New Delhi: At a time when the Narendra Modi government is attempting to overhaul the country’s civil services through a slew of reforms, the associations meant to represent the officers have fallen conspicuously silent.
The IAS Association has not had a president for more than half a year, the IPS Association is busy battling the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) in and outside the courts, while the IRS Association has not had an election in two years.
The associations, which are meant to be platforms to voice grievances, support officers in need and facilitate intra-cadre dialogue for the 50,000-plus civil servants in the country, the silence is telling.
“Across associations, there is complete silence… Officers don’t even want to be seen as involved in association activities for fear of antagonising the government,” said a senior IAS officer, who did not want to be named.
“That is why the IAS Association is not even getting a president — because the senior-most officers are not too keen on heading a union.”
While service associations have never been very comfortable taking a stand on politically contentious issues, the fact that the IAS association does not even have a president is “unprecedented”, according to former IAS officer T.R. Raghunandan, who had taken voluntary retirement from the service after 27 years.
“The message that is being passed down under this government is ‘watch out, or else’,” he said. “As a result, senior officers who have a stake in continuing with the government do not want to be seen antagonising it in anyway whatsoever.”
What IAS Association has been doing
The last time the IAS Association took a stand on a contentious issue was in December 2018, when 1971 batch officer H.C. Gupta was taken into custody after being convicted in a coal block allocation case that took place under UPA-II. The IAS Association threw its weight behind the “honest” officer, publicly criticising Gupta’s conviction, and also activated an idle welfare fund to help him fight the case legally.
The same year, the IAS Association took on the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi, after party convener and Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal accused officers of being on an illegal four-month-long strike.
However, on controversial reforms introduced by the Modi government — such as the 360-degree appraisal format, the attempts to change the cadre and service allocation system for civil servants, and the lateral entry scheme — not just the IAS Association, but all other associations have maintained a studied silence.
“Nobody wants to be seen as unionising against a powerful political executive,” said the IAS officer quoted above. “Right now, the associations are not even giving routine suggestions to the government because there is always a section of officers in the association which is too scared to say anything, and as a result there is never any consensus.”
According to sources, the IAS Association has drafted several letters and representations — with suggestions to make the central deputation of IAS officers compulsory, opposing the trend of state governments appointing state civil service officers to IAS cadre posts such as district magistrate, scrapping the National Pension Scheme (NPS) — to be submitted to the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT). However, none of them have actually been submitted to the government, for lack of consensus or fear of backlash.
Earlier this year, when three IAS officers resigned from the service, the resignations made nationwide news. Two of them, G. Kannan of the AGMUT cadre and Sasikanth Senthil of the Karnataka cadre, publicly criticised the central government’s actions in Jammu and Kashmir and its alleged lack of respect for democratic foundations of the country. However, the association chose to not comment on the resignations at all.
“It did not have to side with the officers who resigned, but as the association, it ought to have said something to inspire confidence in the cadre,” said another IAS officer who wanted to remain anonymous.
In April this year, when former Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan publicly threatened the district collector of Chhindwara, the IAS Association again faced widespread criticism for not issuing a statement in support of the officer.
Around the same time, when Karnataka cadre IAS officer Mohammed Mohsin was barred by the Election Commission from poll duties after he had checked Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s helicopter in Odisha, the association did not comment on the issue.
While the IAS Association is active on social media, its Twitter activity is limited to sharing good news stories of officers doing good work in different parts of the country.
The case of the IPS Association
In contrast, the IPS Association threw its weight behind late police officer Hemant Karkare when BJP’s Sadhvi Pragya Thakur said on the campaign trail in Bhopal that he had died of a “curse” due to his investigation into the 2008 Malegaon blast case, in which she is an accused.
“Ashok Chakra awardee late Sri Hemant Karkare, IPS made the supreme sacrifice fighting terrorists. Those of us in uniform condemn the insulting statement made by a candidate and demand that sacrifices of all our martyrs be respected,” the association had tweeted, without naming Thakur.
However, on other contentious issues, the IPS Association too has steered clear of taking a stand. Earlier this year, amid the unprecedented fallout between the top two officers of the CBI, the very public face-off between officers of the CBI and the Kolkata Police, and the suicide of a retired West Bengal-cadre officer and his accusations against Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the IPS Association chose not to address any of the issues.
