New Delhi: With his musical video Dil Tod Ke having gone viral and social media eagerly awaiting his debut in the second season of the popular Netflix series, Delhi Crime, the 2011-batch IAS officer Abhishek Singh is still trying hard to deal with the newfound limelight.
“It is not unsettling, but it is very new to be in the public eye in this manner,” says Singh, currently posted in Delhi on an inter-cadre deputation from Uttar Pradesh. “I have always been away from the limelight…I joined social media only in 2019 after I started acting because people around me said it’ll help me connect better with people.”
Connecting with people is a skill Singh is keen to develop, though. “For me, even through my acting, I’m trying to send out a message to people… In the song, Dil Tod Ke, the idea was to tell people that there is a world beyond heartbreaks,” he said. “With Delhi Crime, it is an altogether different message since I hope the show will allow people a peek into the constraints within which officers work… It will give people some insight into the system.”
In the second season of Delhi Crime (the first part was a real depiction of what happened in the Delhi gang rape case of 16 December 2012, and remains one of the most watched shows on Netflix in India), Singh plays an IAS officer — a role he believes would allow the public, who view the elite service with an equal degree of awe and suspicion, to understand the administrative constraints and processes better. The series is expected to release later this year.
A graduate of Delhi University, Singh cleared the UPSC exam in 2011 in his first attempt, securing the 94th rank. “I had no other plan… It was my childhood dream to be an IAS officer,” said Singh, whose father was a State Police Service officer in Uttar Pradesh, who was subsequently promoted to the IPS.
Singh later married a family friend, Durga Shakti Nagpal, also an IAS officer.
Unlike joining the civil services, becoming an actor was not a part of the plan for Singh. “I was sitting in Mumbai with a friend, and the makers of the show happened to ask me if I’d be interested in the role of an IAS officer in Delhi Crime… I immediately said yes because I thought it is a powerful medium,” he said.
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‘Expression in any form is important’
Of course, Singh had to get all the necessary permissions from the government, which he says was not hard. “One has to be careful, but expression in any form is important for officers,” he said.
“Any move that promotes exchange of ideas between the system and stakeholders is welcome,” Singh said. “For example, during Covid, when people interacted with IAS, IPS officers more frequently, it brought people closer to the system… It allowed people to realise that just because we are officers, we do not function out of ivory towers and that is extremely important,” he added.
“I do want to be able to express myself through art and acting…So many officers write books, poems, etc. Even acting is just a way to connect with the people,” Singh said. “Because in my case it is a more mainstream medium, it is getting more eyeballs.”
Asked how he would draw the line between expressing himself and respecting the limitations of the service rules, Singh said, “As the face of the government, the expectation from officers is that what we say appears to be in consonance with the government, but that does not mean we cannot speak our mind freely.”
He added, “Of course it is a thin line, but as officers we cannot seem cynical because we are after all part of the system.”
And it is a trend gaining popularity, especially with social media. “So many officers are now on social media commenting on government policies even when they are not always in favour of the government… That trend is important for the health of democracy so long as there is no cynicism,” he said.
Singh said he always vouches for solution-oriented criticism. Citing an example, he said, “If I felt that during Covid, the migrants were not re-employed properly, I started my own initiative rather than sounding cynical. As officers, we should be solution-oriented when we speak our minds.”
A few months ago, Singh launched an online platform called SIGMA, or Students for Involved Governance and Mutual Action, in which the officer has tied up with students of IITs and IIMs, among others, to make government policies more popular.
“As part of our first project, we are trying to re-employ migrants and labourers who lost their jobs during the lockdown,” he said. “We have received a lot of support, including from NITI Aayog Vice Chairman (Rajiv Kumar), and already given jobs to over 70 migrants.”
Asked if speaking his mind freely and taking initiatives can land him in trouble with the government’s strict conduct rules, Singh said, “I have fortunately not had any issue so far…I don’t even know much about service rules. If I come across those limitations, I will figure out a way to negotiate them.”
Couple that remains in news
While this online fame and popularity is new for Singh, wife and fellow IAS officer Durga Shakti Nagpal is no stranger to limelight — a fact Singh coyly, but proudly, acknowledged. “You must have heard of her… She is very popular,” he said.
Nagpal, senior to Singh in the IAS, is a 2009-batch officer who faced the ire of the Uttar Pradesh government and had been suspended in 2013 as the Sub Divisional Magistrate of Gautam Budhh Nagar after she took on the politically connected sand mining mafia. Following a national uproar, the Akhilesh Yadav government was compelled to revoke her suspension.
Years later, a biopic is set to be made on Nagpal’s ordeal as a young officer taking on the system.
Singh has had his share of trouble as well. Just a year after Nagpal’s suspension, Singh too was suspended by the UP government over allegations of treating a Dalit teacher in “inhuman” way, after which he came to Delhi on an inter-cadre deputation. Both he and Nagpal have been serving in the national capital for the last five years.
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