New Delhi: They were comrades for decades — but now they’re lobbing ideological grenades at each other. Retired civil servants are a house divided, as pro- and anti-Modi lobbies lock horns on many fronts, from the policies of the central government and the Election Commission to communal hate incidents across states.
When one faction wrote an open letter condemning the calls for genocide against Muslims at the ‘Dharam Sansad’ in Haridwar last month, the other retorted with an exhortation against “double standards”, saying that all calls for violence must be condemned unequivocally, but that a “motley group” was conducting a “smear campaign” against the present government.
That was just one round in a battle that’s been going on for the past few years, as pens fly and letters signed by hundreds appear in the press with some regularity.
As a whole, the two lobbies have no formal political affiliations. However, the group that’s largely critical of the Modi government’s policies includes some who are known to sympathise with the Congress, some who obtained post-retirement positions in the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, and a few who’ve gone the whole hog and become politicians.
The other faction, generally supportive of the Modi government, includes officers with connections to think tanks and research organisations that cleave to the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The retired officers — drawn from various services, including the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Foreign Service (IFS), Indian Police Service (IPS), and Indian Revenue Service (IRS) — have been proactive in marshalling their forces. They’ve formed groups on WhatsApp and Google to discuss ideas, created their own blogs and websites, and designed a system to send open letters to media houses for publication.
Protesting ‘hypernationalism’, India ‘being shown in bad light’
In June 2017, a group of 65 retired civil servants wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, calling for steps to check the “rising authoritarianism” and “growing hypernationalism” in India.
It snowballed from there, as a collective — calling itself the Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG) – Speaking Truth to Power — took shape and began shooting off letters and statements.
On their website, they claim to have written at least 53 letters since 2018. The group, which includes retirees from a number of civil services but is dominated by ex-IAS officers, now has 104 members.
The letters cover subjects such as the controversial farm laws that were withdrawn last year, the use of electronic voting machines (EVM) and analysis of voter-verified paper audit trails (VVPAT), alleged hate speech by MPs, incidents of lynching, alleged communal flareups and “love jihad” in Uttar Pradesh, and calls for a blasphemy law in Punjab.
The pro-government faction, meanwhile, consists of subgroups from different services, with the two major ones being made up of retired IFS and IPS officers. The group of ex-IFS officers calls itself the Forum of Former Ambassadors of India (FOFAI).
These groups don’t write letters as often as the CCG does, but respond to their ex-colleagues and write when they think India is being “shown in a bad light internationally”.
Back and forth
The shadow fight between the two factions came to the fore with their stands on the National Register of Citizens (NRC), National Population Register (NPR) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).
In January 2020, after the CAA was passed, the CCG issued a statement saying that these measures were not needed, and that statements by ministers were confusing people.
“What has given rise to grave apprehensions about the intentions of the Government of India has been the rash of statements by ministers of the Government of India in recent times, linking the NRIC (National Register of Indian Citizens) and the CAA. The Prime Minister’s statement at a public meeting in Delhi on 22 December that the CAA and the NRIC are not linked contradicts the averments of his home minister on repeated occasions in various fora,” wrote the CCG.
Responding to this a month later, a group of civil service officers and other prominent citizens wrote to the President of India, saying that some groups “with vested interest” were indulging in “fearmongering”.
On the issue of the controversial agriculture laws — which would occasion a year-long protest by farmers until they were repealed in November last year— the CCG in December 2020 wrote an open letter saying that the laws represented “an assault upon the federal character of the Constitution”.
In reaction to this, a group of 20 IFS officers wrote an open letter to the World Trade Organisation in February 2021, backing the farm laws.
This past month, the factions have faced off over hate speech against Muslims at the ‘Dharam Sansad’ in Haridwar in December. A group of signatories that included former service chiefs and judges as well as CCG members condemned the “calls for genocide” in a letter dated 31 December.
A group of 32 ex-IFS officers then responded with an open letter on 6 January.
“All calls for violence must be unequivocally condemned regardless of their religious, ethnic, ideological or regional origin. Double standards and selectivity in condemnation raises questions about motives and morality,” they wrote.
“A motley group of activists, many of them known leftists with sympathies for Maoists, joined by some former civil servants and military figures who have held the highest positions in their careers, as well as some sections of the media, have been conducting a sustained smear campaign against the present government on its presumed violations of the secular ethos of the country,” they added.
No affiliation, only connections
The CCG’s introductory note to every statement says they are “a group of former civil servants of the All India and Central Services who have worked with the central and state governments in the course of our careers”.
“As a group, we have no affiliation with any political party but believe in impartiality, neutrality and commitment to the Constitution of India,” it adds.
