Why 49 of Us Civil Servants Broke Our Silence & Wrote to PM Modi

A retired IAS officer writes on why the 49 civil servants were compelled to write a letter to PM on Kathua, Unnao.

6 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

On 15 April this year, a loose, eclectic group of retired civil servants, of which I am a part, released an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing our shock, our anguish and our anger over the crisis of governance and constitutional principles that the two horrifying incidents of rape and murder in Kathua and Unnao represented.

Our focus was on the agenda of hate and division insidiously introduced by the ruling establishment into our political processes, our institutions and even our daily discourse. We can see how this is rapidly eroding the values on which our republic is based.

The letter has received considerable media attention, and to our welcome surprise, much of the response from the people has been overwhelmingly in support of the issues raised and the suggestions made. We doubt whether the prime minister will even bother to read the letter, let alone respond to it, but that does not really matter. There are moments when it is important to speak out, to protest and to resist — whether we do it as individuals, as small groups or as a part of an organisation.

We believe that the Kathua and Unnao incidents marked that turning point in our nation when remaining silent would have been a crime. As Shobhaa De said in her tweet, which has been retweeted hundreds of times:

Many questions have been raised about who we are as a group, what do we represent, what was our objective in coming together, why did we write this letter when we did, why did we address it to the prime minister, what did we expect to achieve, and many other similar questions.


Why Did a Diverse Group Come Together?

This deserves clarification, because many of those who raise these questions are doing so because they hope to find evidence of bias or political affiliations in the group. So, while many of us may have strong political convictions or leanings or sympathies, none of us is formally or informally associated with any party or any party affiliates.

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Talking of ‘us’ as a group is itself a little problematic because we are not set up as an organisation, as a society or an NGO or an association. It is not even a Facebook group or a web platform — just a mailing group, and that too limited to those who are more Net savvy than many of the seniors who come into any of our discussions only episodically.

We come from very diverse backgrounds, different age groups, different social and educational backgrounds and different regions of the country. Only a few of us have worked together, and while we are familiar with each other by reputation, many of us have never met each other socially.

Our views on many public policy issues are very different, with some leaning towards state interventionism, especially in favour of the poor and marginalised sections, and some like me who have a more libertarian, anti-state approach. On economic issues, differences of opinion are often stark.

So, how is it that we all came together to write, by now, three open letters to the prime minister with a remarkable degree of cohesion of views among us ?

Our Collective Ethos

Despite our differences in our perspectives, we happened to come together because some of us thought that having served a major part of our lives in public service, it was important for us to collectively reflect on current developments in public affairs and catalyze a debate on these issues.

We believed that our combined experience gave us insights which could make a qualitative contribution to this debate and that this was a useful way of engaging ourselves with public affairs as concerned and informed citizens. Initially, we came together simply as individual signatories to a letter which some among us had drafted and circulated through a network of friends and colleagues.

The letter attracted substantial public/media attention and it was then that we felt that there would be synergy in all the signatories coming together, if for nothing else than sharing articles, debates, and having occasional interactions.

At no stage did we think of this in political or ideological terms. Given the very eclectic character of the group, we felt it best to avoid giving it a formal organisational shape. Most of our interactions are through a group e-mail ID called ‘Constitutional Conduct’.


Bound By a Common Cause

Most of us have grown in a tradition where speaking out, being critical and adversarial, especially of the government, does not come easily.

Political neutrality is ingrained, and committing oneself to a position which could be seen as being polemical is almost impossible. Yet, on all three occasions that we have written a letter or made a collective statement, the note of criticism has been unusually sharp. This in itself is something that those in government and public life who are a part of the ruling establishment should take note of, because when staid and conservative civil servants often reviled for their pusillanimity, timidity and sycophancy, come together to be openly and vocally critical, there has to be something very seriously wrong.

While the first two letters/statements (June 2017 and January 2018) reflected concern and anxiety with the growth of certain tendencies in politics and governance and were sharply critical of the alarming decline in liberal and secular values in public affairs, these had stopped short of charging the prime minister directly for this decline.

This time, our anguish and our anger has reached tipping point and we felt it was important for us to make this charge against PM Modi pointedly and that we should express ourselves in the strongest possible terms, abandoning our natural reticence. The initial draft went through intense debate among ourselves.

Many felt that it was too strong. Many others felt that we should not charge the prime minister frontally. Yet after this debate, while some of the group members withdrew their names, the final letter had everyone’s full endorsement in terms of content as well in terms of tone and tenor. We

We are genuinely seething with rage.

A Monstrous Design at Work

It is important to clarify that this letter is not about rape or sexual crimes or the vulnerability of women and children, or the weaknesses in our criminal justice system. It is not about the administration of law and order which we as former administrators, well know is a state subject. It is not about the crimes themselves, heinous and horrifying as they are.

It is about the pathology of hate and division pursued by the present ruling establishment and the manner in which the body politic has been infected by them. It is about the collapse of the values on which our Constitution is based, about the systematic destruction of institutions, of the climate of fear and intimidation, and the propagation of a virulent form of hyper nationalism — especially a nationalism identified with a singular religious and cultural identity.

The Kathua and Unnao incidents are not usual crimes which can take place in any society anywhere. These are part of a design — a design to polarise communities on sectarian and caste lines, so that one party, one ideology, one cultural identity takes over and flattens out our enormously diverse and plural civilization.

It is a dark and monstrous design. As citizens, we felt it was incumbent on us to speak out and join hands with the forces of resistance. Yes, even as retired civil servants we have the capacity and the will to express our rage. We are not going to let up.

(The author is a former IAS officer. The views expressed above are of the author’s alone and The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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