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Evil of transfers

February 16, 2019

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The writer is an author and a lawyer based Mumbai.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based Mumbai.

THE vice of transfers of police officials and civil servants has for long plagued public life and administration in India. The latest example of this gross abuse of power by ministers comes from Kerala. On Jan 25, the Kerala government, run by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), removed Chaithra Teresa John from her post as temporary deputy commissioner of police, after she raided the party’s district office.

The second report of the National Police Commission (1979) censured the practice. When it is not possible to punish a police officer legally, it is very easy to subject him to administrative action by way of transfer or suspension. Its threat is the most potent weapon in the hands of the minister to bend the police to his will. Forty years later, the situation, far from improving, has worsened. In states like Uttar Pradesh, each incoming government transfers civil servant and police officers en masse; right down to the level of superintendent. District magistrates are particularly targeted.

Such pressures on the police system from political and other extraneous sources weaken the normal chain of command, which has to operate efficiently if discipline is to be maintained. Interference at the operational level results in the total bypassing of supervisory officers. Subordinate officers see every day that their superior officers count little in the ultimate disposal matters that would normally lie within their official cognisance. Decisions taken at a political level in government are implemented without question at the operational level.

Politicisation of the services and transfers feed on each other.

In May 1997, Justice Markandey Katju (then on the bench of the Allahabad High Court) delivered a strong and comprehensive judgement on transfers. The petitioner, a health centre worker, was transferred from Gopiganj to Bhadohi in June 1996. In August, the transfer order was cancelled. She alleged that it was done at the instance of Phoolan Devi, MP, which was also brazenly stated in cancellation order itself.

The judge held that “...the impugned order is wholly arbitrary as it has been passed solely on the dictates of a politician (as the order expressly states) and not on any administrative exigency. ... A highly pernicious virus which has crept into the governance of this state; namely the blatant and persistent abuse of the power of transfer and posting of government servants on political, caste, monetary or other extraneous considerations instead of on administrative considerations and in the public interest. ... It is regrettable that in this state (and perhaps in other states too) transfer appears to have become an industry. Government servants are often treated like shuttlecocks, to be banged and battered around frequently without any thought of the effect this is having on their morale and on the administration.”

To support the comment, he cited that from March 1991 to March 1997, as many as 16 senior superintendents had been appointed in Allahabad, some lasting for a month or two and one lasting for a mere 24 hours. Changes in government trigger a spate of transfers. Politicisation of the services and transfers feed on each other.

The supreme court has deprecated the practice but done little to end it. In one notable case, an upright officer of the Central Bureau of Investigation, N.K. Singh, claimed he was victimised because he had investigated Sanjay Gandhi and his gang’s destruction of the film Kissa Kursi Ka. The Chandra Shekhar government, propped up by Rajiv Gandhi, ‘elevated’ him to a different post. He rightly complained this punishment in the guise of elevation. Justice J.S. Verma shut his eyes to the obvious and, instead, criticised N.K. Singh, who was universally respected for his integrity and independence.

B.K. Nehru was also known for these qualities. In retirement he fought for the civil service. He wrote in his memoirs about his studies while serving as high commissioner to the UK: “All the three powers which are exercised by the minister in India to bend the civil servant to his will, namely, appointments, transfers and suspensions, are not exercisable by them at all in the United Kingdom. They are exercised by a very small group of senior secretaries presided over by the secretary of the Civil Service Department who reports to the prime minister direct. It is they who appoint people, transfer them and punish them, not the ministers. The prime minister of course approves their proposals, but when I asked the head of the Civil Service Department what would happen if the prime minister refused to sign, he was shocked out of his wits. He said, ‘But that can’t happen’. Such is the power of conventions of the British constitution, which, if broken, would lead to a furore in parliament.”

Conventions are always broken. Maybe legislation will help. Will the officials of the civil service and police muster enough courage to unite and demand such legislation?

The writer is an author and a lawyer based Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2019