Service rules stop IAS officers from voicing their views in public, but is it time for change?

Convention calls for officers of the government not to criticise its policies. However, former and serving IAS officers are calling for a re-think of archaic service rules.
Service rules stop IAS officers from voicing their views in public, but is it time for change?
Service rules stop IAS officers from voicing their views in public, but is it time for change?
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“I want my freedom of expression intact. I joined the services believing I can give voice to others, but here I am unable to use my own voice. My resignation will give me my freedom of expression back.”

These were the powerful words of Kannan Gopinathan that made headlines in August 2019. The officer, from the 2012 batch of the Indian Administrative Service, submitted his resignation to the Union Home Secretary soon after the Centre placed Jammu and Kashmir under lockdown and abrogated Article 370 that granted special status to the erstwhile state. 

Less than two weeks later, Sasikanth Senthil, a 2009 batch IAS officer posted in Dakshina Kannada district also quit, protesting the ‘framework of fascism’ developing in the country.

These officers, who felt stifled in expressing their views while in service, are now regularly the target of right-wing trolls on social media. However, their resignations and critique of the government have thrown light on another structural problem facing the services— the balance between being an officer of the government and exercising rights as a citizen of the country. Former and current bureaucrats argue that the two are not mutually exclusive and that officers, working in the interest of the nation, must be allowed to voice their views and be protected while doing so.

Understanding the convention

According to Rule 7 of the All India Services (Conduct) Rules, 1968, “No member of the Service shall, in any radio broadcast or communication over any public media or in any document published anonymously, pseudonymously or in his own name or in the name of any other person or in any communication to the press or in any public utterance, make any statement of fact or opinion, i. Which has the effect of an adverse criticism of any current or recent policy or action of the Central Government or a State Government; or ii. which is capable of embarrassing the relations between the Central Government and any State Government; or iii. which is capable of embarrassing the relations between the Central Government and the Government of any Foreign State: Provided that nothing in this rule shall apply to any statement made or views expressed by a member of the Service in his official capacity and in the due performance of the duties assigned to him.”

The rule essentially bars officers from expressing views critical of the government in public, even if only to state a fact. 

Speaking to TNM, former Kerala Chief Secretary Vijayanand explains that the old school conventions are based on the doctrine of anonymity, whereby an officer neither praises nor criticises the government. Social media, however, has changed these dynamics. Recently, in the aftermath of the Telangana police’s alleged encounter of the four accused in the Disha (name changed) rape-and-murder case, IPS officers across the country shared their views against ‘swift justice’. In cryptic tweets, not specifically referring to the case, many spoke of the need for due process for which they were trolled by those in favour of the alleged encounter.

“You're not supposed to go to the press on anything official without permission, even if you have strong individual views. You can't say this is wrong, that is good, etc. When you are in service, you are not allowed to do that. But social media is vague territory. It's not hard and fast but it is a convention. You don’t have to defend it either, you don't have to comment on it and say this is a great policy,” he points out, adding that many of the previously black-and-white conventions have been rendered grey in recent times. 

Former Tamil Nadu bureaucrat MG Devasahayam observes that while an officer is not allowed to criticise the government, they can provide positive suggestions. “There is no rule prohibiting constructive suggestions. “You can’t criticise directly but you can give positive suggestions indicating what is good for the country. I did this during my service. Even the rules, as they are structured, don't prohibit an officer from giving ideas which are good for the nation and in the national interest. Nobody will take any action against that,” he says.

Internal dissent

Meanwhile, Vijayanand opines that one must not discount the option to dissent within bureaucracy, one that is not always in the public eye. “In closed door meetings, you can say this is wrong. We have a huge wave inside government which is not realised. There will be various internal discussions where these issues can be raised. Sometimes, bureaucrats raise it sharper than we ever imagined.” 

Speaking to TNM, Sasikanth Senthil bats for officers to dissent on record, an objective documentation that the government cannot easily paper over. 

He says, “While we cannot talk, nothing stops us from officially disagreeing to certain things. Like, if they (the government) are asking us to draft a blatantly unconstitutional legislation, we can always put it in the file saying, this is not constitutional. If you put things on the file, they will have to overcome it on the file. That is our way of registering protest. Being sworn under the Constitution, it becomes our duty to not accept if the government says something blatantly unconstitutional. Civil service should start doing that.” 

Need to re-think archaic rules 

Sasikant calls for archaic service rules and laws to go. “We are largely bound by the conduct rules. Even if we want to express ourselves, we can never touch the policies of the government. This is the way the bureaucracy is designed,” he says. Explaining the thinking, he adds, “We are implementers of the policy so we ourselves should not have any viewpoint. So as of now the balance— between speaking in public and being bound by existing rules— is very thin. The moment you say something, the government will proceed against you with disciplinary action.”

Giving the example of laws like the controversial Official Secrets Act, he says that bureaucrats will choose to remain quiet over fears of prosecution. “We have to re-look at all these things with national interest in mind,” he says. 

Legal protections to those who speak up are equally important. Sasikant takes the example of The Whistle Blowers Protection Act. Passed in 2014, the Act is yet to be implemented. The Centre has reportedly said that the Act— meant to protect those who expose wrong-doing in government— would be operationalised after being amended.

One serving IAS officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, believes that in its current form, the service rules must apply equally to those who agree and disagree with the government. “We are not allowed to publicly speak against the policies of the government. By the same token, those who are pro-government feel free to share their opinions, however problematic they may be. They do so with impunity since they will not face any disciplinary committee proceedings for it. That is unfair. In that case, anyone who disagrees should also not be subject to scrutiny or given a punishment posting,” points out the officer.

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