The bureaucracy is an integral part of all modern governments. It provides continuity in governance and administration. Members of a modern bureaucracy are public servants selected and trained through rigorous procedure so that they are equipped to run the wheels of administration in the interests of the public good. The successor to the Indian Civil Service created by the British raj, the Indian Administrative Service, provides the administrative personnel of the republic of India. Members of the IAS and other ancillary services like the Indian Police Service et al are all committed to serve the Indian public and uphold the Indian Constitution. One implication of this is that even though in terms of operations they are subservient to the concerned minister or departmental head, they are also accountable to a higher loyalty ó to the service and to the Constitution. They cannot, in good conscience, ignore or deny this loyalty and responsibility. It is increasingly being observed that Indian bureaucrats are becoming too pliant and too subservient with regard to their political masters. They are carrying out the diktats of politicians even when they know that such orders violate some of the basic principles of the law and the Constitution. Eagerness to please the powers that be is getting priority over fundamental responsibilities. This decline in standards has not happened overnight but the propensity is now pronounced.
This context gives salience to certain observations made by A.K. Mishra, the chief justice of the Calcutta High Court. Mr Mishra allowed a petition demanding action against police officers who had arrested an academic for having circulated a cartoon about the chief minister of West Bengal. It has been a widely held suspicion that the police officers who carried out the arrest had acted at the behest of politicians or they had been keen to please the chief minister. The chief justice was reiterating an established principle that a bureaucrat, even when he is implementing an order issued to him by a superior, cannot evade responsibility for his actions. Moreover, if such an order violates the rule of law or the Constitution, the concerned officer is well within his rights to refuse to carry out the order. Indeed, it is his duty to do so.
West Bengal has a long history of craven bureaucrats. It began during the long rule of the Left Front when police officers and other bureaucrats took orders from party officials. This sad story continues under the present dispensation for all its opposition to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). There have, however, been notable exceptions ó police officers and secretaries who have been transferred because they refused to sign on the dotted lines drawn by their political masters. The chief justiceís observation underlines the axiom that sycophancy should be alien to the creed of bureaucrats.