Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer Kannan Gopinathan, who quit the services over denial of freedom of expression to the people of Jammu and Kashmir was recently in Kolkata to attend a public meeting on NRC organised by Indian Peoples Forum. Sudarshana Chakraborty from GroundXero talks to the young ex-IAS officer.
Q: In an average Indian family, it’s a huge thing for a child to become an IAS officer. How did your family, friends and neighbors react when you resigned?
A: Actually family is something whose reactions and details I have not shared much. They are supportive. Otherwise it would have not been possible to take such a decision. Beyond that, I would not like to discuss much.
Q: When you prepared yourself for the UPSC examination you knew quite well that you are going to serve the government and it is going to be a government job. Then what motivated you to quit? Is this the well known conflict between the idea of the Government, the State and the Nation?
A: Actually you do not join the service thinking that you are going to serve the government. You get into the service thinking that you will serve the people. That dichotomy is there. I was in the private sector, I was an engineer, I was also taking part in social activities, like teaching little kids in slums. After one year or so, I moved to another area and there I met my wife. She is from Haryana. And we together started to teach the kids there, it was a posh area. Then we realized that these kids come to this area for begging and then move to another area the next day. So it was her idea then that maybe we should move into the system, that will be better because we are putting a lot of effort here but the impact wasn’t enough. Then both of us joined a coaching class. I took my preparations very seriously. Then she said okay take six months’ break from your job and that’s how I came to the service.
So it is not like that I joined service to serve the government, but it was to serve the people. There are generally two terms that you use – one is government servant, the other is public servant. There is a clear difference and which if you understand, you will know it very well when you are becoming what. You know a lot of things when you are entering the service, but you don’t know how things would change. When I joined and when I was working, I didn’t know that India as a government or India as country would shut down an entire state and suspend the fundamental rights of so many – close to 8 million people. And we will not only do that, we will jail all their leaders, their civilian leaders, the youths, total communication blockade, everything. I could not imagine this is something that the Indian government would do, and not only that, I could not imagine India as a country will keep silent when the Indian government does such a thing.
We keep a lot of faith not only on the government but also on the maturity of the democracy that is India. I was very clear that we would not allow such a thing to happen in our country. The people would not allow. They would really say that – this is not done. You do whatever you want to do with 370, but you can not just put people under jail, you cannot put a communication blockade and such things. This is 103rd day (the day this interview was taken, 15th Nov. 2019). This was not clear to me when I gave the UPSC exam.
The government is supposed to expand human rights and not constrict them. When you enter the service this was the belief with which you enter – that via the government you would be serving the people. But when you understand that something quite contradictory to your belief is happening, then there is a conflict. The fact that the conflict was there, is not the issue. The issue is, nobody else is responding to it in the way you want a democracy to respond. And then you feel suffocated. You see everybody is saying – this is not correct, this is not correct, but nobody is ready to come out and shout and protest. The Government is asking us to do this and we are doing that, we are not responding. The government is just a temporary trustee. It’s not the nation. Governments will come and go. But as a country we have begun to confuse between country and government, people and government. I think there is a much larger issue here. I wanted to get out of the conduct, rule format. I felt it was important to become a citizen first. Officers have lots of restrictions. I felt that at least I need to tell them that I do not agree with what is happening and that too in a way that I’m heard.
Q: When you appeared for UPSC exam, became an IAS officer, joined the service, it’s not that there weren’t any incidents of human rights violations across the country—whether it’s in the Northeast, or Kashmir. But this particular time what triggered you to quit the job?
A: It was not a triggering I would say. I have served in the North-East for three years. I was at Naithal which is close to the Tibet border and was also the DC of Aizawl for one and half years. Of course there were human rights violations and the activists, the media, the judiciary were fighting the government on that. In Kashmir you would see the media saying that the Press Council of India (PCI) Chairperson has submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court claiming that we have no issues with the restrictions put on the media. And the media is saying, we will go by the national interest, propagating the narrative as set by the government. Then you would see Shah Faizal was arrested. He was arrested in Delhi, taken to Srinagar and I was asking in my own IAS groups that why is it happening – was there a lookout notice, is there any crime he did, somebody said it was sedition … Everybody was quiet. Nobody wanted to write anything, say anything, speak up against anything. The fear that if you say something, someone can take a screenshot and that can be used to punish you – that kind of atmosphere, even within the service, is dangerous.
