IAS officer Shah Faesal, 35, who has emerged as a prominent social commentator with his incisive Twitter posts, sees a silver lining in the departmental inquiry launched against him for a remark on rampant rapes in south Asia.
Currently in the US on a Fulbright scholarship, Faesal told ThePrint that the inquiry was “an opportunity to reopen the debate around primitive service rules for government employees”.
The Centre’s inquiry against Faesal, the first Kashmiri to top the Indian civil services examination, is premised on the grounds that his post violated service conduct rules.
According to the rules, no member of the service can criticise any policy or action of the central or state government on a radio broadcast, communication over any public media, in any document, in any communication to the press, or in any public utterance.
In 2016, the central government had sought to extend the ban to social media as well.
“The rules,” he said, “don’t gel with the spirit of our times when freedom of speech has become the most crucial element of our lives.”
“Public policy is not divine revelation that it can’t be questioned. Government employees can’t be asked to vacate the intellectual space because a primitive rule somewhere says that they should be anonymous and their comments can be viewed as critical of the government of the day,” he added.
“More openness to criticism has to be there. Things have to change,” he said.
After he received a notice about the inquiry through email, Faesal posted it on Twitter, describing the missive as a “love letter from my boss”.
“The irony here is that service rules with a colonial spirit are invoked in a democratic India to stifle the freedom of conscience. I’m sharing this to underscore the need for a rule change,” he said in the post.
The notice states that several references made by the 2010-batch IAS officer were “prima facie in contravention of all India service rules”, and claims he had failed to “maintain honesty and integrity in discharge of his official duty and acted in a manner unbecoming of a public servant”.
The notice included a screenshot of the post in question, which Faesal says was a sarcastic comment on the rape culture in south Asia.
“Patriarchy+Population+Illiteracy+Alcohol+Porn+Technology+Anarchy=Rapistan!” Faesal had tweeted.
“My tweet was a comment on the larger rape culture in south Asia. I mentioned ‘rapistan’ as a formulation that would be India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and many others where crimes against women are highly rampant. My comment conveyed a strong message,” he said.
“My Twitter audience is not from India alone. There was no reason to believe it was about India. And even if it was, don’t I have a right to comment on the state of affairs of the society I live in?”
He suggested the inquiry was a classic case of bureaucratic over-enthusiasm, “where a lower rung officer misinterpreted the rule and the file went up and down without much thought”.
Faesal was least perturbed, though, as he said the law was on his side. “There is no case. There are constitutional and legal safeguards. We are living in a democracy and no one can haul us up as long as we haven’t compromised on ethics,” he added.
The IAS officer wasn’t much worried either about the possible consequences of going public with the notice, saying that, at worst, he would be sacked.
“After all it’s a job and nothing else. Jobs can be changed. But I am confident I can’t be sent to the gallows for tweeting my views as long as the Supreme Court of India is there,” he told ThePrint.
“It’s question about the freedom of speech and expression of government employees, of whom there are millions in this country. This debate needs to be looked at in that sense,” he said.
Weighing in on the larger debate about the right to criticise the government, Faesal said, “I think no government should feel insecure if it’s criticised. Unless there is a likelihood of breach of peace, free speech should be allowed.”
A rare outspoken bureaucrat
Faesal, an officer of the Jammu and Kashmir cadre, has often taken to social media to criticise the state as well as central governments. “He is one of the rare bureaucrats who will criticise the government when needed, and, as a result, he neither gets along with the IAS lobby nor the central government,” a government officer said.
“He is generally perceived as anti-establishment… He’s more like an activist” the officer said.
Known to flow against the tide, Faesal, unlike most of his peers and seniors in the service, had welcomed the government’s move to introduce lateral entry of domain experts as joint secretaries.
In a piece circulated widely among IAS officers, Faesal had argued, “The structure of the UPSC examination is such that people enter the IAS with a variety of educational backgrounds, and end up in a system where a potato expert is looking after defence, a veterinary doctor is supervising engineers, a history graduate is dictating the health policy and so on.”
A Kashmiri, he has also been fairly vocal about the issues plaguing the Valley. Faesal’s father was killed by “unidentified militants days before his Pre-Medical Test” in 2002.
For instance, he said in a tweet last month, “Before U start judging Kashmiris, take a step back & ask urself, what if U had to go through what Kashmiris went through in last thirty years, or what if any other community had to suffer the way Kashmiris suffered, how would it feel? I am sure your hatred will turn into empathy.”
When asked if he was ruffling too many feathers, especially with his comments on Kashmir, he said, “My life is impacted in so many ways by the situation in Kashmir. As a citizen, how can I stay disconnected? I am getting paid for doing my work, but the contract doesn’t include that I mortgaged my speech and conscience for my monthly salary.”
“I am centrist, a democrat and above all a humanist. I am certainly against lynch-mob violence, rape culture, minority persecution, human rights violations and totalitarianism,” he added.
However, he categorically denied that the inquiry had anything to do with him being Kashmiri. “Not at all. I think bureaucracy doesn’t go into these questions. It is a blind machine that recognises the rules not the person behind those rules.”
Finally, asked if this inquiry meant a break from social media and tweeting, he said, “Not at all. I’m here to stay and engage. You will hear more from me in the coming days.” ( The Print )