One of the most important features of our administrative structure is the position of the district as a self-contained unit of governance. In Haryana, the BJP has ignored that.
There is something rotten in the state of Haryana. The nexus between a venal, crazed godman and the seamy politicians who are running that state is plain enough. More distressing, however, is to see the complete capitulation of the bureaucracy and the police to this nexus.
Part of the rot is universal and not limited to Haryana, although the sociological conditions under which deras like Sacha Sauda flourish in the Punjab/Haryana region are unique. The kind of political power the heads of such deras wield in this region is qualitatively different from the influence other well-known ‘godmen’ exercise in their respective constituencies. A Sai Baba, an Osho, a Shri Shri Ravishankar or a Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev may have more influence with the affluent and the well connected, but they are not engaged in the exercise of brute political power. These deras, on the other hand, are an integral part of regional politics and operate in collusion with the region’s politicians and officials. This collusion can take many forms – accessing and acquiring valuable real estate through extortion, fixing deals, arranging postings and transfers of government personnel, securing career opportunities for favourites and brokering power in myriad ways. The social work done by the deras – and their contribution is substantial – provides them the required legitimacy, simultaneously enabling the administration to treat its links with the dera as being in public interest. So if government officials kow-tow to the dera management, such behaviour does not raise many eyebrows. Powerful businessmen or mafia dons, for example, trying to exercise a similar kind of power over administration would never be able to achieve the same legitimacy.
In Punjab and Haryana, such a nexus has existed for a while. What is different now is that the social and cultural disconnect that prevailed between administrators and such deras has gone. Maintaining a careful secular distance from such establishments was earlier a part of the required code of conduct. No more. The administration is now complicit with the political leadership in maintaining the nexus and there are no social and cultural barriers to this. For a toadying bureaucracy, a word from the dera chief is as much a word of command as from a minister or chief minister.
With the BJP coming into power in most parts of the country, there is an added dimension to such a nexus. The administration in all these states does not need to maintain a secular facade. Ministers and civil servants can openly flaunt their collusive relationship with religious organisations and religion and statecraft can be happily blended into a lethal cocktail. Secular ethos be damned.
The rot, however, goes deeper.
One of the most important features of our administrative structure is the preeminent position of the district as a self-contained unit of governance. The district is where all activities of the state, all interventions, all plans and schemes converge, are given administrative shape and coherence, and implemented. It is the primary locus of all governance activity and its administrative head is the final decision-making authority on matters within its jurisdiction.
This administrative head is a civil servant drawn from the Indian Administrative Service, who combines in one person three distinct roles: that of a district magistrate responsible for maintaining law and order with the assistance of the district police chief who (except in places which have a police commissioner system) functions under his/her overall superintendence; that of a collector responsible for all aspects of land administration; and that of a deputy commissioner responsible for all other aspects of government functioning. The combination of these roles is what makes that person uniquely powerful. It is this job more than any other that defines the IAS and gives it its distinctive character.
In recognition of this position, the law, particularly that relating to maintaining law and order, gives the district chief powers which no other functionary of the government has – not the divisional commissioner, not the home secretary, not the chief of police and not the chief secretary. No authority can give directions to the district magistrate on how these powers are to be exercised; there can be no stay injunction on the orders passed and no one other than a successor can alter, amend, modify or rescind an order issued in the exercise of these powers. The sweeping powers under Section 144 of the Criminal Penal Code, for example, allow the executive magistracy headed by the district magistrate to impose any kind of prohibition or restriction in a specific area for a specific period to prevent a threat to public order. This is not limited to preventing an assembly of four or more persons or to imposing a curfew, it can be used for any kind of prohibition, however draconian that may appear. Entry to an area can be banned, movement of traffic prohibited, any speech, including private conversation, can be banned – just about anything that the district magistrate in his/her assessment finds necessary as a preventive measure. It is the single-most powerful instrument of prevention and control that a district magistrate has and the entire police force in the district is mandated by law to enforce these orders. No one has any discretion or authority to ignore these orders.
The unique position of the district magistrate/district chief/collector is underscored by the fact that unlike any other officer in administration, he/she does not have a direct reporting relationship with political masters. This insulation is critical to the administration being able to resist political dictation. It is this insulation that, at the ground level, has allowed the foundations of our administrative structure to remain firm and upright despite every attempt made to weaken it.
What happened in Panchkula, however, shows that even this island of autonomy has been subordinated so that political expediency can prevail over administrative independence. It is evident that the district magistrate was nowhere in the picture in the build up to the incident on August 25 and 26. The decision to allow Dera Sacha Sauda followers to congregate in large numbers, unhindered by any prohibitory orders, was taken at higher levels, not merely to show leniency towards an important political constituency, but to send a warning signal to the judge that the fallout of a conviction could be dangerous. What was shocking was that the decision not to use Section 144 or use it only to prohibit carrying of firearms was taken at the state headquarters, with the executive magistrate performing merely the clerical function of signing the order – and that too a legally infirm order. In his press interview immediately following the carnage, the director general of police did not even seem to know what the scope of Section 144 of the CrPC was, confusing it with Section 144 of the IPC which relates to joining an unlawful assembly with firearms.
The relative autonomy of a district magistrate has been a sore point with politicians almost everywhere, because if an independent, assertive officer armed with so much authority happens to be around, he/she can always upset political calculations. For the politician, the problem is compounded if the officer belongs to the IAS and is not beholden to political masters at the state level for his career growth. In most states, the subduing of such officers is done by transferring them from post to post at will and/or by choosing officers more likely to be pliant and amenable to the concerns of the ruling dispensation.
The Panchkula case, however, shows a very alarming trend, where the state government did not just ignore and belittle an officer who might not have toed the line, but changed the entire decision-making process to make the institution of the district magistrate itself irrelevant. The strength of this institution is critical to the structural stability of the administrative superstructure. Wittingly or unwittingly, the Haryana government has struck a body blow to this institution and by doing so, set a precedent that powerful politicians who wish to exercise unchecked arbitrary authority can follow elsewhere. With a party that firmly believes in centralisation of authority and in centrally controlling the political and ideological agenda of governance, this is ominous. It damages and weakens the foundations of administration and the constitutional principles on which this foundation has been established. But then what else can be expected from a party for which protecting the cow from beef eaters is more important than protecting the constitution?
Amitabha Pande is a retired secretary to the government of India.