By L.P. Singh, Former Interior Secretary, Government of India
ON the politics and wisdom of the Fairfax inquiry, politicians, journalists and others far more qualified than myself have already contended at length. I shall confine my comments only to two questions arising out of the commission’s report and the discussion that have followed; practices and procedures relating to collection of intelligence for purposes of security or detection of economic and. other offenders and the working relationship between a minister and his senior civil servants.
I have no firsthand knowledge of these matters since 1981 when I ceased to hold public office. But I believe that there has been no significant change from the past, and would add that it might be inadvisable and might lead to serious practical difficulties if changes were to be made in the light of the observations made by the ThakkarNatarajan Commission, without giving careful thought to all the implications. Except on legal issue, the norms and principles appropriate to the working of the executive branch of Government are not susceptible to judicial or quasijudicial determination any more than judicial matters are determinable by the executive.
NO WRITTEN INSTRUCTIONS
I believe it is not the common practices in India or in most other countries, except when there is a statutory requirement, to issue written instructions in particular cases to agencies charged with collection of intelligence, or to lay down the sources from which they may, or may not, secure information. In fact, the general practice, I understand, is not to ask the agencies even to disclose their sources. They are only entrusted with certain responsibilities and general tasks and they are judged by the results they produce.
It is the quality of the information secured rather than the credentials of those from whom it is obtained that matters. Some of the best information can be had only from those with some contact with “elements who are actual or potential threats to security, or were involved in the commission of offences. Information about the underworld cannot usually be had from saints.
It would be surprising if there ‘were any prohibition anywhere to gathering sensitive information from foreign sources. Would any counterinsurgency agency refrain from making efforts to get information out of foreigners or their agents? Would diplomatic missions, including Indian missions abroad, be able to get any sensitive or confidential information except from the citizens of the country to which the mission is accredited? A diplomatic mission has to keep the home Government informed about conditions and developments in the host country; and a mission which only transmits official information, or what is published in the press or can be had from its own citizens would not be worth its upkeep.
Tapping, diverse sources of information is one thing, evaluating of the information quite another.
The degree of credibility of a source, internal or foreign, must obviously be a factor in the assessment of the information received from it. But to be exercised in regard to communication of any sensitive information even to a citizen and more so to a foreigner, the interest of a country’s security or economy does not call for any restriction on gathering information, except that the means adopted must be lawful.
The working relations between a minister and his senior civil servants were not codified in the past, nor, I believe, have they been codified now. The flexibility of the relations permitted arrangements which suited a particular minister, his way of conducting business and the degree of reliance he thought he could place on his senior Officials. The rules of business framed under certain articles of the Constitution have to be observed; but subject to those rules the minister may issue such written. Or oral instructions for the internal working of his department as he considers necessary. However, I do not remember having seen any such written instructions in the State governments or in the Central Government.
The senior civil servants respected any indication of the wishes of the minister about the sort of matters on which he expected his. Orders to be taken or his instructions to be sought. As an exception a particularly cautious civil servant would seek the minister’s instructions or approval oftener than might be necessary. However, the general arrangement I have described allowed for adjustments in the interest of the smooth working of the department, subject always to the authority of the minister.
A civil servant did not seek written confirmation of oral instructions of his minister unless it appeared necessary for the sake of clarity or precision, and there was no instance in all my year in the civil service when a minister refused to own up his oral instructions. Or in which he expressed dissatisfaction with action taken under the general authority given by him in the course of a discussion.
It is only when a minister gives oral instructions which a civil servant considers unsound or improper that he asks, and should ask, for written orders. Similarly, if a minister has doubts about the ability, integrity or judgment of a senior civil servant he would issue written instruction or require his orders to be taken even in routine matters. But when such a situation arises the minister would usually take an early opportunity to Part Company with the particular civil servant
PANDE, BHURE LAL CASE
It is against this established system of working that the adverse observations made about the conduct of the Revenue Secretary, Vinod Pande, and the Director Enforcement, Bhure Lal, have to be viewed. Pande had more than 30 years’ service in which he had held many responsible positions, and had risen in the service hierarchy by his high abilities and integrity. Bhure Lal had over 20 years’ service in the course of which he too held responsible positions showing dedication, courage and integrity,
Obviously, they both enjoyed the confidence of the Finance Minister. They acted in accordance with the publicly announced policy of the minister and with his general approval for tracking down economic offenders. The minister has confirmed in writing and in public statements the oral approval he had given. In the circumstances, the question of either of the two civil servants letting down the minister, or he letting them down, obviously does not arise. If in such a situation civil servants are penalized or made to suffer in any way it would be a blow to the principle of healthy relationship between minister and civil servants and to the efficient functioning of the administration. If a civil servant has to have written orders for every action he has to take and cannot exercise any discretion under a general authorization, the administration which does not move too briskly even now will get smothered by paper work, and further slowed down by economic rigidity, when the importance of boldness, enterprise and innovative spirit in the administration is being emphasized.
It is, I suppose, nobody’s case that it is against the law or the public interest to make zealous efforts to detect major economic offenders. That the two officials have been blamed without even being given, as required under the law, an opportunity to explain their conduct makes the whole affair all the more disturbing.