Steel frame or steel cage?

Shah Faesal’s resignation tells us about the receding powers of the civil service to make a difference to society

January 21, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

Photo for representation.

Photo for representation.

In his letter of resignation from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in early January, Shah Faesal cites a number of reasons . He became an icon and a celebrity when he topped the IAS examination, in 2010 . He was the first Kashmiri to do so. Now, after his resignation, he is sure to acquire greater glow, especially if he joins politics as he has indicated. His letter of resignation demonstrates his anguish over the pain Kashmir has experienced over the recent past. Apparently, he feels that as a civil servant, he feels constrained to express his views. The letter also suggests that he feels sorry for not being able to do much to alleviate the sufferings of his people. His hope that he will be able to do this by joining politics permits us to look at a problem we face in our quest of modernity.


Respect through merit

Before Independence, and for a while after it, competing for entry into the IAS was motivated by the urge to seek status in society. An open contest based on success in an academic examination presented the attraction of gaining social respect through merit. The status that accrued to an officer was associated with the authority he had to exercise state power. In those days, official power had few political constraints, especially at the local level. A district collector was seen as a meritorious monarch. He was the custodian of law and order. That was a key role in the colonial order. Its cultural residues have persisted to the present times, and the status of the district collector — in some States, the district magistrate or DM — comes largely from his or her responsibility to maintain law and order.

Following Independence, the IAS acquired a nation-building tinge in its earlier colonial role (as the Indian Civil Service as it was then called). From the local to the national levels, the IAS was seen as providing the firm and stable frame that India needed to overcome what were often described as ‘fissiparous’ tendencies in society. The addition of a nationalist lustre to an otherwise unchanged status gathered yet another layer when nation-building extended to a ‘development’ agenda. As a learned decision-maker, the civil servant was supposed to lend objectivity to the elected politician’s agenda and wishes. This function made an impact on the lure of the civil service as a career. Success in the IAS examination was now seen as bringing the power to ‘do something’ for the larger good, and not merely as a conduit of personal security and comfortable life-style.

Marker of change

Mr. Faesal’s decision to resign from the IAS after a short stint in it marks yet another stage in the change of perceptions. He is not the first to mark this change. Young entrants to the IAS have been known to resign early for social causes or academic careers. In each case, early abandonment continues to signify an act of renunciation for the pursuit of an ideal. Such examples have indicated the rising perception that the IAS officer’s power is much too constrained, especially by those wielding political power. Mr. Shah Faesal’s resignation tells us how the power to ‘do something’ now belongs exclusively to the politician.


This trajectory has a considerable lesson to offer. To begin with, it shows how modernity in India has not brought an adequate appreciation of the different roles a society needs to run itself well. Children and adults share the feeling that one or two roles are more important than all others. From childhood onwards, one learns this lesson both directly, from parents and teachers, and also indirectly, from socialisation. The chief guest culture, widely prevalent in schools, reinforces the significance of becoming an important person. The person invited as chief guest is often either a civil servant or a politician.

A ‘syndrome’

Not only schools, even community functions organised on religious festivals are similarly adorned. If the organisers cannot get hold of someone in service or politics at present, they go for someone retired. By the time they are in secondary grades, children absorb the message that a worthwhile life can only be led by gaining public importance. Many children begin to feel that their best chance to make their parents happy is by doing things that bring fame and importance. For doing this, there are more choices today, but the range continues to be narrow and the preferred ones are those with the biggest crowd at the entry. The lure of competitive tests like the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) and the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) throws light on this cultural phenomenon.

The civil services remain a big draw as the vast clientele of commercial coaching demonstrates. Probability of success is understandably low, and that is precisely what drives the coaching industry to ever increasing rates of growth and fee. It is only after failing to make it into the highest civil services that students look towards other avenues. The same is true of tests in engineering and medicine. It is only after failing to get into these professions that the young consider pursuing a career in other areas. The experience of failure leaves its psychological scab on many young minds. They continue to feel, for a long time, that they could have ‘become’ someone important. A touching story in this genre is of a schoolteacher who never went back to meet his favourite teacher. He said, ‘How could I tell my teacher that I could only become a teacher?’

As a society, we obviously pay a high price for maintaining this syndrome. If only an IAS or a political leader is perceived as having the capacity to ‘do something’, the rest can only carry out inconsequential routines. And what is that ‘something’? It is a socially shared mystery. In the case of Mr. Shah Faesal, it seems to be somewhat clear. His letter of resignation from the IAS can be read as an expression of his urge to alleviate the pain of Kashmir. He feels he can do it by joining politics. Let us hope he succeeds.

Krishna Kumar is a former director of the NCERT and the author of ‘Education, Conflict and Peace’

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