It has been a year since former IAS officer Kannan Gopinathan quit the elite service in protest against the restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir after the scrapping of Article 370. A 2012-batch officer, Gopinathan resigned as Secretary, power department of the Union Territories of Daman and Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli. In an interview with Outlook, Gopinathan says that he has no intention to rejoin government service and that he will continue to fight for citizen’s rights. Excerpts:
Q) You resigned from service on August 21 last year. When you look back, how has the journey been so far?
I think things have got better in the last year. History is not written in six months or one year. We saw massive people’s movement across the country against the new citizenship law. It was heartening to see those young people, who have a major stake in the future of the country asserting what kind of India they want. The movement was halted because of the pandemic. We have come a long way. When I resigned from the service, I clearly said that it’s not about what the government did. It was about what the rest of us didn’t do. None of us including the media, judiciary or political opposition questioned the government on suspending the fundamental rights of a state, which is unconstitutional. Lazy citizenry is dangerous for democracy. We all knew that it’s wrong, but we wouldn’t talk or write publicly about it, because of the fear of being seen as anti-national. People were afraid of speaking, because of wrong narratives being put out there.
Q) You quit after the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. The state still continues to be under lockdown. Are you disappointed?
What is important is to fight dictatorial tendencies. The state exists to serve the citizens. That fundamental idea needs to be protected. When it comes to individual freedom of citizen’s rights, this government puts enormous pressure on the bureaucracy to suffocate it. It is to fight for the credentials of the country which we believe in. We are ready to fight for it. This battle will decide India’s future in two or three decades down the line. When one takes up these issues, one should have a longer view of history. We cannot afford to have a shorter spectrum. Then you feel frustrated. Unless you have a longer view, you won’t be able to fight.
Q) But the government wanted you to join back service during the pandemic. There is an FIR against you for not joining.
I got a letter in April to rejoin the service, which also mentioned the Disaster Management Act. I felt that the government was sending me hints that what’s in store if I refuse to join back. Now there is an FIR against me for not joining duty despite being asked to. It is ridiculous that when the nation was grappling with the pandemic, they were trying to arrest me.
Q) Your resignation has still not been accepted by the government.
Yes. My resignation has not been processed yet. I am neither suspended from the service nor do I get my salary. There was no communication except for the letter. This is the price one has to pay for fighting for my idea of India. I can be put in jail at any moment. But my fight will continue. Whether I will be successful or make any difference, it’s all secondary. I have to tell my five-year-old son this is the country I grew up in and I want to pass on.
Q) Former IAS officer Shah Faesal’s entry into J&K politics was much talked about. How do you see Faesal quitting politics now?
I can’t comment on his decision. Faesal may have his own reasons for leaving politics. We as a country let him down in a big way. He was in house arrest for a large period when he was outside. He was one of the few from the Valley who pioneered and topped the UPSC exams. That time, he had categorically stated his trust in the administrative machinery of the country. He gave immense hope to the people in the country. Then he resigned. But I don’t see it as his lack of faith in bureaucracy. I see it as his faith in the political system in the country.
Faesal imagined that he can fare better in the political space. Again, he was showing trust in India's political system. We should have welcomed this move. But the government arrested him and put him in jail for a year like a criminal. If he chooses to go back to service, we should honor his decision.
Q) Have you ever felt that you could have done better being inside the system?
Even outside also, I am doing things on my own. The issue here is that there is more focus on doing things than thinking through things. This government wants to be seen as ‘doing things’. On March 29, I wrote somewhere that the government should allow the migrants to go otherwise it’s going to harm everyone. But the government asked the migrants to stay put. This eagerness to be seen as ‘doing’ rather than ‘thinking through’ is affecting us in a big way.
Q) Have you experienced political meddling while you were in service?
There was immense pressure on me to act against people who have an opinion against the government. Many times, I was asked to put people in jail invoking Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Act (PASA). I always maintained that I won’t do it until there’s a valid reason. One can always resist political pressure. The maximum punishment will be a transfer. But now, things have moved beyond it. Take the example of former EC Ashok Lavasa. After he dissented as an EC, his family was hounded. Not even the mafia will do this. It’s a clear message from the government for the people who dissent.
Q) But that’s the case with every ruling dispensation irrespective of the political party they belong to.
In 2011, I participated in the ‘India against corruption’ movement and I attended a civil services interview at the same time. I never worried about my social media posts or whether it will hurt my prospects. Now, many civil service aspirants tell me that they have reservations about airing their opinions on social media. My advice to them is that if you enter the service after making compromises, you will stay on making compromises. The Congress government was in power when I worked in Mizoram. At least, they didn’t come after me with such vengeance and vindictiveness.
Q) Why do you think the system needs correction?
I will call bureaucracy as a chef. They provide according to the customer’s order. The current political leadership only wants ‘khichdi’ from the chef. So they are providing that. According to me, the fundamental tenet is citizen’s rights and it’s the state’s duty to enhance the rights. However, institutional independence is being challenged in a big way now.
Q) Is there a widespread disenchantment in bureaucracy?
After my resignation, I got calls from a few officers that they also want to follow suit. There are many young people in the service, who are disappointed with the system. Though they want to leave the service, they are worried about life after the service. I believe that wrong actions are morally unjustified. We owe that much to the country.
Q) Will you join back service?
I won’t go back to IAS. It doesn’t matter whether the government changes or not. Now I have two FIRs against me. It’s a matter of pride to go to jail for voicing one’s opinion. This government can’t tolerate any opposition against it. Otherwise, why would they chase a ‘nobody’ like me? I am not the enemy of the country. Even during the pandemic, many people have reached out and extended support to me. That’s gratifying. We have to make sure that more conversations happen in society. I am hopeful that the ‘New India’ will come. We needn’t be despondent.
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