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From Babri to JP Narayan: Tales of Two Civil Servants Who Defended Democracy

Today’s civil servants must remind themselves that they were never meant to be ‘babus’.

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Opinion
6 min read
From Babri to JP Narayan: Tales of Two Civil Servants Who Defended Democracy
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Former Union Home Secretary Madhav Godbole passed away last week at the age of 85 due to cardiac arrest. As per several obituaries written for him, he was a fearless and outright officer belonging to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) of the Maharashtra cadre.

Godbole was the Union home secretary when Babri Masjid was demolished on 6 December 1992. In fact, he worked overtime to persuade Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao to dismiss the Kalyan Singh-led Uttar Pradesh government in order to prevent the catastrophe. He tried to impress upon the Prime Minister that Singh, the then-Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, was not to be trusted because the saffron crowd was deliberately indulging in this devastating sacrilege with the intention to incite communal tensions that would not be quenched.

According to sources, Godbole went to the extent of lobbying with two senior cabinet ministers from Maharashtra – then-Home Minister SB Chavan and Defence Minister Sharad Pawar – to convince Narasimha Rao. And they did try their best.

Had Rao heeded this advice, Babri Masjid could have been saved and the country spared from the communal cauldron in which it is boiling now. Having failed in his efforts to safeguard the Constitution, Godbole kept his honour by taking voluntary retirement eighteen months before time.

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The Home Ministry's Contingency Plan

Godbole did not do all this in a vacuum. His ministry had a contingency plan prepared soon after Hindu organisations and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders started the kar seva on 9 July 1992. The plan was to first take control of the disputed site at midnight, a time when no one was around, followed by the dismissal of the state government and the imposition of President’s Rule. “We had information that the state government was unlikely to act, and hence, the imposition of President’s Rule was imminent,” Godbole had said later.

Actually, despite repeated requests, the Uttar Pradesh government under Kalyan Singh rejected the idea of deploying central paramilitary forces in Ayodhya. The Home Ministry then started working on a contingency plan. Based on its assessment, a large force of around 20,000 policemen, comprising CRPF, CISF and the RPF personnel, was constituted. A task force of senior officers visited Ayodhya several times to get familiar with the ground situation.

After everything was worked out, Godbole approached the Home Minister and the Prime Minister in the second week of November to get approval, with the takeover of the structure set for the night of 22 November. This would be done under Article 355 of the Constitution, which enjoins the Union government to protect the state from any external aggression and internal disturbance. For Cabinet approval, it was worked out that a late-night meeting would be called on the night of 22 November. In the same meeting, another proposal, to impose President’s Rule under Article 356, would be brought up and approved. The Law ministry had vetted the proposal and a cabinet note was kept ready. But Narasimha Rao kept on delaying the decision.

108 Civil Servants' Stinging Missive to Modi

On 24 November, Prime Minister Rao gave clearance for moving central forces to Uttar Pradesh. The forces reached their designated places around Ayodhya by 26 November, waiting for a final order of deployment. But that order never came. On 30 November, Rao called Godbole to prepare a cabinet note to impose President’s Rule in Uttar Pradesh. But there was no Cabinet meeting for the next two days, and by the time Godbole could move the cabinet note on 6 December, the mosque had been demolished. The deluge happened, and India and its people are paying a heavy price to this day.

Things have come to such a pass that on the very day the news of Godbole’s death came, 108 former civil servants belonging to the Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG) wrote a stinging missive to Prime Minister Narendra Modi with this opening salvo:

“We are witnessing a frenzy of hate-filled destruction in the country where at the sacrificial altar are not just Muslims and members of the other minority communities but the Constitution itself…”

To this candid communication flagging the clear and present danger to India’s “Charter of Governance” a hastily put-together motley crowd of “Former Judges, Public Servants and Armed Forces Officers” retorted within hours:

“The CCG should not give ideological cover to an anti-national outlook as well as religious and left-wing extremism, which they seem to do … Such a narrative gets recognition and encouragement from international lobbies that want to halt India's progress.”

What these drum-beaters have written only confirms the worst fears of the Constitutional Conduct Group.

While so, the sum and substance of l’affaire Babri Masjid is that while a conscious civil servant stretched himself to the limits to defend the Constitution, a Prime Minister compromised its core values to sustain a minority government and survive in power. Or was AG Noorani right when he said, “Narasimha Rao was a closet Hindutvaite as his record in Hyderabad and as Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh proves … He lacked character, besides”? It appears to be so from the fact that after committing the colossal blunder, in impotent rage, Narasimha Rao dismissed three BJP governments in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in 1993.

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An Unlikely But Strong Friendship With JP Narayan

Be that as it may, let us flash back to the Emergency days of 1975, when this author was District Magistrate of Chandigarh, a position much junior to that of Union Home Secretary. Nevertheless, he stood by the Constitution and defended democracy within his limited capacity. This was when on 1 July 1975, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), the leader of the massive JP movement and the ‘Enemy No 1’ of the state, was shifted to Chandigarh from Delhi. As, the district magistrate of the Union Territory, I was his custodian. TN Chaturvedi, the former Chief Commissioner of Chandigarh, who went on to become a Member of Parliament and Governor of Karnataka, wrote the following:

“JP was held in Chandigarh, at the premises of the prestigious Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education & Research in view of his health;

In 1975 Devasahayam – a young and dynamic officer – was Deputy Commissioner and District Magistrate, Chandigarh … He met JP on an almost daily basis. And he seized the opportunity to talk to one of the greatest men of India at what was a turning point in the history of the country. He did not treat JP as a guest of the government. He treated him as a man who had inspired millions of Indians to take up the cudgels for their rights. He looked upon him as the living connection with and an embodiment of the ideas and ideals that Mahatma Gandhi instilled in those who fought for our freedom. He treated JP with the respect due to him…

From a low point JP gradually recovered his old self, and in spite of his ill health, determined to right the wrong that has been done to India, ie, defeating Emergency. Devasahayam brings JP to life in all the glory of his integrity, moral fervour, and gift of the fight against all odds. Devasahayam was not just a jailor, but also an interlocutor, and then a tireless facilitator of a rapprochement between JP and Indira Gandhi…”

The Realpolitik of Delhi Durbar

But despite best efforts, the rapprochement, critical for the restoration of democracy, did not happen because of the deep-seated realpolitik in the Delhi Durbar.

But, to make this happen, I disobeyed the Central government’s strict rules regarding interviews with detainees and writing letters, which would have inflicted the torture of ‘solitary confinement’ on the old man.

Then, I saved JP’s life twice. First, in August 1975, when he decided to go on a fast unto death if Emergency was not lifted and I persuaded him against it; and second, in November, when I initiated a ‘pincer movement’ to pressurise the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office to get JP released and sent post-haste to Bombay’s Jaslok Hospital just in time to save his kidney. JP lived for four more years, defeated Emergency in the polls held in March 1977, and returned India back to democracy.

Civil Servants Were Not Meant to Be 'Babus'

Civil servants, particularly those belonging to the IAS and the IPS, were not meant to be ‘Babus’ (clerks), as derogatorily referred to by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but defenders of the Constitution who safeguard it from the whims and vicissitudes of partisan and power-hungry politicians. Upon entry into service, they take this solemn oath:

“I do swear/solemnly affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to India and to the Constitution of India by law established, that I will uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India and that I will carry out the duties of my office loyally, honestly and with impartiality.”

Those who fail to keep this oath also lose their honour.

(The author is a former IAS officer and editor of the book “Electoral Democracy: An Inquiry into the Fairness and Integrity of Elections in India”. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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