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Press mute

Khobragade interview controversy points to erosion of important conventions.

Written by Vivek Katju |
Updated: December 25, 2014 8:02:43 am
Devyani Khobragade, Devyani Khobragade case, diplomat Devyani Khobragade, Devyani Khobragade arrest, Devyani Khobragade body-search, Devyani Khobragade marshal law A 1999-batch IFS officer, Khobragade was arrested in New York on December 12, 2013. (PTI)

Devyani Khobragade is in the news again, for all the wrong reasons. The ministry of external affairs has put her on “compulsory waiting” for recently giving an unauthorised interview to the media. An inquiry has also revealed that she obtained US passports for her children, in addition to their Indian diplomatic passports, behind the back of the MEA. However, Khobragade’s conduct should not erode the country’s sympathy for what she suffered in New York last year.

A year ago, the nation was appalled at her being arrested and body-searched by the US authorities in New York, where she was serving as India’s deputy consul general. Under public pressure, the UPA firmly stood by her side, supported her and ensured that she could return to India with as much dignity as possible under the circumstances. The government worked out a “solution” with the US that enabled her to return. But, significantly, the case against her was not dropped. It still stands. Not only will it cramp her diplomatic career, but it is also a continuing affront to the country. The government must pursue the issue with the US so that it is dropped.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has correctly indicated that India’s bilateral relations must transcend another country’s conduct towards an Indian national. He has shown this by example, not letting the denial of a visa to him when he was chief minister of Gujarat come in the way of enhancing India-US relations. His successful visit to America and the special gestures extended to him by US President Barack Obama, as well as Obama’s forthcoming visit to India, where he will be chief guest on Republic Day, are vindication of this approach. All this, however, does not mean that either the visa-denial issue should be forgotten or that the government should not act to have the case against Khobragade dropped.

While Khobragade, as an IFS officer, has every right to represent her case within the MEA, she must leave the manner in which action is taken and its timing to the government. Certainly, she must not publicly articulate her feelings and wishes on the issue, as she has done. That is unbecoming of any civil servant, especially an Indian diplomat. It is also counterproductive, as such matters that require sustained diplomatic effort are best resolved discreetly, outside the public’s glare.

In this age of intense and instant communications, pervasive social media as well as active news media, a government servant could attract public attention for a variety of reasons — for doing good work, for being victimised by the government for taking a tough stand on a sensitive political issue or even for having special qualities unrelated to work. The conduct rules for bureaucrats, which list the dos and don’ts, do not directly require avoiding all contact with the media. They, however, do demand that bureaucrats not be critical of “current or recent [government] policy or action”. This is not unreasonable. In fact, any employer would ask the same of its employees.

Some officers air their opinions in the media on policy issues. The precaution they take is to clarify that their writings only reflects their “personal views”. This is humbug. The conduct rules only allow government servants to “undertake occasional work of literary, artistic or scientific character” and not to comment on policy issues. Also, over the decades, some civil servants have indulged in politics even while on government rolls.

Established norms are being flouted and successive governments have not shown the will to rein in civil servants who have bent the rules. Has the political executive been lax or has the bureaucratic leadership been irresponsible? Or have the times changed — should a greater degree of permissiveness be allowed? In any event, the government needs to look at the conduct rules in depth so that they can be updated and thereafter uniformly enforced.

Along with civil servants, some members of national-level commissions express their personal views on subjects far removed from their remit. Some also make political comments. These persons are not covered by the conduct rules but should they not be reticent as long as they hold office? The freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution has to be abridged by an office that a person has voluntarily accepted.

Prima facie, the action taken by the MEA against Khobragade in the matter of her children’s passports is correct. In no case should an officer acquire the passports of another country for her children if they possess Indian passports. That is not only the law but also diplomatic commonsense. Khobragade seriously erred on this issue and her denial is not credible.

A neutral civil service is one of the cornerstones of our democratic polity. Regrettably, the conventions that sustained such a civil service are disappearing. The foreign service has largely maintained its neutrality but that will be chipped away if its members abandon their reticence in the face of the intrusive media. This would be a loss not only for the service but for our national interest, too.

The writer is a former diplomat

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