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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The virtue of anonymity

The CBI seems to be the only office working overtime in the Government these days. The newspapers are full of reports about the politicians...

Written by Madhav Godbole |
May 23, 1997

The CBI seems to be the only office working overtime in the Government these days. The newspapers are full of reports about the politicians and bureaucrats chargesheeted, about to be hauled up and those who are on the CBI’s list for a visit. This is equally true of the electronic media. Suddenly, all the rules of conduct governing civil servants seem to have been thrown to the winds. It is now an open Government and the Press is to be taken into confidence even before pen is put to paper or even a thought or a line of action crystallises. Naturally, this has led to an outcry against the CBI. Doubts are being raised about the impartiality and apolitical character of the organisation. A notice of breach of privilege has been given in Parliament against CBI Director Joginder Singh. Demands are being made for his immediate transfer. It is, therefore, imperative that the relevant issues are looked at objectively and in a proper perspective.

Gavin Drewry and Tony Butcher, in their book The Civil Service Today (1988), dilate at quite some length on the public face of private Government. As the authors reveal, the unauthorised disclosure of official information, or `leaking’, has always been regarded by constitutional purists as undermining the trust and confidence that ought to exist between civil servants and their political masters. As long back as 1873, the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury described leaking as “the worst fault a civil servant can commit. It is on the same footing as cowardice by a soldier.”

We have come a long way since then. It used to be believed that one’s work should speak for itself. Civil servants were to be seen but not heard. Now, several of them have become media celebrities. And it is difficult to believe that anyone’s job, except that of the official spokesperson’s, requires him to be accessible to the Press every day.

The Government has rightly given certain freedoms and discretion to officials to talk to the Press. But it was totally impossible to understand how a statement could be made to the Press by Joginder Singh, for example, regarding the chargesheeting of certain politicians, including the present and former Chief Ministers of Bihar, even before the Governor was approached for his sanction. The formal proposal to the Governor was made several days thereafter. This would have been totally unthinkable even a couple of years ago. And our political life has gone down to such depths that major political parties and their prominent national leaders did not think it fit even to wait till the request for prosecution was made to the Governor and was accepted by him, before asking for the resignation of Laloo Prasad Yadav.

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The most recent controversy related to the `leaking’ of information pertaining to the alleged report submitted by the CBI to the Central Government in the Bofors case, asking for permission to prosecute certain bureaucrats and naming Rajiv Gandhi as the prime accused. This disclosure was totally unjustified and needs to be strongly condemned. But what was amazing was the stand of a number of political parties, who believed the action would adversely affect the privilege of Parliament. Parliamentary privileges are becoming a laughing stock. How can Parliament be taken into confidence on a matter to which the Government itself has yet to apply its mind?

Of course, a distinction must be drawn between leaking of information by the civil servants and their political masters. As James Callaghan, in his evidence to the Franks Committee on official secrets stated, “You know the difference between leaking and briefing. Briefing is what I do and leaking is what you do.” For perfectly valid reasons, Governments the world over have been taking recourse to this subterfuge to score over rival political parties, to create public opinion, or to gauge the public mood. But one only hopes that the civil service is not being used in this game once again in keeping with the tenets of a `committed bureaucracy’.

There are reports that the Central Government in general and the Cabinet Secretary in particular is pushing for administrative reforms, including the adoption of a charter of ethics for civil servants, formulation of a citizen’s charter by various departments and so on. But the time has come to emphasise once again some of the basic values of the permanent civil services, which seem to have been totally eroded. These include being apolitical, impartial, frank, fair, and incorruptible. It is worth recalling the advice which B. K. Nehru was given by his Deputy Commissioner Ivan Jones during his training. As Nehru points out in his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Second (1997), Jones taught him that the duty of a civil servant was exclusively the pursuit of the public good, with no attempt to take credit or seek publicity. All this sounds so unreal in the current context.

These concerns become all the more relevant in the context of the present discussion on giving autonomy to police investigative agencies such as the CBI. It was most unfortunate that in the case of N. K. Singh vs. The Union of India (OA/733/91), the Central Administrative Tribunal held on April 5, 1991, that “it is for the Government to consider as to whether a case which has been taken up for investigation should be processed or how it has to be processed. This is in the realm of executive policy which is to be decided by the Minister concerned and not by the civil servants working under him.” This was in spite of the fact that in England, it is well established that the police “are answerable to the law and to the law alone.” We have accepted a totally unsustainable position on the subject so far. It is all the more amazing that in the Bofors case, the CBI had to request the Government to agree to release the files for public disclosure!

These is the absurd extent to which we have tied the hands of our investigative agencies. The political parties will obviously be reluctant to concede any autonomy to the CBI. But now that the Supreme Court has asked the Government to come up with suitable proposals, it is all the more necessary that public confidence in the CBI is restored.

The temptation of seeing one’s name in the newspapers every day and watching oneself being converted from a mere bureaucrat to a public figure is difficult, but not impossible, to resist. One need not be a colourless civil servant, but it is time the virtues of being a faceless one are more widely accepted.

Madhav Godbole is a former Union Home Secretary

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