New Delhi: Hounding of senior officers, protests across the country and attempts — perceived and real — to change the constitutional ethos of the country have sparked a kind of unrest among civil servants, who have taken to WhatsApp groups to share their concerns and grievances.
Several IAS, IPS and IRS officers who ThePrint spoke to said there is a palpable sense of vulnerability, insecurity and concern among officers, which they are wary of expressing publicly, but do so in the safety of closed WhatsApp groups with their peers from the services.
While several officers who support government policies have started taking to Twitter and Facebook to throw their weight behind the government, those critical or skeptical are taking to closed WhatsApp groups to express their fears.
Among the messages being circulated are lines from the classic poem by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, “First they came for the socialists…”, excerpts from George Orwell’s Animal Farm and those from the Constitution underlining the democratic and secular foundation of the country.
“There is a growing sense among officers that the government can come after anyone they find inconvenient,” said an IAS officer who did not wish to be named. “Officers aren’t named but when the likes of (Election Commissioner Ashok) Lavasa are targeted, then messages suggesting that it could be any of us next, are forwarded.”
“Let’s not fool ourselves. There’s no protection — not even constitutional protection. It’s a Master-Slave relationship,” an IAS officer wrote in a message to his group.
The spectre of investigating agencies
The growing sense of insecurity among senior IAS officers stems from the perception that the Modi government is unleashing investigative agencies on several civil servants — serving and retired — who are seen to be close to the Congress party or those seen to be antagonistic to the current dispensation.
Earlier this year, six IAS officers, including former NITI Aayog CEO Sindhushree Khullar, were brought under the CBI scrutiny in the 13-year old INX media case, in which former finance minister P. Chidambaram was arrested. Subsequently, over 70 bureaucrats wrote to PM Modi expressing concern over the prosecution of the officers and that the development has had a chilling effect on diligent and honest officers.
At the same time, agencies like the CBI and the ED have been investigating Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa’s family ever since Lavasa, a retired IAS officer, dissented in the clean chits given by the EC to Modi and BJP President Amit Shah in cases of alleged violation of the Model Code of Conduct in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Moreover, with the government shunting out or abruptly transferring several secretary-level officers like former finance secretary Subhash Garg or former human resource development secretaries R. Subrahmanyam and Rina Ray, there is also a sense of unpredictability and insecurity among senior officers.
Officers agree that the cases have had a chilling effect on the bureaucracy with several officers fearing a backlash from the government if they do not fall in line.
While not all officers are willing to put their views out on WhatsApp groups — given the possibility of “moles” on groups, some officers send private messages to vocal officers extending their support, the officer quoted above said.
“A lot of times when I have posted something on groups, some officers send me messages personally saying they agree with me, sometimes they ask me to be cautious,” said the officer.
Another officer said while closed WhatsApp groups are considered “safe spaces,” officers know they can be “exposed” by fellow batchmates. “Yet, people are sharing their views because people are genuinely concerned… Otherwise, even we know that when you put something out in cyberspace, there is no hiding after that.”
Officers did point out though that the ones in crucial positions always refrain from expressing their views.
Policies being discussed, criticised
While civil servants are barred from criticising any government policies openly, on private group chats, voices against the Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Act, the government response to nationwide protests, among others are growing.
“On private groups, parallels are being drawn with (US President) Donald Trump’s travel ban… Not all officers, but certainly a few of them are talking about how Article 14 is being turned on its head,” said the IAS officer quoted above.
Some of the messages sent on groups are as follows: “Going ahead, the government could start prescribing different punishments for offenders of the same religion”, “India is becoming a noisy country with no real power – soft power or hard power”, “India can never become China, and now India is not even the India we knew.”
There is also concern about the civil service reforms initiated by the Modi government. “When we read about the government wanting to change cadre and service allocation rules or government wanting to end empanelment, concerns are shared on WhatsApp that these times could see the end of the civil service as we know it.”
The second officer quoted above said not all officers have the means to leave the civil service and take up another career, but there is a sense of frustration at the government policies.
An IRS officer agreed. “We do talk about how the priorities of the government are misplaced…That instead of building the economy, they are breaking the building blocks of our democracy,” he said. “The bureaucracy is seen as separate from the people, but we are an extension of the people, and have the same fears.”
“We also wonder why the government is perpetually in election mode, but have to put our heads down and keep working — lest we are sent to kaala pani,” the IRS officer said.
However, an IPS officer was not optimistic about what may come out of this. “Civil servants by and large are the privileged of the privileged. They are driven by self-interest… Most of us will criticise in whispers, but do nothing more,” the officer said. “When the BJP loses power nationally, then many of us will come out and write books on how these were turbulent times.”