Yet another example of the Narendra Modi government’s paranoia is the latest amendment of the Central Services (Pensions) Rules which bars all retired officials in intelligence and security services from penning their memoirs. The gag order is unusual in a democracy and can be said to substantiate the charge of India being “partly free” made by the US-based think tank Freedom House.
Autobiographical or analytical accounts by former government employees of the days when they were in service are common in nearly all democracies. The general public looks forward to such publications because they provide a peek into what goes on behind the forbidding closed doors of the high and mighty.
Among the recent books in this category are those by two former Intelligence officers, A.S. Dulat, who wrote “Kashmir: the Vajpayee Years” and Vikram Sood, who wrote “The Ultimate Goal”. There are any number of books on Kashmir such as “Unmasking Kashmir: A Bureaucrat Reveals” by Sonali Kumar, or on the 1962 border conflict with China such as “The Untold Story” by Lt. Gen. B.M. Kaul or the “Himalayan Blunder” by Brigadier J.P. Dalvi .
None of these could have been written if the recently enacted rules had been in force earlier, thereby depriving the ordinary people as well as scholars in India and abroad of a chance to know about the scene in Kashmir or the conflict in the icy heights. It is possible, therefore, that no one in the army or in the bureaucracy will now be able to write on the post-August 5, 2019 situation in Kashmir or on the latest standoff with China from Doklam to Depsang.
Nor can any official lift the veil after retirement on the government’s decision-making process, or its absence, in the period before demonetization.
It is unlikely, though, that praise for the government will be forbidden. In all probability, any retired officer from the intelligence or security services will be free to air his appreciation of the government’s Balakot strike against Pakistani terrorists. It is the possibility of criticism of which the rulers are afraid lest it expose their failings.
In an open society, embarrassing revelations may not be welcomed by the blameworthy in positions of authority, but they can do nothing about them. But there is no such fear or shame in an authoritarian environment where their lapses will remain hidden because that is Big Brother’s preference.
In an atmosphere where a poem about floating bodies in the Ganga is castigated as the work of a “literary Naxal” by the Gujarat Sahitya Akademi, the nervousness in the corridors of power about a tarnished image is understandable. The inclination of the litterateurs of an academy to echo an official line is also reflected by the observation of the joint head of media and publicity of the RSS, who saw in the pictures of the floating bodies an “agenda” of the government’s critics.
Ever since the BJP’s assumption of power in 2014, the party has shown its unwillingness to accept criticism. When some of the prominent personalities returned their Sahitya Akademi awards in protest against the government’s policies, their act was dubbed “manufactured dissent” by a Union minister.
The recent IT rules calling for the stationing of officials in the social media outlets to see whether they are following the rule of the land as interpreted by the government are in keeping with this intention of intimidating and muzzling opponents.
As is known, the government routinely calls them “anti-nationals” and books them under the colonial-era sedition laws.
It is also rude towards them as when a Union minister, who is a retired civil servant, called his former colleagues in the bureaucracy “padhe likhey moorkh” or educated fools for having written against the remodelling of the Central Vista in the heart of New Delhi. Will the minister use the same term to describe noted sculptor Anish Kapoor, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, scholar Gayatri Chakravarty-Spivak, the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art Glenn Lowry and other celebrities for having criticized the “extravagant project”?
The same brusque and dismissive attitude was evident in another minister’s characterization of critics in the West as “self-appointed custodians of the world who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval”.
The need for the gag order on retired officials was probably felt by the government because of the fear that a disclosure in the coming months and years of its monumental blunders in tackling the pandemic would leave a black mark on its reputation.
The Hindutva brigade has always believed in rewriting history. The silencing of bureaucrats is another step in that direction.
Views are personal