Every nation that comes into existence has an idea that represents the core of the rationale for its creation. In the case of India, that idea is enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution of India. The basic principles outlined in the Preamble have helped the country weather the onslaught of natural and man-made crises and established her position as the largest democracy in the world. The commitment of the people of India to their Constitution has enabled India to chart her course as a democracy despite the buffeting storms of various external and internal forces.
Our group of former civil servants, the Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG), came into being as a response to what those of us who constitute the group perceived as a steady, creeping erosion of fundamental democratic values that animated the framers of the Constitution. Governance practices in recent decades and years have seen the devaluation of moral values and the adoption of the path of expediency. This deterioration in standards of conduct have been accompanied by a steady degeneration in the quality of the institutions charged with safeguarding democracy. The major impact of these developments has been the increasing contempt for the rule of law. In the absence of strong institutions that jealously guard their independence in enforcing the rule of law, even the general public has, over time, come to see the rule of law as a hindrance.
If the question is raised as to why the CCG has raised its voice only at this juncture, it may be pointed out that the group assumed an organic form only from June 2017 onwards, when the first open letter was issued. Many of its members have retired from the government only in recent years and could not have participated in such efforts while they were in the service of government. What exercised (and continues to stir) the consciences of the members of the group, many of whom have had extensive experience of working with governments at both the Centre and the states, of varying political hues, was and is the perceived subversion of judicial processes by the executive arm of the State and the stamp of approval this seems to obtain from segments of society, as for example in the horrifying incidents of lynching, none of which seem to have reached closure even years after the incidents took place. Equally disturbing has been the growing trend of vicious troll attacks and character assassination on social and electronic/print media by parties espousing certain ideologies, whenever any violation of the rule of law is highlighted by members of civil society. This denouement has reached its apogee in recent days with the lodging of cases of sedition against noted personalities in a court in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, by a person who has no locus standi in the offence alleged to have been committed. When legal processes are abused to browbeat honest expressions of dissent and to deny the provision of justice, democracy enters a state of great fragility.
It was the cumulative effect of many such incidents and the lackadaisical responses of the governments of the day responsible for ensuring the rule of law that motivated former civil servants, drawn from a wide range of All-India and Central Services, to get together to voice their support to the constitutional values that they had sworn to uphold when they joined service anywhere between three to seven decades ago. The group, which today has around 150 members, is firmly committed to pluralism in all its forms – gender, religion, ethnicity, class, caste, language, etc. – and believes in the ideal of non-violence, both in word and deed. The Vision Statement of the CCG is available at its website www.constitutionalconduct.com.
Over the past 28 months, the CCG has issued 19 open letters to various constitutional functionaries, including the President of India, the governments of India, Bihar and Punjab, the highest courts of the land, the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the Comptroller & Auditor General of India, drawing their attention to issues of public importance, where the group felt that the rule of law had been ignored or had not been given its due importance. These letters ranged from general issues like the perceived violence and discrimination against specific groups and the failure of governments to instil confidence in the hearts and minds of disadvantaged groups to specific instances like the horrific Unnao and Kathua incidents, the reprehensible action of a minister of the Government of India in garlanding undertrial accused, the continuation in the Government of India of a minister facing allegations of past sexual harassment and the Assam NRC exercise and the related issue of citizenship.
The CCG also expressed its outrage at the rather lukewarm actions taken by the Government of Uttar Pradesh when one of its police officers was murdered in broad daylight while performing his official duties. More recently, the CCG has also taken up with the ECI the issues relating to proper VVPAT-based audit of EVMs to ensure the sanctity of the electoral process and the violations of the Model Code of Conduct by political parties and the weak-kneed response of the ECI to these violations.
It is probably a commentary on our times that none of these letters have merited a response (even a letter/mail acknowledging receipt) from any functionary, despite the fact that the letters have been sent by a group with a cumulative experience of around 5,000 years in the service of government. However, as an inalienable right of the citizens of this great democracy, our group intends to continue raising issues of public import in the days and months to come.
In doing so, we are only exercising our freedom to debate and discuss issues of national importance and bring these to the notice of the public at large to educate them on aspects that may be lost sight of in the din of political controversy and media outrage. To ensure that the CCG is not drawn into the vortex of political mudslinging, we, as a group, have insisted that no member of our group should be (or have been) a member of any political party or participate (or have participated) in electoral politics as a candidate, although they may have their individual political views and preferences.
We are motivated by the desire to educate the public about situations as they actually are at ground level so that, over time, an aware citizenry exercises its democratic right to participate in governance processes and seek answers from those in power on matters that are of crucial importance to their lives. We also wish to use our powers of moral suasion to convince constitutional authorities to perform their duties with integrity and fearlessness and to require all those who have sworn to perform their public service functions in accordance with the Constitution of India to abide by their oaths.
In “Speaking Truth to Power”, which is the motto of our nonpartisan group, we hope to participate, in the latter part of our lives, in realising the dreams of the founding parents of our constitutional democracy and of the 1.35 billion inhabitants of our great country.
(Ramani Venkatesan, a retired IAS officer, is a member of the Constitutional Conduct Group)