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A K Bhattacharya: Nothing personal


A K Bhattacharya  |  New Delhi 

The government has a clear set of rules that govern even the expression of personal views by IAS officers.

Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram has made an interesting comment on the conduct of senior government officials. In response to a reference in Parliament to an article written by an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer and published in a newspaper using the author’s pseudonym, Chidambaram said the writer was either “a disloyal officer or a coward or both.” The article in question criticised the conduct of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the newspaper identified the author as an IAS officer and added that the views expressed there were personal.

Was Chidambaram justified in describing the IAS officer the way he did? The question can be answered only after one takes a look at the All India Services (Conduct) Rules, 1968, which lists quite elaborately what all an IAS officer can do and cannot do while still remaining in service. There are three specific sections that are of relevance here: Section 6 on the officer’s connection with press or radio, Section 7 on criticism of the Government and Section 9 on unauthorised communication of information.

Section 6 is fairly simple and, as many experts would argue, quite liberal in approach. It allows an officer to publish a book, write articles in the media and take part in an electronic media discussion without obtaining prior sanction of the government. There are two important conditions attached to this rule. One, such contribution to or participation in the media should take place in the bona fide discharge of the officer’s duties and he should make it clear that the views expressed by him were his own and not those of the government. 

Section 7 is comprehensive in its scope and is almost like a gag order on government officers. It says: “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, which (i) has the effect of an adverse criticism of any current or recent policy or action of the Central Government or a State Government; or which (ii) is capable of embarrassing the relations between the Central Government and any State Government; or which (iii) is capable of embarrassing the relations between the Central Government and the Government of any foreign State.”

There are two obvious exemptions provided to this rule. The restrictions will not apply to any statement made or views expressed by a government officer in his official capacity and in the due performance of the duties assigned to him. But they do not provide any relaxation to the main rule that simply bars all officers (including those belonging to the IAS cadre) from writing any article or expressing any view that is critical of the government or its policies.

The third rule, Section 9, generally disallows a government officer from communicating directly or indirectly any official document or information to any government servant or any other person unless he is authorised to do so. But there is an important exception to this rule. An official document or information can be communicated to any other person provided there is a general or special government order to that effect or this is done in good faith in the performance of duties assigned to the officer in question.

It is this provision in the conduct rules that provides some immunity to senior IAS officials when they talk to media professionals and even share with them information or documents. But there is no provision in the conduct rules that allows a serving IAS officer to write an article that is critical of the government of the day or its policies, either in his name or using a pseudonym. Even the expression of personal views by an IAS officer is governed by a clear set of rules.

IAS officers may not like these rules. But having agreed to serve the government and be part of the “steel frame”, these officers have little choice. There can be a legitimate demand for reviewing or relaxing these rules, but as long as the rules remain in force, not following them would encourage anarchy and be viewed as an act of indiscipline. Chidambaram is right. The IAS officer who criticised the government in his article was disloyal to the government and the rules he should have followed. He was also a coward for having used a pseudonym. Worse, he was tactless.

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First Published: Tue, December 23 2008. 00:00 IST