Sunday, 22 May, 2022
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If India is in crisis, it is because good guys like ex-IAS Kannan Gopinathan rather quit

To arrest India’s decline, it is important that the government attract, retain and empower the good guys. Kannan’s leaving is a loss to the government.

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Given how difficult it is to enter the Indian Administrative Service, Kannan Gopinathan’s resignation would have captured public attention even if it had not been in protest against the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah government’s clampdown in Jammu & Kashmir, even if he had not previously distinguished himself by anonymously slogging it out doing disaster relief work Kerala in 2018.

To an ordinary person, the act of walking away from something that millions aspire for and only a few hundred get might appear irrational or worse, insane. To cynics who expect public officials to be bent or pliant, Kannan is a naive misfit who would have failed psychometric testing for the job had there been one. To the liberals at the fringes of public discourse, he’s a hero who chose liberty over complicity.

Also read: ‘Disillusioned’ after J&K crisis, IAS officer quits service. Gets trolled as anti-national

A moral dilemma

Kannan brings to sharp focus the moral dilemma of a conscientious public official: What do you do when the government’s policy diverges from your personal convictions on the right thing to do?

In ordinary circumstances, there is the option of recording your dissent, but implementing a lawful decision that you disagree with, to the best of your abilities. Civil servants frequently go through such episodes, and after a while, many choose not to even bother expressing a difference of opinion on file, lest it ruffle powerful feathers.

The dilemma assumes an altogether different level of seriousness when the circumstances are extraordinary. What do you do when you perceive government policy being illegal, unconstitutional or even immoral? The moral dilemma becomes one of trying to change things for the better from the inside, or quitting to fight from the outside.

At a time when the world is looking for simple moral certitudes, it is tempting to declare one or the other position as the right one, and either celebrate IAS officer Kannan as a hero for quitting or denigrate him for being “anti-national” for having the temerity to publicly disagree with the government. Yet, to do so would be a mistake: for while Kannan has made the right choice, it is not necessarily the only right choice. A different person in his shoes could well choose to stay on, and in doing so, wouldn’t necessarily be making a less ethical decision.

Also read: Modi govt clamps down on IAS, its association goes conspicuously silent

An ethical calculus

Giving his reasons for resigning Kannan said that he felt as a civil servant he could no longer pursue his ideals. Referring to the Modi government’s clampdown in Jammu and Kashmir, he told Manorama that “it is the worst social and political situation after the Emergency. The fundamental rights of over 80 lakh people are suspended without even officially declaring an Emergency…I cannot fathom the guilt and regret of not acting on time, when I think about such violation of rights our society is going through.” He is not against the government’s prerogative to abrogate Article 370. Rather, he objects to the de facto suspension of fundamental rights of Indian citizens in Jammu and Kashmir. He does not want history to count him as complicit in an act he considers wrong.

So, he rightly quit. In his ethical calculus, the benefit of fighting from the inside was lower than the costs of suppressing the voice of his conscience.

Yet, a different person in his shoes could have done the right thing by staying in service. Consider.

Every big organisation has good people, bad people and the ones in between. The good do good things, the bad do bad things and the ones in between sometimes do good things and at other times, do bad things. The final outcome is the sum of the resultants of the consequences of the actions of these three types of people. If our cities are safe, our villages livable, our law enforcement trustworthy, and our judiciary dependable, it is to the extent that the actions of the good outweigh the actions of the rest. If we see things are going downhill in the country, it is to a great extent due to the scales tipping against the good people.

Also read: These IAS officers are scripting stories of change across India & making lives better

What a good republic needs

To arrest India’s decline, it is important that the government attract, retain and empower the good guys. Kannan’s leaving, by all accounts, is a loss to the government. Given his track record in Mizoram and Dadra & Nagar Haveli and his volunteering in Kerala, India lost a good administrator. His stated reasons for joining the IAS, his standing up to a political appointee and articulation of his reasons for leaving mark him out as an officer the government of India ought to have fought to retain. It sent him petty show cause notices instead.

