Tale of 2 CSs: Could controversies be avoided?

K B Jandial
As May 2021 came to a close, controversies erupted in respect of two Chief Secretaries, one was huge with political overtones and the other relatively minor, related to administrative ethics, albeit, niceties but nonetheless both unusual. Both top bureaucrats are batch mates-Alpan Bandyopadhyay (IAS WB: 1987) and BVR Subrahmanyam (IAS CG: 1987) and rated outstanding having served with different political dispensations earning their commendation.

Straight Talk

Subrahmanyam has served in PMO with two Prime Ministers, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi, and in between these two stints, he worked with the World Bank. On the request of Chhattisgarh CM, Subrahmanyam was sent to Chhattisgarh where he, as Additional CS Home, effectively countered the Maoist insurgency in the region. In the run up to “abrogation” of Article 370, Modi Government’s choice fell on him and was hurriedly posted CS in J&K after the fall of Mehbooba Govt. Sat Pal Malik followed him as Governor who too took the oath hurriedly without caring for niceties for his distinguished predecessor N. N. Vohra.
In Modi Govt’s scheme of things, Malik-Subrahmanyam team was the best who handled the most critical situation of J&K history efficiently. Supported by the officers of administration, police and security forces, the extended team executed all necessary pre and post 5th August multi-pronged requirements with finesse, be these constitutional, administrative, security and law and order, without giving whiff of what J&K was heading for. Perceived to be PM’s man, his tenure lasted for nearly three years, longest any CS had after Ashok Jaitly (April 2002). The officers who worked with BVR describe him “saintly,” firm and decisive.
On 27 May 2021, the Central Govt issued appointment orders of Subrahmanyam, initially as OSD in the Union Commerce Ministry, and subsequently as Secretary on retirement of the incumbent Secretary on June 30, 2021. Simultaneously, the Centre also cleared Arun Mehta for CS of J&K and his appointment order was promptly issued by the LG on May 28, 2021.
The sources claimed that Subrahmanyam shared with his successor and the LG his ‘decision’ to hand over the charge on 7th June, best suited for him as per numerology, but both didn’t agree. A via media was worked out according to which Arun Mehta would start functioning as Chief Secretary from 31st May but Subrahmanyam would formally handover the charge on 7th June. Accordingly, an unusual order was issued and the Administrative Departments were directed to address/mark all official papers and files to Mehta as CS w.e.f. 31.05.2021.
The plain reading of these orders leaves no one in doubt that BVR was ‘divested’ of his charge but actually it was not so. Technically, BVR continued to be CS, sitting in CS office and using all attendant protocols including CS car, flag etc but without any official work. For one full week, J&K had ‘two Chief Secretaries’ which was unheard in any State or UT, one was de facto and the other was de jury.
Why did an upright, competent, professional top bureaucrat do it that unleashed unnecessary speculations, gossips and drew flaks from some of Kashmir based senior political leaders who nursed a grievance against him for his uncharitable remarks and Kashmiri political leaders. Former CM, Omar and Sajjad Lone ridiculed this development with their tweets on “two Chief Secretaries in J&K”. Omar wrote, “So much, for good governance and accountability.” Sajad made a harder punch and called change of guard as CBM and “Thanks those who did it”.
Gossips apart, Subrahmanyam is a firm believer of astrology, numerology and Vastu shastra and all through his career, he followed these religiously, even when he was abroad serving the World Bank. He hadn’t occupied the designated CS official Residence, both at Jammu and Srinagar because these houses were not Vastu Shastra appropriate. In Jammu, he chose Gandhinagar accommodation and in Srinagar he preferred State Guest House for some time. But then, as CS these were no issues. He has reportedly joined almost all his assignment by ‘shub mahurat’ and this happened to be the main reason of these unusual events that created administrative controversy. He always looked for the most beneficial time that helps in carrying out assignments without any hurdle with best results due to auspicious positioning of the planets and other astrological factors that ward off the evil powers. Well, all these are personal beliefs and are being put in practice even by top leaders holding constitutional positions but never heard of “shub mahurat” in handing over the charge.
As ‘decided’, BVR handed over the “formal” charge on 7th June. The legal experts opined that the Constitution, laws and rules don’t envisage two CS and Mehta was sole CS of J&K right from 31st May even without the ritual of handing over/taking over charge. They call the spectacle of handing over ceremony on 7th June a sham and laughable. Interestingly, while the charge was handed over on 7th June, the UT Govt website records Subrahmanyam’s tenure as CS from August 20, 2018 to 30 May, 2021. Rightly so, otherwise all actions or decisions taken by Arun Mehta till 7th June as CS would have been questioned. May be, websites have no numerological issue.