A bureaucrat is paid to express his views, it’s the brain that you are paying for and not only his signature, you can replace his signature with anybody else’s. It’s the brain the government, the taxpayer is paying for. If the brain is not supposed to speak or think, then what is the point of taking the salary? But these days everybody has started pretty much keeping quiet. Even when one of our own was arrested, we don’t want to say anything. In his case the High court said it was okay for the government to take 15 days’ time to reply to the Habeas Corpus. How is it possible in this country that the media is saying we don’t have an issue, the judiciary feels whatever the government says is fine, the bureaucracy is silent, the civil society is silent, the political opposition is doing arithmetic.
It was not a trigger, but the situation was like a frog in the boiling water. I felt that I have to jump out and say that the water is very warm, somebody has to call it out. At least for myself I wanted to do that. It was the silence. People who agree with the government, can support it – I have no problem. But people who don’t agree, are also silent. That is a key concern. Everybody I would meet would say, whatever is happening to our country is wrong, but nobody is ready to come out and say it openly, or do anything. The silence is getting too loud, it has become deafening. I have a lot of trust and faith on this democracy, so if you feel it’s not going the way you want it, you should at least do something about it.
Q: What would it have been like if you were still in the service and protesting?
A: After two and a half months of my resignation, I got a charge sheet for talking to the media. It said – you’re saying things which are critical of the government and which are adversely affecting the image of the government. They did not process my resignation, instead they chose to give a memo. It also has a line like – it is affecting the foreign relations of the country.
Article 311 is there, it is like a bulletproof vest. I can take a lot of bullets. It is very difficult, but you still have the courage to stand up and take those bullets, there is a protection that you have. But what if you don’t have any productive career? You will be only replying to those notices, you will be transferred to somewhere else, then you will be saying something else. You will be of no help to the public. So why do you want to continue in a service like that where you are staying in the service and not being productive, you don’t feel satisfied with the work that you are doing? I didn’t become an IAS, just for those 3 letters and the salary. What is the use? It is better at least to do something I’m convinced about, want to do and not take the salary and not waste the taxpayers’ money.
Q: Now you have joined the bandwagon of youth icons right now. Do you feel the extra pressure to perform as the ‘active citizen’?
A: I did not think of it at that point of time when I resigned. It was just like getting out and saying something. It was a feeling of suffocation and I did it. I thought that’s it. I will have to find a job in two, three months, and if I don’t find one, I’ll give IAS coaching and I’ll somehow survive. That was the initial plan. But after that some people, some institutes started to call – ‘would you like to come for a talk?’, etc., and I started traveling. Then somehow they started to ask what is your plan? In one of the programs, an ex-UPSC board member said – you simply can not come and say that after two months you are going to find a job. When I said that I have savings for two months and after that I’ll find a job she was very serious, angry and upset. Now here comes the question of responsibility. To continue like this is difficult because I’m financially not very well-off. I’m on a rented apartment, I’ve a family. All the middle class responsibilities are there. So with all that, it is tough. I’ve not thought of all these till now. But I think something will come up because I believe there is a reason behind everything. Right now, I’m only meeting people, understanding things, I went on a four day tour in Bihar – you learn a lot of new things, meet many new people, come to know about new perspectives – in that way it’s quite enlightening. That I’ll do for 2-3 months and then let’s see what happens.
Q: When you were in service you were also visiting places. But now you are going as an activist. So what are the differences – as you mentioned traveling is enlightening?
A: Oh it’s a completely different world. Just for the fact that I’m getting to see this side, I’m happy that I resigned. The amount of exposure and knowledge that you receive by getting out is tremendous. In the service also, a lot of knowledge comes your way, but that is all structured, clear. But here it’s not like that, it’s very haphazard, sporadic, spontaneous kind of interactions which come along your way and that adds a lot to your knowledge and learning. Even when I was in the service, I used to travel in the districts without the other IAS officers. I used to love those conversations in a bus or a train. But now, the places I stay have changed, the people I meet have changed, the modes of communication have changed. At times, when I see a policeman, I would expect a salute, because you are used to it. I went back to my district and it felt different. In Juhu, I called a protest for Kashmir and I said only I’ll be there, the police said you have to move from here to there – within one month it is completely different. It’s [being an IAS] not an intrinsic thing about the person, it’s those letters, the government and such things. So it’s basically temporary. People get too much attached with it and that’s the end of it. I’m glad that I’ve gotten out of it in that way.
Q: Do you feel the pressure of joining electoral politics?