However, the group’s signatories do have connections to the former UPA government and to Opposition parties. They include social activist, author and former IAS officer Harsh Mander, who served on the National Advisory Council from 2010 to 2012 after being appointed by Sonia Gandhi.
Jawhar Sircar, who was secretary to the Government of India from 2008 to 2012, was a member until July 2021, when the Trinamool Congress nominated him to the Rajya Sabha. Sircar then pulled out of the group officially, but remained one of the prime movers.
Shivshankar Menon, a former foreign secretary who served as national security adviser (NSA) to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from 2010 to 2014, is also a signatory of the CCG.
Similarly, the pro-government faction has signatories with connections to the present dispensation.
One such member is former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, who also serves on the advisory council of the Vivekananda International foundation (VIF), and is well connected to the India Foundation.
Both the above organisations are close to the Modi government and are perceived to be driven by Sangh ideology. India’s current NSA, Ajit Doval, has been a founder-director of VIF, while its chairman, S. Gurumurthy, is a veteran journalist and RSS ideologue. The India Foundation is a research organisation whose governing council includes Doval’s son, Shaurya Doval, senior RSS functionary Ram Madhav, and BJP MPs Jayant Sinha and Swapan Dasgupta.
Veena Sikri, a member of the IFS group, is married to former diplomat Rajiv Sikri, who is on the VIF’s advisory council. Former diplomat Bhaswati Mukherjee, a signatory of the IFS group, has been an author-contributor to VIF and is connected to the India Foundation.
Calling each other out
Both sides deny having any political affiliation.
“We, as senior civil service officers… we only try to draw the attention of the authorities and the people to certain issues that appear to us as violative of our constitutional guidelines,” said a retired officer who is a member of the CCG. “We have written on diverse issues. And we do not need to score any brownie points from any political party, nor do we have any wish to get any position.”
Speaking about the impact of the CCG’s letters, the retired officer said, “We sought appointments from authorities including the Election Commission of India several times. We felt that the allegations related to EVM and VVPAT need to be probed and analysed. We got an appointment once in 2018, but since then our requests and letters to the ECI have not brought any response.”
“But our website gets good response and people get to know certain things, which we have known and seen as being part of the system,” he added. The website shows that it has had 1,76,961 hits.
Speaking to The Print, Sircar said, “Speaking truth to power was really difficult when we started this. We have senior officers from all services and all important ministries. We have three agriculture secretaries — so if they comment on the farm laws and spell out the adverse effects, people need to know.
“But, if the letters turn out to be critical of the government, the officers are called names. However, you will see that there are some members in the pro-Modi group who have a strong RSS lineage.”
Bhaswati Mukherjee, a senior diplomat and member of the IFS group, said, “We only write when we see that our country is being defamed in the international platform for someone’s petty politics. We do not write random letters; we only write with reason, so that people and the international community get to know and see the other side of the story.”
She added, “We never supported violence — in fact we condemned hate speech in our latest letter. The government never condones hate speech. Rather, actions have been taken. In every political party, there are fringe elements, but one should not judge the entire party or the government by their standard.
“But the other group (CCG) is full of disgruntled retirees. They only critique every policy of the government, and BJP-run state governments. We did not see them saying a word when so many people were killed in post-poll violence in Bengal. They are selective.”
Praveen Dixit, a retired IPS officer and a member of the pro-government IPS group, said, “If we write reasonable things, we are called BJP or RSS members. We raise questions on certain issues that they choose to ignore. How can civil service officers have such a selective approach? If they can prove our BJP and RSS connections, they can come out in the open and say it.”
Dixit said that the last letter the group of 27 IPS officers had written was about the alleged security breach with respect to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cavalcade in Punjab on 5 January. “This is an issue of national security and a very sensitive one. Did they raise this?” he asked.
Major General Dhruv C. Katoch (Retd), director of India Foundation, said, “As a reaction to the CCG, the other groups have to come up and set the record straight. The country has thousands of retired civil service officers — a handful of 100 officers cannot represent all.”
“And most importantly, their statements are devoid of facts. So, the other sections have to come out and speak for themselves. All of them cannot be part of a sinister design to defame the country,” he added.
Speaking to ThePrint, Vice-Admiral Shekhar Sinha (Retd), former flag officer commanding-in-chief, Western Naval Command, said, “I have been studying the statements of both sides. This reflects the human liberty and freedom of speech in the country, which is good. The government follows everything — all statements — and takes action. I do not want to call it a conflict. I think all of them are doing whatever they are doing in the interest of the country. Their ideas may be different in nature.”
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)