New Delhi: In March 2020, a young IAS officer of the Kerala cadre, Anupam Mishra, was booked by the state police and suspended by the government for violating quarantine orders and rushing to his hometown, Kanpur, after he returned from Singapore along with his wife. By July 2020, Mishra was reinstated, and made a district sub-collector.
In the very same month, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had arrested Jammu and Kashmir cadre IAS officer Rajiv Ranjan in connection with an illegal arms license distribution scandal. By February 2021, Ranjan was also back in service and posted as an additional secretary in the revenue department.
About a year earlier in August 2019, another Kerala cadre IAS officer, Sriram Venkitaraman, was accused and subsequently suspended for fatally knocking down a journalist while allegedly driving in an inebriated state.
Venkitaraman was booked under Section 304 (punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder) and Section 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of an offence) of the Indian Penal Code. In March 2020, however, he was reinstated by the Kerala government, and appointed joint secretary in the health department even amid protests by journalists and the victim’s family.
The three cases are among the many instances in which the suspension of IAS officers for cases, ranging from financial fraud to drunken driving, made headlines across the country, but their gradual and quiet reinstatement into service by state governments went largely unnoticed.
Officers who spoke to ThePrint said that far from being the exception, such cases are the norm so long as the officer concerned enjoys the confidence of the political dispensation and the IAS lobby at large. While rules exist to thwart indiscipline by IAS officers, their use remains largely arbitrary and selective.
Grave misconduct, flimsy defences
In his defence submitted to the state government, Mishra had said that upon returning from Singapore, he was instructed to observe home quarantine, and that he interpreted the word “home” to mean his home in Kanpur.
While the government did not find his defence to be satisfactory, it decided to leave him with an oral warning given that he is a “young officer”.
“The government after examining the written statement submitted by the officer was convinced that the officer could not defend the charge satisfactorily. But Anupam Mishra is a young officer and this is his first mistake,” reads the Kerala government’s order reinstating the officer.
“The government has decided not to take further action by giving an oral warning not to repeat such mistakes. Anupam Mishra is reinstated in service. The officer is posted as sub-collector, Alappuzha.”
Venkitraman had argued that he was not driving the vehicle at all, and that it was Wafa Firoz, a woman accompanying him at the time, who was behind the wheels.
In Venkitaraman’s case, the police did not charge-sheet the officer for over six months after the incident, prompting the Kerala government to therefore argue that it cannot extend the suspension beyond six months at a stretch if there is no fresh charge against the officer.
While the cases for which officers are suspended may be grave in nature, the defences — presented and often accepted — remain flimsy, said a Kerala cadre IAS officer, who requested anonymity.
“The point really is that as long as the government has your back, defences are accepted quite unquestioningly, and the officer concerned will not only be reinstated, but also keep rising up the ranks,” the officer said.
Not a new trend
While there is a growing trend of officers being reinstated by state governments even after serious cases of misconduct, it is not as though this is an entirely new phenomenon, argued former DoPT secretary Satyanand Mishra.
“Over a decade ago, there was the case of Chhattisgarh IAS officer Babulal Agarwal, whose house was raided by the IT department, and he was accused of amassing funds worth hundreds of crores, operating hundreds of bank accounts and floating several companies,” Mishra said. “He was suspended by the government for some time but reinstated and made secretary later.”
Similarly, Pradeep Shukla, an IAS officer of the UP cadre had been suspended in 2012 for his alleged role in Rs 5,500 crore National Rural Health Mission scam (NRHM). Shukla went on to be jailed for his alleged involvement in the scam, only to be released on health grounds later.
He was then promptly reinstated and posted in the revenue board in 2015, without any formal announcement in this regard.
Political connections and the ‘blessings’ of seniors
“There are several such cases across states,” Mishra said. “It ultimately boils down to your political connections. And then there is the case of your seniors being too sympathetic, and willing to overlook all kinds of indiscipline.
“And every case would have two sides. Even if you are caught red-handed taking a bribe, you can always argue that the money was forced in your hand,” Mishra added.
A secretary-rank IAS officer agreed.
“Given the strong connections IAS officers have with each other, an accused can always go and pull a few strings,” the officer said. “Say that they will be punished by the court or the departmental inquiry when it is concluded in any case, so why punish them double. More often than not, seniors are more than willing to oblige.”
Another reason is the financial implications of suspension, the officer added.
“According to the rules, you have to pay 50 per cent of subsistence to a suspended officer up to six months, and 75 per cent afterwards,” the officer said. “So if a case keeps dragging on for longer than that, the state government also feels might as well make the officer work, rather than sit at home, and get paid.”
The only answer to this issue would be the expeditious conclusion of both departmental and court cases that would not allow innocent officers from being harassed, and guilty officers from being protected, the officer added.
“Ultimately, the law of the land is that one is innocent until proven guilty… But of course, there are many within the bureaucracy willing to exploit this.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)