Highlighting the need to “reclaim and defend the spirit of the Constitution of India, as envisaged by the founding fathers”, sixty-five retired civil service officers have written a hard-hitting “petition”, asking “all public authorities, public institutions and Constitutional bodies to take heed of these disturbing trends and take corrective action,” in the face of “rising authoritarianism and majoritarianism, which do not allow for reasoned debate, discussion and dissent.”
The oldest amongst the 65 signatories is the 91-year old Har Mander Singh, a 1953 batch IAS officer. Others among the senior retired officials, cutting across various services, include Vivek Agnihotri, IAS, V.S. Ailawadi, IAS, S.P. Ambrose, IAS, Ishrat Aziz, IFS, G. Balachandran, IAS, N.Balachandran, IPS, Julio Rebeiro, IPS, NC Saxena IAS, Jawhar Sircar IAS, Ardhendu Sen IAS, and Amitabha Pande IAS.
Chiding the idea that “those in authority should not be questioned”, the officials have expressed concern over what they have termed “growing hyper-nationalism that reduces any critique to a binary: if you are not with the government, you are anti-national”. In an unsual move for members of the so-called staid ‘steel-frame’ to make, bureaucrats, across services, have referred to a range of developments across the past few months and years and stated their case.
The petition highlights the election campaign in UP, that sought to raise issues which dealt with specific communities and their access to resources. The officiala write about the “deep disquet” at things going “wrong” and state that the “growing climate of religious intolerance that is aimed primarily at Muslims. In Uttar Pradesh, in the run-up to the elections, an odious and frankly communal comparison was made between the relative number of burial grounds and cremation grounds. The question was also asked as to whether electricity was being supplied equally to different communities during their religious festivals. All this without any basis in fact or evidence.”
The officials are referring to the public speech on February 19 by PM Modi in Fatehgarh, where he had said that “Gaon me kabristan banta hai to shamshaan bhi banna chahiye. Ramzan me bijli aati hai to Diwali me bhi aani chahiye. Bhedbhav nhi hona chahiye (If land is given for cemetery in a village, it should be given for cremation ground also. If electricity is supplied during Ramazan, it should be supplied during Diwali also.”
Keshav Desiraju, IAS and former Health Secretary, who is a signatory, told The Indian Express that “the political atmosphere is nowadays, encouraging all to believe that they can take the law in their own hands…there is a distinct lack of tolerance. All kinds of people are there in India and we meet all kinds. We have grown to live with a large number of differences, But now, the mood is, nothing which is not to my sense of liking will be tolerated. Such people always existed, but kept quiet or were embarrassed. Now they are being asked to take the law into their own hands and not tolerate anyone who is different.”
Referring to the ‘Romeo Squads’ or persons encouraged to go after couples as per the election manifesto of the BJP, the four-page letter says: “Vigilantism has become popular as ‘anti-Romeo’ squads threaten young couples who go out together, hold hands and are perhaps in love with each other. A thinly-veiled effort to prevent a Hindu-Muslim relationship or marriage, there is no justification in law to harass these couples, particularly when there is no complaint from the woman of being ill-treated.”
Anti-Romeo squads in have been a source of harassment for innocent people in UP, with a deluge of complaints about their highhandedness. On April 26, the new Director General of Police Sulkhan Singh has had to issue a few “dos and don’ts” for the UP Police.
Sundar Burra, IAS and the former Chief Secretary, Maharashtra, told The Indian Express that “it is already there. This is a group initiative and our concerns are well laid out in the letter.”
The lynching of dairy farmer Pehlu Khan in Alwar on April 1, the murder of Akhlaq in Dadri on September 28, 2015 for purportedly consuming beef, of cattle grazers in J&K on April 22 are also taken up in the letter: “Vigilantism has become widespread. An Aklaq is killed on the basis of a suspicion that the meat he has is beef and a Pehlu Khan is lynched while transporting to his place two cows he had bought and for which he had the necessary papers. Nomadic shepherds are attacked in J and K on some suspicion as they practice their age-old occupation of moving from one place to another along with their cattle and belongings.”
This, they say is important to stop and push back as “Punitive action against the perpetrators of violence does not take place promptly but cruelly, the victims have FIRs registered against them. The behaviour of vigilantes – who act as if they are prosecutor, judge and executioner rolled into one – flies in the face of law and jurisprudence. These actions undermine the rule of law and the Indian Constitution.”
The retired officers also mention online threats, trolls and intimidation as well as selected targeting of NGOs and civil society organisations and ask “How does this square with free speech?”
Referring specifically to JNU, Hyderabad University and Jodhpur, the petition speaks of “Student groups and faculty members on campuses like Hyderabad and JNU, who raise troubling questions about equality, social justice and freedom are subject to attack by the administration, with a supportive government to back them. In Jodhpur, a planned lecture by a renowned academic was cancelled under pressure and the faculty that organized the event subjected to disciplinary action.”