India is desperately short of public officials with constitutional morality – people in government who uphold the dignity of their office. Judges stray beyond their mandate and make policy. Legislators stray beyond their mandate and take over administration. Civil servants do the bidding of their political masters, even when the demands are unconstitutional. If the Indian republic is in a crisis today, it is fundamentally because overstepping constitutional dharma is par for the course. Especially at such times, it is in the national interest that conscientious civil servants stay on. They are frontline soldiers in the battle to restore the constitutional health of the republic.

Kannan Gopinathan is right. Others like him who did not resign are also right. There is no universally correct choice. The lesson from Kannan Gopinathan’s resignation is not that everyone should do the same, but that each individual must consciously arrive at their own right answer.

The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal. 

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  1. Did he not know that any government employee has to follow the norms and laws framed by the government..? First of all, why did he join the service and later sacrifice drama.! People are not fools to trust the cock and bull stories. He must have a hidden agenda, I think.

  2. Kannan’s decision to quit is symbolism, though of the highest order . He did the right thing , whether such an action will achieve anything at all, is debatable. In world where many civil servants end up in jail and most do not ,for amaassing wealth by selling their souls, at least some value their souls.

  3. To address the issue of such outspoken Ness I think UPSC should have a new team who will select only the “Commited”. Hoping the additional orientation/training of the officers will generate additional Deshbhakti. BHARAT Mata ki Jai.

  4. The bigger truth is Kannan has quit on a huff.

    True, the situation currently in Kashmir merits concern – but you don’t clear up a backlog of 72 years of administrative and political mismanagement and religious radicalization of the scale of the JK issue in 72 hours. It doesn’t really work that way. Never has.

    Even the jihadism and Islamic supremacism ruling the roost in Kashmir (as evidenced by the 1988-90 riots which caused the Pandit genocide and subsequent exile resulting in an effective ethnic cleansing). took 10-15 years for Pakistan to fund and create. Pakistan cleverly planned for using the radicalized, battle hardened Afghan mujahids in Kashmir after taking American and Saudi money to create, pay, train and arm them – then made them serve their primary purpose in Afghanistan – and then used them for their secondary purpose – insurgency in Kashmir. This was their plan all along since the Bangladesh crisis.

    A number of changes will be needed in Kashmir – de-Islamization and de-radicalization of the body politic and popular discourse is but one of the steps. There is the step of encouraging Koshur/Sharda as the language/script, bringing back sufi syncretism, and removing the negative Pakistani/Islamist influence with planned counter propaganda and state apparatus.will be required. After all why is Koshur rather than Urdu not the official language of JK?

    Kannan thinks that 3 weeks of curfew will cure all ills in Kashmir (mainly unemployment, lack of aspirational routes, religious radicalization and feudal mentality). Sorry – more patience – and hardships on all sides is required before this gets cured. And anybody who thinks that Modi-Shah didn’t plan for this is living in fools paradise. The method of abrogation may look undemocratic, but the dilution of Art. 370 was a long time in the making (under non-BJP govts.) and the Sangh has never had any love for Art. 370 – it doesn’t fit their Akhand Bharat (one nation) narrative. For all their disgust of Two-Nation theory it is the Congress (original one, not the current Indira variant) which agreed to Partition. RSS’s Akhand Bharat idea pre-date the Pakistan movement.

  5. I love these columnists. All the thoughts will be on Kannan but nobody will notice that he just declared that ‘India is in Crisis’…. Classic subversion.

  6. As soon as they start bringing in experts via lateral entry from the corporate and academic sectors, even allow expert foreigners to join, then we will get the right people..
    This silly IAS exams creates useless cretins, it was designed for an elite British colonial cadre, for white man to rule a subject people.
    A system to measure the performance of IAS, IPS must be set up by an outside consultancy, like McKenzie and non performing officers should be dismissed periodically without pension, like in the corporate sector.

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