“Whenever the government is very powerful, the bureaucracy does become a little less assertive… Right now, we have a strong government, strong PM, so criticism of government actions is trickier than usual,” said a senior IPS officer, who has been part of the association. “But as far as the interests of the service are concerned, we do speak up.”
The IPS Association has been at the forefront in the battle with CAPFs to ensure that the deputation of IPS officers in forces like the CRPF, CISF, BSF, etc. does not end.
“The association has spoken up quite a bit on the issue with the CAPFs,” said retired IPS officer and former Delhi Police commissioner Neeraj Kumar. “The point is that even associations are bound by service rules, so they always have to be careful… But as far as issues like service conditions, pay parity, etc. are concerned, they do speak up.”
However, Kumar added that associations cannot speak up if particular officers are seen as being “targeted”, because one never knows what evidence the investigating agencies have against the officer.
“The truth of the matter is it all depends on how strong or weak the government is… In UPA times, associations of lower level government officials used to be a lot more active, but now even they have become quiet,” he said, agreeing with the unnamed IPS officer quoted above.
IRS protested against lateral entry
The only association to address the issue of lateral entry, albeit indirectly, was the IRS (Income Tax) Association. In June 2018, just weeks after the government opened up 10 joint secretary posts for lateral entrants or domain experts, the association wrote a sharply-worded letter to the PM arguing that there is “merit and competence” in other central services, and not just in the IAS.
It alleged a “bias” in favour of IAS officers in matters of empanelment and selection to the posts of secretary, additional secretary and joint secretary.
“The reason being given for lateral entries is that it will help get candidates with domain knowledge,” a senior IRS officer had said. “By that logic, an IRS officer is a domain expert, who has experience of both revenue and government… The same is true for railway, postal and forest officers. Yet, all these ministries are headed by IAS officers.”
However, since then, even the IRS Association has gone completely silent. “There are hardly any meetings of the association now,” said a senior association member. “The associations are being cautious nowadays.”
Another senior IRS officer added: “The association has not held elections in two years… The current office-bearers are just continuing arbitrarily. There is some talk of floating another association which would be more representative and less toothless.”
While the Modi government has forcibly retired more than 60 officers from both the IT and Customs branches of the IRS, the associations have not publicly spoken on the issue.
Several IRS officers complain that their service is being targeted while the IAS and IPS lobbies are protecting their own, and they do not expect the associations to voice their concerns.
In fact, Anup Srivastava, who was the president of the IRS (C&CE) Association, was himself compulsorily retired by the Modi government earlier this year on charges of corruption.
Foreign Service is no exception
The Indian Foreign Service Association is no exception to the trend. While the association has an active Twitter page, much like other associations, it uses it for self-congratulatory posts.
“There is no harm in sharing such good news stories, but as an association, you can’t be doing just that,” said a former diplomat who did not wish to be identified. “Sure, congratulate young officers for good work, but there is a lot else to be done for the service as a whole.”
The former diplomat identified it as a trend across the bureaucracy to steer away from controversial issues. “Earlier, associations would organise gatherings, and people were not wary of being seen there… That is no longer the case now,” the diplomat said.
Forest officers are different
The other IFS Association — the Indian Forest Service Association — with which the foreign service officers have been locked in a tussle over patenting the abbreviation ‘IFS’, has, however, managed to speak up for the service conditions of its cadre, providing officers security, etc. fairly frequently.
Earlier this year, after a spate of attacks on forest staff across the country, this IFS Association had tweeted there is a need for systemic reforms to improve the security of forest officials.
According to sources in the environment ministry, the association even met with ministry officials to ensure better protection for its officers.
Associations still need to be there
While most associations have gone quieter, they do fulfil a purpose, and need to be there, said former IPS officer Prakash Singh, who retired as Uttar Pradesh’s Director General of Police (DGP).
“How the associations function depends on a range of factors, including the incumbents, the political atmosphere, etc… Every now and then, there is fear of being marked out for taking a frank or courageous stand, but that keeps changing from time to time,” Singh said.