India’s first chief information officer, who also served in Kashmir as an ias officer, speaks about the trials and tribulations of nation-building
By Rajendra Bajpai
Few Indians under 50 realize how precarious the country’s condition was at the time of indepen-dence. There were secessionist movements in northeast India; Kashmir was attacked by Pakis-tani raiders, and in the 1960s, Tamil Nadu threatened to break away from the mainland. There was no guarantee that India would remain united. “(Our greatest success) is that we have not only remained united but the feeling of nationhood is now much stronger. Every Indian is proud of being an Indian,” says Wajahat Habibullah, former civil servant, erstwhile chairman of the National Minorities Commission, and the country’s first chief information commissioner.
Habibullah should know what nationhood means for he grew up in an India that was coming to grips with its own existence and facing challenges to becoming a separate nation. The son of General Inayat Habibullah, the founder of National Defence Academy Khadakwasla, Habibullah had an upper-class upbringing in Lucknow, went to Doon School and read history at St. Stephen’s college in Delhi. He joined IAS in 1968 and retired in 2005. He was admired in bureaucratic circles for his insights on complex issues impacting India, including Kashmir, on which he is considered an expert by New Delhi.
While responding to a query on the greatest failure that challenges nationhood, Habi-bullah says: “We have not built into our society the kind of harmonious multiethnic living that goes with building a nation. It’s a threat to our very nationhood.” Drawing from years of experience in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), most of it in the valley, as an IAS officer, Habibullah informs: “The sense of nationhood is all pervasive and cuts across caste and linguistic boundaries although it was something that was alien to India.”
Habibullah was posted in J&K during the turbulent years of the 1990s, and was perceived as the only human face of New Delhi. As divisional commissioner of Srinagar, he was responsible for the peaceful surrender of more than two dozen armed terrorists in the Hazratbal shrine hostage drama in 1993.
Reacting to the BJP’s plan to abrogate Article 370, which confers special status on J&K, Habibullah says that much of the debate is ill-informed. “Article 370 makes J&K a part of India. Its abrogation is, therefore, unrealistic unless you want to get rid of the state.”
Having penned several books on Kashmir, the prominent being My Kashmir: The Dying of the Light, Habibullah is forthright while talking about the plight of the Kashmiri pandits, who fled their homes in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in the 1990s. He says that attacks on pandits were planned and executed by Pakistan’s ISI, which wanted them to leave the valley and make the exodus appear like a Hindu-Muslim problem. “About 3,700 pandits are still living in the valley and they have lived through more than 20 years of turbulence and insecurity.” The former bureaucrat also blames the center for not providing adequate security to the pandits.
However, Kashmiri pandits and Muslims are now spread across India. Many of them live and work abroad, and few may want to return home although some might want to come back as tourists to refresh memories.
Although Kashmir has grabbed headlines in Indian media for more than 60 years, what about the community’s presence in print and electronic media? “There was a time I regretted that there were not enough Kashmiris in the media to project their point of view. But that problem has been addressed and there is a strong Kashmiri presence in the media.”
ROLE OF CIVIL SERVANTS
Habibullah is candid about what’s wrong with the civil service which he regards as elitist. “The concept of an elite civil service has no place in a democracy,” he says, adding that “at the district level, there is the Mughal system of patwaris and tehsildars, while at the secretariat level there is a British system. Both the systems were devised to rule the country, but the time has now come to decentralize the system to go to the village level.”
So, how to go about It? “What India needs is a CEO who would implement the decisions of the panchayats,” says Habibullah, who was also secretary, government of India, Ministry of Panchayati Raj (local government).
Lashing out at the way the civil services is structured in India, Habibullah says the secretariat system is based on mistrust, rather than trust, and is not in keeping with the democratic polity of the nation.
