Corona Fight & Govt Officers: We Need a Hug Too, Even if Virtual!

Retd IAS officer Shailaja Chandra looks back at her early career days, when a little morale boost went a long way.

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
Image of Retd IAS Shailaja Chandra and Indian civil services logo used for representational purposes.
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Even as we watch government and officialdom grapple with colossal responsibilities to fight coronavirus, I recall how a thoughtful response, a small pat on the back or a gracious gesture from the high-and-mighty, built memories to last a lifetime.

For senior officers who are spearheading and executing hard decisions, a chance meet-up, a wink of recognition, or unexpected warmth will be moments to be remembered and recounted in years to come. I recount my own – all unrelated to crisis – yet special moments when the earth stood still – for me!

Corona Fight & Govt Officers: We Need a Hug Too, Even if Virtual!

How I ‘Got Away’ With ‘Sentencing’ Raj Narain

1968-1969

In Delhi, the judiciary was still not separated from the executive. As judicial magistrate, I would have convicted or acquitted hundreds of undertrials in criminal cases ranging from culpable homicide to carrying country liquor. Even murder and rape cases had to be committed to the Sessions Court by us. Indeed, onerous responsibilities at the age of 24 years!

One day, as the magistrate in charge of the Parliament Street Police station, the formidable Mr Raj Narain, MP (famous for besting Indira Gandhi in the 1977 Lok Sabha election) was produced before me for defying prohibitory orders along with Madhu Limaye, MP. Raj Narain, however, pleaded ‘Not Guilty’, while grabbing the magisterial bench that separated us. In a packed courtroom he proceeded to dictate an unending diatribe which I recorded in long hand for over one hour. Whatever he may have said, I thought enough was enough, and sentenced him “till the rising of the court,” finished other cases listed for the day, and went home by the DTC bus. (Officers weren’t given sarkari transport then).

That evening, the baritone voice of Surojit Sen, a broadcasting legend, boomed over All India Radio, relaying news that Raj Narain had expressed outrage over the behaviour of a young woman magistrate who had held him guilty, despite his pleading to the contrary. I entered my chamber the next day, heart pounding as I waited to be reprimanded for imprudence – verging on judicial overreach.

I was astonished when GK Arora, the sole Deputy Commissioner for all of Delhi, told me that the other co-accused, Madhu Limaye, had intervened in Parliament and said “the magistrate was very gracious.”

It was this gentle interjection that saved my reputation and future career. One voice of reason had protected me.

When Indira Gandhi Took Note Of Me, A Young Woman Officer

1975

A conference of home secretaries and directors-general of police was to be inaugurated by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. During the coffee break I found myself edged into the corner without a cup of the brew. Suddenly the sea of humanity parted behind me and I could see her diminutive figure walking down. Voices around me were saying, “She is here, Madam, she is here”. In that crowded hall in Vigyan Bhavan, surrounded by the top administrative and police brass, Indira Gandhi had found time to notice me, the solitary woman present in the room. With a twinkle in her eyes she inquired, “Do the police listen to you?”

Corona Fight & Govt Officers: We Need a Hug Too, Even if Virtual!

What I replied is not important.

The prime minister had found time to take note of the presence of a woman officer, a gesture that spoke volumes by itself.

After seeking me out among the galaxy of top officialdom, she conveyed a message to everyone present: “Were the the police not expected to listen – without bias towards age and sex?”

When Rajiv Gandhi & I ‘Conspired’ Over Jumbo Prawns!

1990

I was posted as the resident commissioner of the state of Goa in Delhi. We were celebrating Goa Day at the state guesthouse on Amrita Shergill Marg. Fresh fish was being marinated, and the delectable aroma of Goan spices wafted through the air. The guest list, an outcome of invitations sent out by the state’s governor and the chief minister was a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of the capital’s heavyweights.

At 7 PM, things were far from ready. A silver grey Maruti Esteem zoomed into the driveway and out sprang Rajiv Gandhi from the driver’s seat, all smiles. Unfazed by his own early arrival and knowing no one present, he strode onto the lawns of Goa Sadan, sniffing the kitchen aroma.

