New Delhi: Over the last few months, at least three prominent senior government officials have been accused of violating conduct rules, with the Modi government taking action against each of them.
Last Tuesday, the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) suspended Ashish Joshi, a 1992-batch Indian Post and Telecommunication Accounts and Finance Service officer, for reportedly misusing his official letterhead to file a complaint against Delhi MLA Kapil Mishra for uploading an incendiary video online.
While the department didn’t elaborate, Joshi’s suspension order said disciplinary proceedings are being contemplated against him. These are ro take place under the provisions of the Central Civil Service Rules.
In February, the central government asked the West Bengal government to take action against five officers from the Indian Police Service (IPS) for sharing the stage with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, during her protest against the CBI. They allegedly violated conduct rules, which prohibit officers from taking part in political protests.
In January, the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister repatriated railway officer Sanjiv Kumar – who was serving as the officer on special duty to Minister of State for Personnel Jitendra Singh – back to the railway ministry. Kumar was accused of breaching official decorum, misconduct, and publicly casting aspersions on the Modi government in a Facebook post, which was later published in several news portals.
Last year, in another high-profile case, the central government had initiated a departmental inquiry against IAS officer Shah Faesal, for a remark he made on the rampant rape culture in South Asia. Faesal has since resigned from service.
Meanwhile, in Uttar Pradesh, an IPS officer who reportedly made some controversial statements against the Yogi Adityanath government in an interview was suspended for allegedly violating conduct rules. Jasvir Singh, a 1992-batch officer, had sought to invoke the National Security Act in 2002 against then-Gorakhpur MP Adityanath, for allegedly violating prohibitory orders.
A senior officer in the central government, who did not wish to be identified, said the conduct rules “have always been somewhat slippery”.
“They are used against any officer who is seen to not be toeing the government line,” the officer added. “But now, all over the government, there is a sense of fear. The threshold for any kind of criticism is low, and the ambiguity of the conduct rules is being used a lot more to straighten up officers.”
The recently-suspended Joshi agreed.
“According to the conduct rules, action can be taken against any conduct which is seen as ‘unbecoming’. Now, this is highly subjective… The law should define what exactly constitutes ‘unbecoming’ conduct, otherwise the misuse is inevitable,” he said.
Refuting the argument, a DoPT official said that while there is no increase in such cases, they are highlighted more often due to social media penetration.
However, another IAS officer in the central government said: “Cases like these may not be significantly high in number, but they do help in creating a fear psychosis among the officers.
“You can’t blame one government over the other as such. The conduct rules lend themselves to misuse quite easily, so it’s not a question of whether they’ll be misused, but how much they will be misused.”
What do conduct rules actually say?
Conduct rules governing the conduct of India’s bureaucracy largely ensure that officers do not divulge confidential information or criticise government policy, and remain politically neutral.
While officers from the administrative, police and forest services are governed by the All India Service (Conduct) Rules, 1968, officers from the Indian Revenue Service, Indian Information Service, Indian Customs & Central Excise Service, Indian Postal Service, Indian Audit & Accounts Service, etc. are governed by the Central Civil Service (Conduct) Rules, 1964. Some services like the Indian Railway Service have their own set of conduct rules, though effectively they are all similar.
While conduct rules seek to govern the conduct of officers in several spheres – there is a prohibition on receiving dowry, drinking in government offices, etc. – some provisions are used more frequently than others, given their ambiguity.
The frequently-used provisions
According to Rule 7 of the AIS Conduct Rules, no member of the service can criticise any policy or action of the central or state government on a radio broadcast, communication over any public media, in any document, in any communication to the press, or in any public utterance.
Further, they are prohibited from saying anything “which has the effect of an adverse criticism of any current or recent policy or action of the central government or a state government” or “which is capable of embarrassing the relations between the central government and any state government”.
In 2016, the central government had sought to extend the ban to social media as well.
Railway officer Sanjiv Kumar has been accused of violating a similar rule in the Railway Services (Conduct) Rules, 1966, (Rule 9), according to which, a railway officer must not publicly criticise or embarrass the state or central government.
However, Kumar told ThePrint that nothing he wrote in the Facebook post had criticised a specific policy of the government, caused tension in centre-state relations or India’s foreign relations.
Prohibition on doing anything ‘unbecoming’ of a civil servant
Rule 3 of the AIS Conduct Rules is more over-arching and ambiguous. According to Rule 3(1), “every member of the service shall at all times maintain absolute integrity and devotion to duty and shall do nothing which is unbecoming of a member of the service”.
The rule is elaborated in a sub-section to say that every officer must maintain the following – high ethical standards, integrity and honesty, political neutrality, promoting of the principles of merit, fairness and impartiality in the discharge of duties, accountability and transparency, responsiveness to the public, particularly to the weaker sections, and courtesy and good behaviour with the public.
Criticism of the ambiguity
Faesal, who was suspended for tweeting against rape culture in the subcontinent, was accused of not “maintaining absolute honesty and integrity in discharge of official duty and thus acted in a manner unbecoming of public servant”.
Love letter from my boss for my sarcastic tweet against rape-culture in South Asia.
The Irony here is that service rules with a colonial spirit are invoked in a democratic India to stifle the freedom of conscience.
I'm sharing this to underscore the need for a rule change. pic.twitter.com/ssT8HIKhIK
— Shah Faesal (@shahfaesal) July 10, 2018
Speaking to ThePrint at the time, Faesal had said his suspension was “an opportunity to reopen the debate around primitive service rules for government employees”.
Even some court judgments have argued that certain provisions of the conduct rules are vague.
For example, in the case of Golam Mohiuddin vs State of West Bengal, AIT 1964, the Calcutta High Court had asked: “Conduct on the part of a public servant, which is likely to appear as unbecoming or improper in public estimation, may be an indiscretion on his part. But is such a conduct necessarily a misconduct?
“However undesirable it may be for a public servant to live a life of shame, disorderliness or immorality, it is equally undesirable to leave the appraisement of his behaviour to the subjective satisfaction of the government or the disciplinary authority,” the court had said.
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