In India, Ministers and Prime Ministers Come and Go But the File is King

Akin to an object in gravity-less outer-space, the government file remains in perpetual motion, making it difficult if not impossible to track it or to conclusively pin it down.

‘Round and round, like the diurnal revolution of the earth, went the file, stately, solemn, sure and slow.’ – Lord Curzon 

Chandigarh: In official India, there is one inanimate entity that trumps the clout of the country’s most powerful – be it the prime minister, his cabinet colleagues, the collective Union and state bureaucracies, and even the military – and that is the ubiquitous sarkari file.

Of unremarkable appearance, the file is usually little more than a sheaf of papers encased in bright generic folders, with disproportionately-sized multi-coloured flag markers and tags with jagged metal edges stapled on.

But looks can be hugely deceptive.

The file’s outward ordinariness is in inverse proportion to the power it wields, enslaving India’s most powerful with its contents, and whose revelations, in many instances, have surfaced to haunt the high and mighty at inopportune moments.

For within the file lurk printed sheets, peppered with indecipherable handwritten annotations in the margins in multiple-coloured inks by innumerable officials up and down the bureaucratic foodchain. These pages ultimately end up impinging on millions of Indians, either fostering or blighting their wellbeing, but further reinforcing the omnipotence of the file.

The file deals with assorted matters at multiple layers – the national, provincial and even those at the neighbourhood or block levels. But each file has a life of its own and its outcome is, consequently, important, if not vital, so we can only ignore or spurn its contents at great peril.

The reality is that all of us at some point in our lives have been subservient to some file or the other.

Although initiated by the omnipresent faceless government babu, the file travels unhurriedly in a country where the word for today and tomorrow is paradoxically the same. Photo: Reuters

Officialdom has repeatedly informed us, in a country where the state is all-pervasive, that the answer to most of our problems, requests or jams nestles in a specific file that is perpetually in circulation. Not many, of course, have any idea regarding what that file comprises, who its propagators or recipients are, and most importantly, what the deadline for its contents culminating in a happy ending will be.

The latter query is germane for most. In almost every instance, the wait for the ‘fulfilment’ of the file is interminable.

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Akin to an object in gravity-less outer-space, the file remains in perpetual motion, making it difficult if not impossible to track it or to conclusively pin it down at one specific spot. Even people involved in this perpetual pass-the-file endeavour are equally unaware of either its exact status or whereabouts at any given time.

Although initiated by the omnipresent faceless government babu, the file travels unhurriedly in a country where the word for today and tomorrow is paradoxically the same, kal. Here, deadlines of parson and tarson (the day after or the third day or thereabouts) remain equally nebulous, as is the Hindi phrase ‘dus-ek din mein’, which means, literally in one to 10 days).

Accordingly, the file takes aeons to progress from one official’s desk to the next and endlessly onwards. However, at times, its path along Indian bureaucracy’s precipitous Himalayan highway is well lubricated by ‘considerations’ – thereby ensuring a steady income flow for some of its gatekeepers.

Former Army Chief of Staff General V.K. Singh – now a Union minister – once fittingly compared the movement of any file for materiel procurements in the Ministry of Defence to Snakes and Ladders, an ancient Indian board game, known originally as Moksha Patnam.

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Gen. Singh declared that this file invariably slips back to the start from the top, just as the end appears optimistically in sight, much like the counters in the Snakes and Ladders game following a roll of the dice. In short, the file, like all others remains endlessly in play, yet again buttressing its pre-eminence.

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman carried the Budget documents in a ‘bahi-khata’. Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

In New Delhi’s power corridors the file is further subjected to security markings ranging from ‘Confidential’ to ‘Secret’ and finally ‘Top Secret’, all of which necessitate different protocols and  packaging to undertake their journey to various offices located along cavernous corridors.

Inside, the file is suffused with a farrago of bewildering anagrams incomprehensible to laymen. ‘Pspk’, for instance, is ‘please speak’, ‘PU’ is short for ‘put up on file,’ and ‘N/A’ means ‘necessary action’, whilst the deadliest clincher or put-downer in any file is ‘LO’ or lay over i.e. ditch the proposal.

There is yet another implacable aspect to the file.

Once initiated, the file is indestructible and immortal, or in official parlance never ‘buried,’ and any attempt to entomb it is looked upon with suspicion, and motives imputed to a concerned officer for wanting to do so. This is because one of the many unstated decrees borrowed unquestioningly by independent India’s bureaucracy from colonial administration and perpetuated thereafter is that the file needs to eternally remain alive in some form, even hibernation.

Thus, it can be strategically activated if required at a later stage, either to settle scores, harass people, earn gratification or for all three motivations. The oft heard ominous threat, ‘purana file khul gaya’ (‘the old file has been reactivated’) is merely euphemism for a civil servant (or the politician directing him) attempting to settle scores with an adversary via the universal folder.

In this respect, Indian bureaucracy pursues what Ajit, one of Bollywood’s renowned villains once advocated for his rival in one of his films. He ordered him to be drowned in a vat full of liquid oxygen to endure everlasting misery. The liquid, he gleefully declared, would not let the hero live, and the oxygen would not let him die. Similarly, for Indian civil servants the file too remains enduringly alive, but in the twilight zone, dipped in ‘liquid oxygen’.

Bollywood villain Ajit. Photo: YouTube

Old timers will recall that the major qualitative difference with regard to the file progressed by colonial civil servants and their Indian successors, was in overall drafting skills. In the former’s file notings that were consistently apposite, brief and succinct, there was invariably a high quotient of drollery that served to lighten the overall drabness of government business.

One retired senior civil servant told The Wire that such humorous talent amongst civil servants and even Indian politicians, continued into the late 1970s, after which the file was swamped by long-winded and  grammatically flawed notings, devoid of all wit.

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Over the last decade, he lamented, these had degenerated further into near-incomprehensibility, as bureaucratic drafting skills further dissipated into gobbledygook.

Meanwhile, the file is also the news reporters’ dream, securing which can not only boost careers, but topple or embarrass officialdom and governments which are anxious to keep its contents under wraps. Over the decades, many an investigative journalist has been handed over a damning file by disgruntled officials or, occasionally, by conscience-ridden colleagues, triggering exposés and dire repercussions.

Security and intelligence agencies too have bribed, honey-trapped or ideologically persuaded officials into handing over a file which is guaranteed, without doubt, to be the authentic repository of information from the enemy country. Fittingly, the all-pervading file has been the focus of innumerable Hollywood spy thrillers, though in recent years it has been replaced by the pen drive that succeeded the computer disc of the 1990s.

But not so in official India, where the file has efficaciously survived, over-riding digitisation and continuing to reign paramount, dwarfing its originators.

In short, most Indians, however powerful and grand, are vassals of the tyrannical File.