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Steno envoy sparks ‘caste war’

New Delhi, June 8: New Delhi’s appointment of a stenographers’ cadre officer as envoy to North Korea last month has set off what some foreign ministry mandarins have dubbed a “caste war” in South Block.

An Indian Foreign Service (IFS) lobby that sees the appointment as a threat to its purported priority in ambassadorial postings has written letters of protest to the Prime Minister, foreign minister and the cabinet secretary.

Senior ministry officials say they had no choice but pick Ajay K. Sharma because not a single IFS officer was willing to go to “godforsaken” Pyongyang. Besides, they argue, why can’t a “meritocratic stenographer who fulfils seniority requirements” be appointed ambassador?

The controversy has exposed the turf war between the IFS(B) — a secretarial cadre that ranks below the directly recruited IFS officers, called IFS(A) — and the stenographers’ cadre, whom the IFS(B) consider even lower in the order.

Until three years ago, both the IFS(B) and stenographers could aspire to join the IFS(A) after 12 to 24 years of service, much as the provincial civil/police services can feed the IAS and the IPS, respectively.

At that time, IFS(A) inductees from among the stenographers used to secure more ambassadorial postings than fellow entrants from the IFS(B) because of the earlier closeness between the stenos and their IFS(A) bosses that earned them good annual confidential reports.

Senior IFS(A) officers are entitled to a steno who takes dictations and screens phone calls and people wishing to meet the officer. A steno thus develops a closer working relationship with the IFS(A) than an IFS(B) officer does.

So, three years ago, the IFS(B) — which makes up nearly 60 per cent of the foreign ministry’s workforce —pressured the ministry into passing a rule barring stenos from being elevated into the IFS(A). The stenographers’ cadre, much smaller than the IFS(B), currently has its own hierarchy distinct from the foreign service hierarchy.

Now Sharma has become the first stenographer to become an ambassador without having joined the IFS(A), setting a precedent that has scared the IFS(B). The latter now alleges that senior ministry officials, who are all from the IFS(A), have favoured Sharma because he is close to them.

The IFS(B) protesters have the support of many of those IFS(A) officers who had been absorbed from the IFS(B). Their complaint says: “It is said that a judge’s steno cannot become a judge, nor a doctor’s compounder become a doctor. In this curious case, an ambassador’s steno has been designated as an ambassador.”

But a senior ministry official said: “This is like saying that somebody from a lower caste is meant to do menial work and can never rise to a leadership role, however talented that person may be. This is a caste system that the IFS(B) is trying to impose.”

Unlike on home soil, the “caste” hierarchy is not strictly maintained during foreign postings. Sharma’s last posting was as a counsellor in the Fiji capital of Suva. A counsellor is equivalent to a director-level officer.

The IFS(B) is arguing that had Sharma stayed in India, he could never have reached the director level, below which no one can become ambassador. In India, only the IFS(A) can become director-rank officers — which is the level at which IFS(B) officers enter the IFS(A).

“This is not just an injustice to us but a matter of national shame to appoint a stenographer as the envoy to such a strategic country. We want this appointment cancelled,” an IFS(B) association member said.

The real issue, the senior ministry official said, is turf war. “The IFS(B), which sees itself as a rung above the stenographer cadre, now finds that one of the latter will lord over some of them in Pyongyang. There is also a question of claimants having increased to what is a small piece of cake,” he said.

He claimed that stenographers, thanks to the information they access while working closely with their bosses, have a much better grasp of diplomacy and issues involved than most IFS(B) officers, who remain occupied with bandobast duties.