As someone who has served in the Tamil Nadu cadre of the Indian Administrative Service, I feel worse than miserable reading and hearing of Collector Alex Paul Menon's ordeal. But unlike Alex, who has put his life on the line, I have never had to face personal or physical danger in the course of official duty.
He has done that and more. He has utilised the opportunity to do great positive good for the people of the area, Sukma, where he is posted and has shown that administration is not just about official hauteur, bureaucratic pride or the insolence of authority.
Goodness knows how wooden officialdom can be; how callous. And how in the counter-insurgent purblindness of vengeance, it can strike where it should be shielding and hurt where it should be helping.
By his effort to establish contact with those who were likely to be thrown into the embrace of a violent dogma, he has shown a way and set an example that we cannot ignore.
I am sure delicate negotiations are underway and, inshallah, by the time this goes into print we might have some good news of the kind we have received about the Odisha MLA, Jhina Hikaka. But the opposite scenario is too terrible to contemplate. Not just for the family of Mr. Menon but for the morale of the public administration. Already, the death of two of his guards has immiserated two families, apart from jeopardising the “jan-sampark” scheme. So hierarchic are our responses to events, that the sacrifice of these two guards slipped out of the main news almost as soon as it appeared in the report.
It is said time and time again that official callousness and political neglect have bred left-wing extremism. I believe that is the case. We also know the excesses and egregious record of the Salwa Judum which has disfigured the case and reputation of legitimate action against Maoist terror. But when we have the example of someone who is reversing that syndrome by his individual example and pays a huge price for doing so, we cannot let the news go past us as if it is no more than “one of those things.”
Time for correction
And so, while those who have been working sleeplessly over the last few days to secure Mr. Menon's release without sacrificing the first principles of governance, there is an attitude-correction which his experience occasions. Let us, by all means, keep our watch over the fluctuating fortunes of scamsters, luxuriate in the joys of seeing Sachin Tendulkar and Rekha elevated to the Rajya Sabha, speculate on whether we did or did not have another Kamaraj Plan in the making, and continue to levitate in the once-every-five-years excitement of “Kaun Banega Rashtrapati.” But let us also pause to consider the condition of a civil servant, a “bureaucrat” and a “babu” — to use terms that are employed derisively if not abusively — who is hovering between life and death for doing his duty and doing it so honourably.
And let us also consider re-evaluating our cynical stereotyping of men and women in government service as “typical babus” whose primary concern is self-advancement and jurisdiction-clutching.
That is an unfair categorisation, though we know too well that the horrid little cap does fit more official heads than is good for those heads. But let us also see and accept that very often India's officers and those who assist them like their staff and guards, stand right next to our brave soldiers and paramilitary and police personnel, in risking their lives for the nation's security and the well-being of its people.
(The writer is former Governor of West Bengal.)