THE CITIZEN BUREAU | 18 JULY, 2021
‘Effort to consolidate information in the hands of the state’
In an open letter addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, retired civil service officers have called the recent amendments to the Central Pension Rules “a restraint on free speech” and have asked the government to take it back.
The recent amendments to the Central Pension Rules mandate that if any retired government service officer, who has worked in the field of intelligence or security-related organization, wants to make any publication after retirement, they have to take prior permission and approval from the head of their respective organization.
The 109 signatories, all retired state and central All India Services officers, have said that with this rule India would become possibly the only “major democratic country in the world today which effectively bars its employees from expressing their views after retirement.”
“This is not merely a restraint on free speech, which it is, but an effort to entomb all relevant information and knowledge in the coffin of untrammelled state power,” the letter read.
The retired civil service officials have pointed out the Official Secrets Act 1923, the law already in place to ensure that punitive action might be taken against officials and even retired officials who reveal sensitive information.
Pension, the letter said, is a right that is guaranteed to every government servant for his/her service and cannot be taken away, except in the case of a serious crime or severe misconduct.
The letter also underlines the importance of wisdom that retired bureaucrats bring with their years of work and how their domain knowledge is not only appreciated but also used as guiding stones for the current practitioners.
“It is true of India, as of any other country, that the government version of events, either current or past, is seen as the point of view of the party in power and is not, necessarily, reflective of the whole truth. It is because of this that the views and memoirs of past practitioners, unencumbered by the constraints of office, have value,” the open letter said.
In 2008, the UPA government had also introduced a similar order for officers working in the IB and RAW. But after wide criticism, it was withdrawn.
In the open letter, retired civil service officials have said that the recent amendment goes beyond the 2008 order and must be looked into.
The text of the letter:
We were surprised, and deeply disturbed, by the recent amendment to the Central Pension Rules notified by the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions on 31 May 2021. By this amendment, retired government servants who have worked in any intelligence or security related organisation included in the Second Schedule of the Right to Information Act 2005 have to take the clearance of the head of the organisation if they wish to make any publication after retirement, if such publication relates to and includes:
(i) domain of the organisation, including any reference or information about any personnel and his designation, and expertise or knowledge gained by virtue of working in that organisation;
(ii) sensitive information, the disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, or relation with a foreign State or which would lead to incitement of an offence (publication here would, presumably, be an inclusive term encompassing verbal communication, though that is not very clear).
We are unable to understand why there is a need for such an amendment to the Central Pension Rules, when there already exists an Official Secrets Act 1923 and the State can, under it, prosecute officials and former officials who reveal information prejudicial to the State.
Pension is a right that accrues to every government servant for the service put in while in the government. It is subject only to future good conduct and cannot be taken away except for conviction for serious crime or grave misconduct. If writing about certain matters amounts to grave misconduct, the government can certainly take action, as per law, to deprive the former official of his or her pension.
The practice of retired bureaucrats writing their memoirs or articles on different aspects of the work done by them during their working years or commenting on current affairs using their ‘domain’ knowledge is universal and is appreciated the world over. Only those who have been involved in security related matters, internal or external, can speak with authority and credibility. Other domain experts, scholars and even interested members of the public look forward to such words of wisdom based on personal experience. It helps current practitioners to perform better.
It is true of India, as of any other country, that the government version of events, either current or past, is seen as the point of view of the party in power and is not, necessarily, reflective of the whole truth. It is because of this that the views and memoirs of past practitioners, unencumbered by the constraints of office, have value.
The recent amendment to the Pension Rules attempts to impose a silence that will seriously affect scholarship and be a permanent impediment to an understanding of the imperatives of our security concerns. Officers who have spent a lifetime in security related matters are unlikely to be irresponsible and reveal sensitive secrets. The laudable objective of ensuring that retirees do not divulge any sensitive material to the detriment of the nation’s security is best achieved by reiteration of the Official Secrets Act and stern action thereunder in case of infraction. And if the government is anxious to protect national security in keeping with the times and the Constitution of India, they should also carry out wide ranging consultations with political and civil society as well as the legal fraternity to find a replacement for the Official Secrets Act, which is itself in conflict with Article 19 of the Constitution.
We believe the framers of the new rules have not thought through the consequences of the order. It would mean that before publishing any article or speaking at any seminar or interview, the retired officers concerned would have to obtain prior permission. The reported assurance from the establishment that the order, in fact, makes it easier for the officers to contact their former employer to seek clarifications before they speak, is too fatuous to even merit comment. If strictly enforced, it could also mean, in effect, that no retiree from the specified services can participate in seminars or discussions, let alone engage in Track II dialogues, even if this is, possibly, not the intention.
In 2008, the UPA government tried to introduce such an order for officers who had served in the IB and RAW. The order was widely criticized and eventually withdrawn. The well-known lawyer AG Noorani had pointed out at that time that ‘the fundamental right to freedom of speech, which includes the right to know, is not absolute. But the state can impose only “reasonable restrictions” on the right, on grounds specified in Article 19 and only by ‘law’ and not by an executive fiat’.
With the current order, the government has gone beyond the 2008 order of the UPA government. With this order, India also acquires the dubious distinction of being, possibly, the only major democratic country in the world today which effectively bars its employees from expressing their views after retirement. Curiously, this is being made to apply to all officers who have retired, even those who have retired decades ago This is not merely a restraint on free speech, which it is, but an effort to entomb all relevant information and knowledge in the coffin of untrammelled state power
In 2008, the UPA government, perhaps persuaded of the wrongness of the order, did not finally bring the amendment into being. We hope that the present government would display similar sagacity.