The Walls Close in on Modi as India’s Bureaucrats Quit in Protest

  • October 14, 2019
  • OZY
From left: Subhash Chandra Garg, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Dr. Shah Faesal. SourceComposite Sean Culligan/OZY, Image Getty

By Pallabi Munsi 13 October 2019

Why you should care

The unprecedented wave of resignations in the U.S. State Department under Donald Trump is now spreading to the bureaucracy in Modi’s India. 

Just last year, Kannan Gopinathan was the toast of India’s civil services, after his efforts at rebuilding a broken dam in the flood-ravaged state of Kerala drew national attention. But in August this year, the 33-year-old bureaucrat quit the coveted services, telling reporters he was “perturbed [that] a large section of the population has had their fundamental rights suspended.”

This was 19 days after the Indian government revoked Kashmir’s special status and imposed a crippling curfew, shutting down phone and internet connectivity and ensuring that those affected couldn’t even protest — restrictions that broadly remain in place. Gopinathan made a dramatic break from the role of the bureaucrat. And he’s not alone. 

India’s bureaucracy has stood as an impartial “steel frame” — as described by founding father Sardar Patel in the 1940s — throughout its independent history, with officers staying away from partisan politics. That appeared to hold even through most of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term. But that dam is now cracking under the weight of Modi’s recent controversial steps in Kashmir and a perceived clampdown on dissent. The unprecedented wave of resignations from career diplomats in the U.S. State Department protesting President Donald Trump’s policies since 2017 is seemingly spreading to bureaucrats in the world’s largest democracy: India.

In January, Shah Faesal, a Kashmiri bureaucrat who had topped India’s national exam to enter the Indian Administrative Services (IAS), quit, protesting “unabated killings in Kashmir” and the marginalization of Indian Muslims. He later joined politics and is currently under house arrest. K. Sasikanth Senthil, another young bureaucrat, resigned two weeks after Gopinathan, saying it is “unethical for me to continue as a civil servant when the fundamental building blocks of our diverse democracy are being compromised.”

Never have their reasons [for quitting] been so sharply critical of the government and the ruling party.

Jawhar Sircar, retired bureaucrat. 

Others have quit over what critics say represents the administration’s “stifling” of the civil services and its officers. In July, one of India’s top bureaucrats, Subhash Garg, resigned after he was moved to a lower-profile role. The same day that Senthil quit, another officer, Kashish Mittal, resigned after he was posted to the northeastern part of the country. And more than 200 retired civil servants have formed a collective to “blow the whistle” on the lies that the government tries to “paint a picture is true,” says Jawhar Sircar, a retired senior bureaucrat who is part of the group. It’s all part of an unparalleled churn, he says.

“This is not the first time that IAS officers have resigned on moral grounds,” says Sircar. “But never have their reasons been so sharply critical of the government and the ruling party.” 

Part of the disenchantment has to do with the Modi government’s emphasis on lateral entries of subject experts into policymaking, often ignoring career bureaucrats. That’s why some experts say the spate of recent resignations won’t particularly hurt the government. “The depletion of the IAS ranks should not be a worry as the government seems to be moving the direction of lateral entry — and a fresh infusion of bright people should cement any small cracks that may appear,” writes Ramanath Jha, a former IAS officer and a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank.  

But Sircar says such strong voices of protest from within the system have an impact — he cites the example of iconic freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose, who resigned from British India’s civil services in 1921 and put together an army against the colonial rulers. “History is witness to how sharp criticism can bring about change,” says Sircar.

The last time India saw a flurry of resignations by IAS officers was in 2000, when the country was reaping the benefits of economic liberalization. At the time, India Inc. was in need of capable managers and mid-level bureaucrats jumped the ship for jobs in the private sector — hoping to earn more money. “Now it’s different,” says Sircar, pointing out how today, it’s often graduates from India’s top engineering, medical and business schools who consciously pick the civil services over jobs in consulting, finance or in hospitals. For them, says Sircar, “it’s about the conviction to better the lives of the citizens. So when youngsters like Gopinathan and Senthil quit, you know there is something fundamentally wrong with the ruling party’s policies.” 

Gopinathan believes the Modi government was within its rights to abrogate Article 370 of the constitution — which guaranteed relative autonomy to Kashmir. “But in a democracy, people should have the right to respond to a decision taken by the government,” he has maintained. “The clampdown on voices is unfair.” 

Some of these bureaucrats have faced political vitriol since they quit. Members of Modi’s ruling BJP party have publicly called for Senthil, for instance, to be “sent to Pakistan” — a common tool of the ruling regime to label its critics as traitors. 

Several former civil servants also disagree with bureaucrats quitting over a government’s policies. Former Indian ambassador to the Netherlands Bhaswati Mukherjee thinks it’s unethical to do so. “When you join the services, you dedicate yourself to the nation — doesn’t matter if your own political ideology aligns with that of the ruling party,” she says. “Else, don’t join the services.”

But in his resignation letter, Senthil insists “it cannot be business as usual anymore,” adding that he foresees “difficult challenges to the basic fabric of our nation.” And what about times when institutions of governance fail to act as checks and balances, asks Gopinathan? “When the institution doesn’t stand up for citizens,” he maintains, “individuals must.” 

  • Pallabi Munsi, OZY Author
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