The British Raj was the high noon of bureaucracy. The British sepoy armies might have won the day from Plassey to Seringapatnam and Alwaye, but it was the pre-1857 “writer” and post-1857 Indian Civil Service Sahib who converted a day into two centuries. No army can preserve victory; that is the responsibility of the civilian servant of the state.
Every empire becomes a fiefdom of the bureaucracy. The ‘qatibs’ or scribes were so powerful that they successfully resisted the new technology called printing for fear that it would replace their work. The price was eventually paid by Ottoman society, for it could not benefit from the information revolution wrought by the printing press. Nearby Europe used printing to disseminate knowledge down the class stratifications, generating the industrial revolution that made Europe master of the world by the 19th century.
A bureaucracy prefers a single source of authority, and unfettered freedom to create and implement policy in the name of that authority. Bureaucrats constituted the Viceroy’s Council when the British Raj had unchallenged power. There are rules of course, and a good officer is scrupulous in adherence because confusion is anathema to his profession. This is where democracy becomes a bit of a problem.
Democracy devised a check: policy was the prerogative of the elected. The bureaucrat had responsibility without devising the solution. He could take his revenge through deviation, delay or prevarication but he could not supersede the minister. Nor could the minister behave like an autocrat. There is always accountability, internal and external. Policy in theory travels from minister to Cabinet; and Cabinet is a discordant chorus rather than an inspiring solo.
What do we make of, then, a bureaucrat being nominated to announce a major policy shift in one of the most sensitive problems facing the Indian state: Kashmir? On Friday it was home secretary G.K. Pillai who told a seminar, to which media had been invited, that government plans to cut paramilitary forces in the valley by 25% in one year, and offer unilaterally multiple-entry, six month travel permits (not Indian passports, but specially designed permits that might leave the nationality question vague) to Kashmiris to cross the Line of Control into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. This in effect allows anyone in Kashmir to go to Pakistan since there will be no restrictions by Pakistan on further movement. The Army chief, General V.K. Singh, who is the principal effective guarantor of security in Kashmir, was not informed that such a proposition was on the verge of implementation.
Normally, such an important swivel should have been announced by home minister P.C. Chidambaram, or even Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. There is only one reason why they did not. They were using Pillai to test the waters of public and political opinion before the ship of state could be turned towards a different direction.
Or is this the start of an effort to change the primary subject of national discourse from corruption and food-price inflation? Rising prices, particularly when coupled with unemployment, are the most serious danger that any government can face. Even Arab dictators and monarchs are discovering that the people might learn to live with autocracy but they will not tolerate a government that cannot guarantee price security of essential food. In our country, anger against corruption has been supplemented by rage against the tyranny of onion prices.
The bureaucratic British Raj began by provoking a terrible famine in Bengal, between 1765 and 1770, that is estimated to have taken the lives of one-third of the population. The British left in 1947 after another catastrophic Bengal famine which destroyed the fictions of good governance that colonisation had created. Democracy does not have much tolerance for fiction. If the new policy towards Pakistan is being floated on the fiction of possible peace, or even as a diversionary tactic, it will extract a terrible price on UPA if another Mumbai or Kargil happens.
Bureaucrats do not lose their jobs. Politicians do.
The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.