Alapan Bandopadhyay row: Who owns the IAS? There are three sides to each story

There is a lot of confusion and unnecessary noise over the issue of West Bengal chief secretary (CS) Alapan Bandopadhyay’s recall to the Centre and the laws surrounding it. Indeed, to the unobjective eye it sounds partisan and vengeance by the all-powerful Department of Personnel and Training (DOPT), Government of India (GOI) which is the custodian of all the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officers.  

There is a distinction between legality and propriety. Everything that is legal may not be proper. It is very improper of a CS to boycott a meeting called by the prime minister, even if it was not under the Disaster Management (DM Act). He is an IAS officer, not a West Bengal Civil Service officer -- all the privileges that come with being an IAS also come with certain responsibilities. His conduct, of boycotting an official meeting of the prime minister that too on cyclone relief, was clearly unbecoming of an IAS officer serving as the head of the state administration.

Further, on the other question of whether officers can be called unilaterally, the answer is a Yes! In the past it has happened in both directions from the Centre to states and vice-versa, and with and without the officer’s consent and also with and without the state government’s consent.

Rule 51B of the DM Act, supersedes the Conduct Rules, and it is well known that violation invites prosecution and even jail. Thus, the valid question to ask is, should the chief secretary of a state violate the constitutional propriety and protocol while dealing with the prime minister, even if his political boss chooses to do so? The answer is an emphatic no.

Alapan, an outstanding officer by most accounts, erred here. Now it is in the realm of speculation whether he tried convincing the West Bengal chief minister to permit him to attend the meeting (in the interests of the state) or at the very least depute an officer of suitable seniority to present the views of the State? It is highly unlikely if he did tell her the constitutional obligations while dealing with the prime minister, the chief minister would have told him not to attend the meeting, given the obvious cordiality and trust between them (evident in the post-retirement appointment as an adviser). Or did he simply decide to follow his chief minister’s walkout? Either way, as an experienced IAS officer, if he asked and was told not to attend, he should be aware and prepared for the consequences of his actions for he cannot claim ignorance (willful disobedience or non-willful disobedience as the case may be).

Is Alapan, or for that matter, any IAS/IPS officer enjoined by law to follow the illegal instructions of the political executive? The answer again is an emphatic no. Also, constitutionally the prime minister is a higher authority than a chief minister. Thus, Alapan’s actions — advertent or inadvertent — do tantamount to a professional insult to the prime minister.

Consider the converse: Suppose GOI functionaries in Bengal show the same disrespect to the chief secretary, say the Tea Board CEO or from the NDMA refuse to go for his review, how will the government function at all? Can officers have the freedom to pick and choose which meetings to attend and which to boycott?

Many on social media are arguing that Secretary, DOPT or officers in PMO, ought to have shown the courage of conviction to advise the prime minister about the partisan nature of this action. That again is a facetious argument, for the action under the DM Act was correct, even if the action under Rule 6(1) was on weaker legal ground. But should those who expect such independence from Secretary DOPT not also expect that a CS (a person of identical rank and seniority) should have the independence to not boycott the prime minister's meeting just because of an oral order of the chief minister? They expect “courage” from a GOI Secretary but don’t expect the same courage from a CS of a state? That’s the hypocrisy no one, not even the “neutral” IAS officers are pointing out!

As regards the misinformation being spread, Rule 6(1) of the IAS Cadre Rules is actually crystal clear. It is immaterial what the individual officer wants, irrespective of what some commentators especially supposedly ‘neutral” ex-IAS officers would like the nation to believe. There are many cases where officers have been dragged kicking and screaming to GOI even they have not so desired.

Krishnaswamy Rajivan (who was posted to the PMO), K Gnanadesikan and K Shanmugam (both of whom later became CS of Tamil Nadu) and several other officers were posted out of Tamil Nadu against their will in the mid-1990s under a Congress government, and they all joined. As has been pointed out eloquently by former cabinet secretary KM Chandrasekhar, he and several others were also “offered” to GOI without checking their consent.

The compulsion can also operate in reverse: another outstanding IAS officer V Lakshmi Ratan was sent back overnight from Additional Secretary to GOI, prevented from joining as Establishment Officer (EO) a much-coveted post, to a lowly CMD of a state Leather Corporation, for he took on Mulayam Singh Yadav on an issue of principle and insisted on proceedings against a UP cadre IAS officer, on charges of shoplifting. Thus, it has happened in both directions from Center to State and Vice Versa. And it happened unilaterally!

What happens when GOI wants an officer, and the state government says no? Then it is the order of GOI that prevails. For instance, in the case of Archana Ramasundaram IPS, the Government of Tamil Nadu refused to let her go but she went ahead and joined SSB against their will even though the state government issued an order of suspension! Indeed, many states are not releasing officers to the Centre in the numbers required under the Rules, West Bengal being a prime example.

So, the proviso of Rule 6.1 inserted in 1969, under a Congress central government, says in the event of a disagreement between GOI and any State Government, the will of GOI will prevail. The procedure is for first asking for an officer then the State saying no, and then the GOI taking a considered view on why a specific officer is needed. It is unclear whether this procedure was followed in the case of Alapan. In January 2021 the Supreme Court threw out a PIL against Rule 6(1) wanting it to be struck down, claiming it to result in arbitrary actions by the Centre. Thus, even the highest court of the land, has found merit in Rule 6(1).

Finally, it is worth noting that the chief minister of West Bengal has stated that she had the prime minister’s permission to leave. But no such permission is even claimed in the case of the CS. A CS called to a meeting of the prime minister simply did not turn up for that meeting and chose to go with the chief minister. Regardless of legality, that is wrong and such conduct is not in line with norms of constitutional governance. Nothing the Centre can excuse that. The signaling effect of Cyclone Yaas, nay Cyclone Alapan, to the IAS as a whole is a salutary reminder that the unspoken and the unsaid is even more paramount in life, than what is spoken and said.

The author is an IAS officer. Views are personal. He can be reached at @srivatsakrishna