Kannan Gopinathan, a 2012-batch IAS officer from Kerala, resigned from his post in what he says was to protest against the “denial of freedom of expression to the people living in Jammu and Kashmir”. Gopinathan served as secretary in various key departments in the Union Territories of Daman and Diu, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli. He elaborates on why he quit and his future plans.
You said your decision to quit the IAS was taken in the backdrop of restrictions imposed in Jammu & Kashmir after the dilution of Article 370. Could you elaborate?
My decision was not impulsive. It was an emotional decision because I felt strongly about it and I wanted to speak out. The service that I was in, and the rules governing it, did not allow me to express myself. I felt that it was important for me to speak freely. Therefore, the first thing was to get back that freedom, and for that I thought it was appropriate for me to resign. With the freedom I consequently got, I wanted to raise the matter about how we are ignoring or conveniently not looking at the clampdown on the freedom of expression and liberty in Kashmir.
I want to make it abundantly clear that it has nothing to do with the government’s decision to dilute Article 370. The government has the legitimate right to take the administrative decision and the judiciary would judge the legitimacy of that decision in a democratic and a Constitutional manner. But, even if you give an injection or a bitter pill to a child for betterment, does not that child have the right to cry? Is it right to stifle that right to cry? We need to listen: you may have different ways to tackle that anguish or whatever be that emotion – but it is also important to let them express that emotion.
Watch | Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Jammu & Kashmir, Article 370
There are other issues concerning the country… Why voice your concern only when it came to J&K and restrictions imposed there?
There are many issues. It is a classic question: ‘what about X or Y?’ A person cannot feel strongly about all issues for various reasons. Freedom of expression is something I have always felt strongly about. It is not just about Kashmir. In this case, I could not accept that in this era, when such a strong resilient democracy like ours, is somehow trying to do something, which is in national interest, but the means adopted – to extend that national interest – might not necessarily be acceptable.
Now that you have quit the IAS, what next? How do plan on taking up the issue relating to freedom of expression?
I read the Press Council of India’s affidavit (filed in the Supreme Court that it backs media freedom). The government always want to do X or Y, and that is fine. But how are other institutions in a democracy reacting to that government’s decision? That is why we have separate institutions in our democracy. Not all of us are part of the government. I was actually a part of the government. So that is a legitimate question ‘why should you feel (otherwise)?’ But, if you are not part of the government, it is the basic duty to find out the truth, however bitter it may be, so that it reaches the public. We are a mature democracy where we know how to react to dissent and anguish.
How have your batch-mates in the IAS reacted to your decision?
It has always been the case that my friends and colleagues, both inside and outside the IAS, whether they agree or disagree, will always respect each other’s decision. Most of them have been supportive of my decision because it is a personal decision about something I feel strongly about.
You have served in sensitive areas in the Northeast. As a District Magistrate, you must have faced protests and restrictions?
As a District Magistrate, of course your role is to control protests and contain any violence. But it is never to curtail freedom of expression. We have to differentiate. At times, we tend to mix this up and District Magistrates are trained in how to differentiate. The violence part needs to be curbed, the right to peaceful protest is fundamental. That is how we earned this country. How can we let that go?
Can you elaborate on the factual position regarding the showcause notice issued to you by the government?
There are two things. First, there was notice that was given to me during elections by the administrator and which was referred to the Election Commission. These can be corroborated by documentation. The ECI had asked that the notice be withdrawn by the administrator and that there be no interference with officials involved in the election. It is not appropriate to give a notice to a Returning Officer when he is conducting an election. That is the first part. After elections, I was moved out and the memo was issued.
The memo, which had the showcause notice, had five points. One, that there was a delay in putting up a file. Second, that I did not apply for the Prime Minister’s Excellence Award. Third, that I did not submit a tour note. Fourth, regarding the flood relief work that I had done in Kerala and regarding an underground cabling project for which the time-line was July 2019, but I was asked why it was not completed by July 2018. The fifth was regarding why a file was moved to the chairman directly and not through an advisor.
Anybody who has administrative experience would understand that it was frivolous. But I replied. And after the reply, on August 5, I was given additional responsibilities of Smart Cities and Urban development.
That matter was pretty much over. But I want to say that if a person says something – there are two/three ways people respond to it. One is by name calling. Second is by attacking the person: he can be attacked by his past or his future – and you add motives. That is where most of this discourse has been. Third is whataboutery. I am personally not worried about it. But it is important for us to note that this is probably not a good way to engage in a discourse.
Will you take the political plunge?
Right now I felt this (resigning) is important. But I honestly have not thought about what to do next. I would like to take some time. One thing is clear that I want to remain connected with the people. I will look for an opportunity there. And why should anybody be against joining politics? Whether I join politics is not relevant, but young people should not create an impression (that) it is a bad thing (to join politics).
All those preparing for the IAS should remember that this is an exam I would write ten times! Just to get the opportunity (to take the exam) gives one so much to learn about. My decision is about a particular issue I felt very strongly about. While that is a personal decision, IAS aspirants should prepare well and enter the service but always remember why you join the service.