INDIA’S FIRST CIC
As the country’s first chief information commissioner (CIC), it was Habibullah who had implemented the Right to Information Act in 2005 after it was passed by parliament. So what was his experience as CIC? “Initially, I found, most of the inquiries were coming from government servants seeking information on pensions and promotions, etc. Later, NGOs started filing for information from hospitals on dispensing medical treatment to people below the poverty line.” Elaborating further, he says: “In the beginning, there were very few inquiries from rural areas but thanks to the awareness spread by Doordarshan, nearly 40 percent of the inquiries are now from villagers.”
India’s triumphs and tragedies
India represents an unprecedented experiment in nation-building, after centuries of being part of empires that laid the foundations for its geographic boundaries. This experiment is unprecedented because it differs radically from the idea of a nation-state rooted in European experience, which is based on national boundaries demarcated by ethnic, linguistic, and religious uniformity.
In India an outstanding lawyer, with a solid background in English law, sought to build a nation—what was to become Pakistan—on the grounds of religion. Malaysia’s founders sought to build a secular state, with a bias towards the bhoomiputra (indigenous Malays, who were overwhelmingly Muslim) in a nation with two dominant ethnic communities. The people of the Philippines and Indonesia, ethnically more homogeneous but with differences in religion, also sought (with varying degrees of success) to build their nations through recourse to democratic and dictatorial means.
India, on the other hand, has for centuries been a cultural and economic multiethnic tapestry. And how did we address the issue of such diversity? India, describing itself as a “Union of States” with a strong unitary bias, framed its constitution with three lists: union, state and concurrent. In the latter, the center has the final say; residual powers are specifically left with the union. Emerging from a bloody partition amid doubts that the country could hold together as a modern democracy, India sought to weave itself together into a cultural fabric that allowed ethnic groups minimum political autonomy.
This then must be looked upon as India’s triumph achieved by no other nation except in modern times by the US to a much more limited extent. But we would be wrong to take this triumph for granted. Today, the nation as a whole is faced with dramatic change. Governance itself finds transition accelerated both in concept and form. Governance has of course always been subject to continuing change, as is the nature of democratic evolution, and this has been marked from the time of Independence. From a means to perpetuate imperial rule, governance developed into a means of seeking equitable economic growth. The initial Indian political leadership when we won our freedom was westernized in its education. It was hence paternalist. The civil services were therefore an object of respect. Such service, even though not legally so, was in practice close to being hereditary.
This civil service oversaw the running of a “socialist” economy: the state was omnipresent. The welfare state was seen as a necessity, but time has shown that its achievements, although many, were hardly commensurate with such expectations. Now the state finds itself in a period of transition across the board: social, economic, political.
Politicization of the civil services commenced in the late 1960s, and picked up pace in the early 1970s. This was the time when the term “committed bureaucracy” came to be coined. The civil service had been trained not to question political decision-making. With the maturing of the political element in governance that element also realized its strength. There was therefore a need for these two basic elements of governance to come together in terms of mutual understanding of functions and demands. Despite much change, however, this coming together has to this day remained largely elusive.
The social change brought about by a socialist economy has impacted on the political factor. The earliest dramatic manifestation was in what was then among the leading states of the country, Tamil Nadu, and then the State of Madras. This was with the onset of the DMK, which stood for separation from the Indian mainstream. That state has largely made the political adjustments as being part of the diverse nation state of India, while jealously guarding the identity of the Tamil, which was required. We find several northern states at present in the process of making such adjustments.
But an unfortunate ramification of these changes has been the rise of corruption and the dilution of established ethical norms. This has been compounded, not mitigated by economic change, signaled by what is described as liberalization. For the state this meant giving up control. Access to decision making by those within government is receding. With the rise of the assertiveness of business houses, entrenched means of access to ill-gotten gains by the state hierarchy is increasingly limited, with the erosion of established corruption channels. Collusion instead of coordination is now increasingly marked between politicians (because of the need for election funding), business houses, and bureaucrats. There is even gossip of bureaucrats being on sale, and we have had shocking exposes in the past years that I must admit to having left me shaken.
— Excerpts from the speech given by Wajahat Habibullah at the Upendra Vajpeyi Memorial Lecture