Alapan Bandyopadhyay is another CS who, known for following the rule book, made the “Breaking News” by his reckless conduct on the fag end of his career. He had joined West Bengal Govt during Jyoti Basu rule. It is said that the then CS Rathin Sengupta had prophesied that he would one day become Bengal CS. But he had one deficiency; he had not gone on deputation to Govt of India which opportunity came only on the last day of his service amid a huge controversy that forced him to resign from his service, 3-month extension with Centre’s approval few days earlier notwithstanding.
Bandyopadhyay invited Modi Govt “wrath’ for his administrative ‘indiscretion’ of skipping the review meeting of PM Modi held to assess the impact of ‘Yaas’ cyclone and Covid in Bengal at Kalaikunda in Paschim Medinipur district on May 28. While CM Mamata Banerjee left after meeting PM briefly on political reasons, the top civil servant, custodian of official protocol, “insulted” the PM by moving out along with CM. There couldn’t be any more important work other than PM meeting who specially flew to Bengal for it.
Taking strong objection of CS’s misconduct, the Centre ordered placement of his services to GoI, under rule 6(1) of the IAS (cadre) Rules, 1954 and asked him to report to DOPT by 10 am on May 31. Under this rule, the cadre officer may be deputed for service under the central government in consultation with the State Govt and in case of disagreement the Centre’s view will prevail. Stung by this action, he declined to go Delhi and instead resigned from the service on 31st May itself.
While the disciplinary action against Bandyopadhyay is still under consideration, serious debate has erupted on the Centre’s move to take disciplinary action on retired IAS officer. Nobody has approved CS’s decision to skip PM’s review meeting. Unfortunately nowadays, there is no public service left in India. They are more of being servants of ruling parties than the servants of the people. This is the growing problem which has politicalised the “steel frame of India” endangering its federal overtones.
Was Centre’s move to post Bandyopadhyay to Delhi in a huff? The necessary consultation with West Bengal Govt didn’t take place. Simple explanation on his misconduct and withdrawal of the Centre’s approval for his three months’ extension would have served the purpose of the Centre rather than posting him in DOPT. The Centre’s show cause notice to him for failure to report to the DOPT lost its force by his resignation on the same day. The law is clear on who can take action against IAS officer deployed to a State and that too, after retirement. Under Rule 7 of the All India Services (Discipline and Appeal) Rules, 1969, the authority to initiate proceedings against IAS officers lies with the State Government.
A peep into past judicial and quasi-judicial judgments strengthened the view that the State in which officer is serving, is the competent authority to take action. The Madras High Court in Pramod Kumar V. Union of India and Ors interpreted Rule 7 and held in 2013 that the Central Government cannot initiate disciplinary action suo motu against an All India Service Officer serving in a state. The Central Administrative Tribunals at Guwahati and Hyderabad too held similarly.
The second hurdle in taking action is Courts judgments that disciplinary proceedings cannot sustain after superannuation. The Apex Court in 2014 held in Dev Prakash Tewari v. UP Cooperative Institution, that departmental inquiries against an IAS officer cannot be allowed to continue after his retirement unless there is a specific rule. Even if the Centre is adamant to initiate proceedings against him, the same question would arise: who would charge sheet him- the Centre or the State?
In his two-and-a-half-page reply to show cause notice, Bandyopadhyay referred to his long chequered career as a bureaucrat, during which he never disobeyed or disrespected the Prime Minister’s Office or any other authority. He mentioned recent death of his brother due to Covid and rituals fixed on the day of PM meeting. Still he tried to attend the meeting only because PM has called it. As he could not reach airport to receive the PM, he went for PM meeting but on CM’s instructions, he had to leave. While seeking forgiveness, he submitted that invoking disciplinary action under the Disaster Management Act against a retired bureaucrat is grossly improper.
Finding not much clarity on the issue, the Centre may not pursue action against Bandyopadhyay, who has refrained from publicly commenting on the issue. In all probabilities, he may be let off with warning as a message to other bureaucrats. Couldn’t top bureaucrats avoid these controversies in the larger interest of public service?