A: I’m very political. Regarding electoral politics, a lot of people are already sending fillers and stuff like that. I think we are too obsessed with electoral politics, and because of this obsession we are unable to hold the government accountable. We feel that the only way to make them feel accountable is through going there after five years and voting them out or voting them in. But as a citizen, it’s your responsibility that after voting them to power you immediately question them, and continue to do so till they are in power. This important part of democracy is the real politics, and not the electoral politics. Politics is a continuous thing and the electoral politics every five years is a by-product or only a small part of it. I feel there is a lot of space for non-electoral or extra-parliamentary politics, but somehow that space is becoming non-existent. So, for Kashmir, there was no protest. This country would have protested otherwise. This country was so taken aback or disappointed about the election result or was happy or delirious about the result – that we failed to respond to something politically. You cannot simply consider the government as your baby that nobody should touch or question. I really don’t understand why people feel protective about the government. Government is a very powerful entity. This protective nature is making people question the people who question the government. Not only you don’t question the government, you shut those down who question the government. That is dangerous for democracy. Unless the questioning happens, you will not know if the decisions are strong enough. It’s not like by questioning you want to see the democracy fall. You only want to check if it’s strong enough. Questions should be encouraged in the democracy.
Q: As you are here to talk about NRC. What do you have to say about the atmosphere of panic, tension and fear created over this issue?
A: This is the submissiveness. We remember demonetization. The question asked to us was, should the black money be weeded out? Everybody said yes and they decided to weed out black money through demonetization. actually there is no connection between these two. A perceived, and not felt demand was created. Nobody asked the government that why should I, as a citizen, be deprived of my own money? Your hard-earned thing is taken away and then you are made to feel happy when the same is returned to you. We were like thank god our money came back to us! None of their targets were fulfilled – black money, fake currency – only thing is that the people suffered and our economy is still suffering. Because when our government is saying we are going to do something, we are not asking why are you doing this? Instead we are thinking, what should we do to survive what the government is doing. The second question asked was whether terrorism should be stopped and India be united? India is not united. Now even more than ever, people here are feeling alienated. We can never unite a country by putting a gun to the people. If the people are on our side you can put the gun to the king – this is what Sardar Patel did.
The government put Kashmiri people under communication lock down for over 103 days. Will they ever feel Indian? And when rest of us Indians never stood up for them, will they ever feel Indian? The alienation part has happened. The third question asked – should the illegal immigrants be allowed to stay here? The government’s solution is NRC. The question is asked in such a way that you can not say no. Should not the infiltrators be thrown out? Yes. That’s how the questions are framed. Nobody is asking who is an illegal immigrant? The government would answer,‘the people without documents’. Now the questions should be, if people without proper documents should be thrown out or not. The answer now would change. Because there are many without proper documents. This political conversation is not happening. The next question should be what kind of documents? It’s not Aadhar or VoterID. It’s like 50 years old documents. Now the question becomes, if people without 50 years’ old documents should be thrown out or not? Next, who are these people who do not have 50 years’ old documents? Then you will find a lot of people – people affected by floods, people migrating from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala who are going to cities and working, they don’t carry 50 years’ old documents. Women getting married and going to distant homes, they don’t carry such old documents. Then the question should change – should they all be thrown out?
That is why I’m worried about people trying to make such documents instead of saying this NRC will not be allowed to happen. The first thing an illegal immigrant does, is he makes a document – I’m saying this from my administrative experience, that is his existence. Whereas a person who is an Indian, never thinks about documents. My citizenship for me is as simple as my existence. That I exist is a proof that I am an Indian, I don’t need anything else. Due to NRC and this stupid drama, we will suffer for next 15-20 years. Because this process will go on endlessly. You may file 20 documents and the clerk in the government office will find one mistake and you have to start over again and you will always be in the begging mode with the government in regards to the question of whether you are a citizen or not. And if your citizenship is questioned, you are no more in a position to question the government. You will always be seeking the mercy of the government. This will be the end of democracy. On top of it, they have added a communal agenda in the Citizenship Amendment Bill. An Indian citizen may change to a ‘refugee’ if that person is poor, does not have 50 years’ old document and is a Hindu. But if everything remains the same and the person is a Muslim he/she will be considered as an ‘infiltrator’ and thrown into a detention center. This is what is going to happen in this country and we are responding like rats running away.
Q: Are you feeling hopeful about the future?
A: I feel in every generation people have made sacrifices for this country. That period has again come. Are we ready to make those sacrifices to keep this country’s democracy intact? We have to do our part. India is a very living and dynamic country, whenever there is a crisis like this, something or the other would come out. I am very hopeful.