Monday, March 4, 2024

Alapan Bandopadhyay: Caught in a storm

When Indian Administrative Service officers are made to become pliable putty at the hands of politicians, the chaos is palpable. The former chief secretary is only a pawn in the big battle between Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

By Sujit Bhar

There is an old saying in Bengal, which goes like this: “Rajay rajay yuddho hoy, ulu khagrar pran jay”. The concept is about battles in a field of ulu khagra (long, reed grass), where it doesn’t matter whichever raja wins the battle, the grass is always trampled. Amid the high voltage battle between Trinamool Congress—led by its charismatic leader and chief minister Mamata Banerjee—and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah being the two principal pillars, one IAS officer, Alapan Bandopadhyay, has certainly been the ulu khagra.

Alapan was the chief secretary of the state—he retired on May 31—and was not only the senior-most administrative officer in the Mamata administration, but also a rather efficient one. When PM Modi came to the state on May 28 and sat at a relief review meeting for the Yaas Cyclone that had just devastated the state, Mamata arrived 30 minutes “late” and remained absent in the main meeting. She met the PM briefly outside the meeting venue and handed over a statement of what Mamata thinks the state deserved in relief. Absent, with Mamata, also was Alapan.

The PM assumed this to be an affront and an insult. He returned to the Capital, and within hours, Alapan was “re­called” to Delhi, as per the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) cadre rules. The PM chairs the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC), which decides appointments to several top posts under the Government of India. Alapan’s rank, as chief secretary, was equivalent to that of a Secretary in the Union government.

The issue is, while Mamata and Modi carry on their unending fight, following the BJP’s defeat in the recent assembly polls, the administrative officials seem to be only picking up after them.

For Alapan, though, these have been terrible times. A few days back, he lost his younger brother, Anjan, to Covid-19. Anjan was a senior and respected journalist in the vernacular press and the two were pretty close. The obituary Alapan wrote for his brother—Alapan himself had been a journalist with the Anandabazar Patrika of Kolkata before joining the IAS cadre—was no less than a poetry of an epitaph. Then he ran into trouble, days before he was to complete a fine, unblemished career, every hour of it having served West Bengal.

The ACC recall order said: “(The ACC) approved placement of the services of Alapan Bandyopadhyay (sic), an IAS officer of the 1987 batch, with the government of India, as per provisions of Rule 6(1) of the Indian Administrative Service (cadre) rules, 1954 with immediate effect.”

There are a few technicalities involved in this. One, as one BJP spokesperson has been quoted as saying, was that on May 24, as per a request from the state government, Alapan was allowed an extension to his tenure by three months, to take care of the cyclone and Covid-19 relief in the state. This meant that Alapan was actually under the jurisdiction of the DoPT till past mid-August. But whether Alapan himself had indicated his consent to this extension of his career is not clear.

Secondly, even if Alapan was/is still under DoPT jurisdiction, for his transfer, as per Rule 6(1) of the Indian Administrative Service (Cadre) Rules, 1954, the concurrence of the state is required. The rule says: “A cadre officer may, with the concurrence of the State Governments concerned and the Central Government, be deputed for service under the Central Government or another State Government or under a company, association or body of individuals, whether incorporated or not, which is wholly or substantially owned or controlled by the Central Government or by another State Government.”

Initially, Mamata flatly refused to release Alapan “in these critical hours”, basing her decision on this rule, and on May 31, she also allowed Alapan to retire. She also announced that Alapan will be taking over as Chief Advisor to the Chief Minister for the next three years.

Hours after Alapan’s retirement was announced, the centre served a show-cause notice to him, to which he replied on June 3. Interestingly, this notice was not about his not adhering to the transfer order, but under the Disaster Management Act, asking him to explain his absence from the cyclone Yaas review meeting with the Prime Minister on May 28 and to explain why “he should not be charged with criminality under Section 51 of the Disaster Management Act”. The centre has said it will decide on its further action on the reply. It must be noted that the stringent provisions of the Disaster Management Act carries a provision of imprisonment up to two years.

Jawahar Sircar, a former senior secretary in the Union government—also ex-chief executive officer of the Prasar Bharati—calls this show-cause notice a case of “juvenile drafting and… (an) use of archaic bureaucratese”. However, the fact remains that the mis-step by Alapan—that, too, not of his own making—has caused immense misery to an officer of the government, who was probably a little more concerned with the pains of the gasping public than with the thin red lines of obtuse rules.

The need for autonomy of the Indian Administrative Service cannot be overstressed. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had said in the Constituent Assembly of India, while discussing the role of All India Services: “There is no alternative to this administrative system… you will not have a united India if you do not have good All-India Service which has the independence to speak out its mind, which has (the) sense of security that you will stand by… If you do not adopt this course, then do not follow the present Constitution. Substitute something else… these people are the instrument. Remove them and I see nothing but a picture of chaos all over the country.”

When these services are made to become pliable putty at the hands of politicians, just as the IPS has slowly become, the chaos is palpable. It does not matter if Mamata was wrong or if PM Modi is. It matters that one man, having just turned 60, and still mourning his younger brother’s sudden and untimely demise, is made to kneel before the highhandedness of a confused and egotistic legislature. It matters that his years of struggle—he studied for the IAS at night, as he kept his job with Ananda-bazar Patrika in the mornings—to reach the epitome of respectability from an unknown town of West Bengal, is being destroyed.

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The IAS may be a colonial legacy, but it was the “steel frame” of British rule in India. It held together a disparate Indian Union, with screaming centrifugal  forces. It has to be admired that a cadre strength of a mere 4,926 (3,511 officers directly recruited by the Union Public Service Commission and 1,415 officers promoted from state civil services) handles problems of a country as immense as India.

It is necessary to realise that within obscene opposing forces, this system, too, is fragile. Abuse it at your peril.


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