Corona Fight & Govt Officers: We Need a Hug Too, Even if Virtual!

I hunted for ways to engage him in conversation until the guests (and hosts) arrived. Leave alone the governor and the chief minister, not even the liveried waiters were to be seen. Behind me, my band of chattering women receptionists and typists that staffed Goa Sadan swooned, “Madam, he is soooo handsome”. I hushed them down and ordered them to inform the governor and the chief minister without delay. I prayed that Rajiv Gandhi wouldn’t notice the higgledy-piggledy gaggle of towel-clad Goan dancers gaping at him from the bushes. I needn’t have worried.

Rajiv Gandhi was disarmingly boyish, and, sensing my consternation, asked me conspiratorially, “I hope you are serving prawns ?” – adding, “I’ve come early so that I don’t miss any.”

Later that evening, although I had never met the former PM, he winked at me even as he tucked into a massive jumbo prawn! What brought him to the event hours before time remains a mystery. But his informality and spontaneity is what I remember.

How I ‘Managed to Make’ Queen Elizabeth Laugh

1997

Her Majesty, the Queen of United Kingdom, was visiting Delhi (the infamous ‘dirty city’ visit — many would recall). The British High Commissioner had invited a select cross-section of Indians for an ‘At Home’ to meet her. Posted in the Health Ministry, I was among the chosen few selected for this honour. A marshal in a sharkskin suit complete with gold braid and epaulettes asked me my name, practiced its pronunciation, and instructed me where to stand to be presented to Her Majesty.

I took my designated place in the front row of invitees and waited to shake the royal hand. At 5 PM on the dot, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh stepped on the lawns of the High Commissioner’s residence and parted, he to the left and she towards us. I was presented to the Queen, and as she shook my hand she asked smilingly, “And what do you think of DFID?” (That was the acronym for the British Government’s Department responsible for International Development).

Before I could respond, the Queen leaned over and said something in aspirated Queen’s English, which I could not decipher. She burst into laughter at the end, and I too joined in lustily, not having understood a word!

As the Queen moved on to meet other guests, I was surrounded by hordes of onlookers all of whom wanted to know what I had told the Queen to make her laugh! Overnight I became a reigning star. It was an unforgettable encounter.

Corona Fight & Govt Officers: We Need a Hug Too, Even if Virtual!

When Vajpayee ‘Endorsed’ My Action

2001

I was Secretary in the Health Ministry. A highly-connected woman accustomed to having her way had been breathing fire and fury because my department had officially turned down an unreasonable proposal from her. We knew the lady’s connections were phenomenal, and I awaited the inevitable consequences. Little did I know from where it would come.

One afternoon, my private secretary buzzed the telephone and said: “The prime minister will speak to you.” Since prime ministers use hotlines to speak to bureaucrats, I assumed my private secretary had bungled. The possibility that the virago was hitting a fly (me) with a hammer (the prime minister) did not even cross my mind. I held the receiver until I heard the soft, amiable voice of AB Vajpayee. “Tumhare se mamala sambhala jayega ?” I immediately understood what he meant. Without reference to context, the question merely asked, “Are you capable of handling the situation?”

But in those 30 seconds, he managed to endorse my action, which boosted my morale, and yet advised me to be circumspect.

I replied, “Bilkul, Sir” (Absolutely, Sir). It was a gentle question – not a direction to change – simply to adapt, in my own way.

Today, as officers hurtle over one mountain of obstacles after another, countless occasions will no doubt arise to buck them up. This is the time to build their morale with the smallest of gestures. These will become a part of the repertoire of family-lore, and help them cope.

(Shailaja Chandra (IAS retd) has over 45 years experience of public administration focusing on governance, health management, population stabilisation and women’s empowerment. She was Secretary of the Department of Indian Systems of Medicine & Homeopathy, Ministry of Health &Family Welfare (1999-2002) and following that the Chief Secretary Delhi until 2004. She tweets at @over2shailaja. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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