was “busy.” Doing what? Smoking a cigarette (right below the ‘No Smoking’ sign) inside the office. When he finally looks at the man, he finds some minor error in the form and the old chap is asked to make that journey all over again.

One of the most enduring imperial hand-outs is the legacy of paternalistic rule. Without going into the historical details, we could say it assumes the rulers as the caring father and the subjects as the errant children. Like all children, they too don’t know what is good or bad for them and, hence, must be told. In this context, the writer of the book places the civil servants within the concepts of guardianship as enunciated by Plato – as a class of all-knowing, all-pervasive supermen. As any honest civil service aspirant (who has genuinely aspired and has given up years of his/her life for it) will tell you, the bureaucratic machinery is much like that, sitting with an air of “I know it all.

It took the Union Public Services Commission (UPSC) almost 30 years to change the pattern of examinations, which had become redundant years ago, only to replace it with an even more controversial pattern. I am referring to the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT) and the corresponding ruckus surrounding it. Instead of listening to the voices of the students (who represent ‘the people’ in this case) screaming hoarse, they listen to their own ilk and ultimately have their own way. The question is not whether the paper is discriminatory but the way not even a scant regard was paid to the views of those who struggle to make it to the top. Statistics say that the exam has a language bias, but is any bureaucrat listening? I am instantly reminded of the infamous Rowlatt Acts or the draconian Defense of India Acts, which were passed through the teeth of opposition of India’s independence movement.

The intent of the British was to create a class of Indians “Indian in colour and appearance but English in manners, customs and beliefs.” Well, the moment you become a sarkaari babu, you are catapulted into that august company from where the rest of the world looks pretty small. Anybody who has seen the character of Mr. Humphrey, an elderly civil servant in the British comedy-series, Yes Minister, would get the idea. The way he performs all tasks within the bounds of the law, but in complete opposition to public good, is remarkable. A common refrain in India is that “Rules are for the poor, not the rich.” The manner in which rules are systematically subverted for those who have the right connections, lineage, and money puts the claims of impartiality of the bureaucracy to shame. The 2G Spectrum scam, the coal scams, the spurious land deals in Haryana all highlight this.

The recently passed order of the Supreme Court mandating a Civil Services Board is a great idea. However, the reluctance to accept it is already visible too. The police reforms suggested by the Supreme Court in the Prakash Singh case is gathering dust, and this one, bearing in mind all the tell-tale signs, is likely to go the same way. The recent reform in the UPSC exams, whereby a paper on Ethics was introduced, is also a great way to go. However, the great majority of the lower bureaucracy who interact with people on a day-to-day basis is still out scot-free. No wonder, the word “jugaad” or setting is as almost as synonymous with government work as the name Raj/Aryan/Rahul is to any movie featuring Shahrukh Khan.

Not that all should be painted with the same brush. Officers such as Sanjay Chaturvedi, Ashok Khemka, and Shivdeep Lande make the cut for being real “public servants” and not feudal lords claiming ownership of people’s lives. There are many more officers who don’t get the limelight and do inglorious work, keeping the lamp of honesty aflame. Perhaps a quote from the film Munnabhai 2 best sums it up: “desh toh apna ho gaya, par deshwaasi paraye ho gaaye” (the country became ours but the countrymen became alien).

Lord Macaulay would be proud. But Gandhi would be heartbroken.

Author:

Amartya Banerjee completed his Bachelor’s in Social Work from Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, West Bengal, and his master’s from Delhi University. Currently, he is working with Collaborative research & Dissemination as a Junior Researcher. He has a life-long romance with anything historical and, hence, sees the interplay of historical factors in the current happenings. Amartya’s abiding interests are people’s identity in urban spaces, influence of patriarchy in our everyday lives, and its relations with communal ideology.

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.

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Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on Short Stories, themed around ‘Night’, edited by author, Sumana Roy.

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