free speech debate

A Facebook post, a growing storm and the curious case of an IAS officer's transfer

Days after he was transferred for a message in praise of Nehru, Madhya Pradesh served notice on Ajay Gangwar for an alleged anti-Modi comment from January '15.

For 16 months, the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Madhya Pradesh was oblivious to an Indian Administrative Officer’s purported Facebook post calling for a people’s revolution against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

However, on Monday – just four days after Barwani district collector Ajay Singh Gangwar was shunted to the Secretariat in Bhopal as deputy secretary on May 26 after he put up a Facebook post in praise of Jawaharlal Nehru – the state government woke up to his previous alleged misconduct, which the officer insists he did not commit.

Questions are now being raised about what prompted this seemingly sudden step by the government and members of the bureaucracy stand divided on whether the IAS officer had broken any rules.

A post that sparked a storm

In the one-line notice sent to Gangwar, the state government has asked him to explain the post against Modi. Gangwar, who is on leave till June 5, said that he would establish his innocence. The notice gave him seven days to respond. Gangwar holds that he has not broken any rules and that there is no policy regulating employees’ social media activity.

The Facebook post in the eye of the storm is dated January 23, 2015, and is related to an opinion piece in the editorial page of Jansatta criticising Modi’s Make in India programme. Gangwar is accused of not only “liking” the post on Facebook but also commenting on it saying: “Modi ke khilaf logo ki kranti honi chahiye" – there should be a people’s revolution against Modi.

Gangwar has sought a screenshot of the purported post, claiming it was not on his feed. He said he might have merely liked the post, but that cannot be held against him. Gangwar told the The Indian Express that the government took this step because their action of transferring him had “boomeranged."

"If the government has removed me for my post on Nehru, then why is Modi is being made an issue now?” he was additionally quoted as saying by The Times of India.

But Madhya Pradesh chief secretary Antony DeSa refuted this. “The notice was served not for his praise for Nehru’s policies but for a comment against Prime Minister Modi,” he told mediapersons on Monday.

Asked why the notice was served 16 months after the purported offensive Facebook comment was posted, the chief secretary said that the matter had been brought to the government’s attention only now.

His first field posting

About seven to eight months after his alleged anti-Modi comment, Gangwar had been posted as Badwani collector in August 2015. It was the first field posting for the 2005-batch IAS officer. The 54-year-old had joined state administrative service in 1989.

What supposedly prompted his transfer to the Secretariat “on temporary basis till further orders” less than a year later was a satirical post he had put up about Nehru, aimed at India’s first prime minister’s detractors on the eve of his 52nd death anniversary.

The post, originally in Hindi, said:

 “It would be nice if you point out the mistakes that Nehru should not have made. If he stopped you from becoming a Talibani Hindu nation in 1947, it was a mistake. He brought in the Indian Institute of Technology, Indian State Research Organisation, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Indian Institute of Management, Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited, steel plants, dams, thermal power – that was his mistake. He respected and provided opportunities to work to scientists such as [Vikram] Sarabhai and Homi Jehangir [Bhabha] instead of intellectuals like Asaram and Ramdev – that was his mistake. He opened universities instead of cowsheds and temples and that was a grave mistake. Instead of encouraging superstition, he showed you the scientific way – that was his mistake. For all of these mistakes, the Gandhi family indeed owes an apology to the nation."

As the post went viral, it created ripples in Bhopal’s bureaucratic and political circles. The media picked up the story and debated whether the officer’s comment was a violation of the civil service’s rules of conduct or an example of his freedom of expression. The BJP’s well-known aversion to Nehru exacerbated the row. The fact that Gangwar had been officer on special duty to the former Congress chief minister Digvijay Singh was also highlighted.

Gangwar's "Hindu Talibani" reference provoked general administration minister Lal Singh Arya to describe it as a clear case of gross indiscipline.

Besides, the reference to cowsheds was interpreted by the BJP as an attempt to mock the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government's Nandishala Yojana, aimed at spreading a network of cowshed. "He has violated the code of conduct," Vishwas Sarang, an MLA from Bhopal had said. "If we insult the system in the name of freedom of speech, that is wrong."

A grey area regarding the rules?

Although Chief Minister Chouhan did not speak publicly on the issue, he issued the transfer orders for the Barwani collector.

The instruction was followed but due procedure was not. No reason was ascribed for the collector’s sudden transfer within 9 months of his posting. The chief secretary apparently was aware that the collector’s Facebook comment on Nehru may not have violated any of the civil service conduct rules.

Rule 7 in the handbook of the All India Service Conduct Rules (1964) forbids civil servants from making "any public utterance... which has the effect of an adverse criticism of any current or recent policy or action of the central government or a state government.”

However, the rules were framed before social networking sites came into existence. Speaking to Scroll.in, Dilip Mehra, the former president of Madhya Pradesh’s Indian Administrative Services Association, said that the service rules are “flexible and open to interpretation”.

Describing Gangwar’s transfer as a knee-jerk reaction, Mehra said that in such cases, a call from chief secretary to the collector should have sufficed to put the matter to rest.

However, former Madhya Pradesh chief secretaries Nirmala Buch and KS Sharma feel Gangwar should have desisted from posting comments of political nature.

Gangwar does not think he violated any civil service conduct rules. He said that whatever policy they make about freedom of speech and expression has to conform to the Constitution. “Otherwise, it will be challenged in a court of law,” he had said, with regard to his transfer.

“I think it’s an ideological issue,” Gangwar told The Indian Express. “They are promoting certain icons and I was praising someone else [Nehru]. What’s wrong in teaching history to the younger generation, which is unaware of his contribution and is forming wrong perceptions about him.”

“The talk about stopping India from becoming a Hindu Rashtra features in constituent assembly debates," Gangwar had further said. "There’s nothing new about it but people must know.”

Divided opinion

While Gangwar remains unapologetic about his comment on Nehru, his transfer has triggered a debate on whether an IAS officer has the right to take an ideological stance on social networking sites.

The Congress, predictably, has made an issue about the transfer. “By removing Gangwar for praising Nehru, the chief minister wants to give a message to the bureaucracy that it must become and be seen as a part of the saffron ideology," state Congress general secretary Jitu Patwari has alleged.

However, more than the political opposition to the move, what appears to have propelled the state government to replace the pro-Nehru charge against the IAS officer with the anti-Modi one was the rumblings within the bureaucracy.

The day after Gangwar was transferred, about half a dozen IAS officers had come out to support him.

"Very few dare to stand with truth and rationale to safeguard the basic values of democracy and humanity. I salute you, my friend," a Facebook post by Rajesh Bahuguna, additional commissioner with the commercial tax department, said, without naming Gangwar.

Others expressed that he had not flouted any rules and should have the freedom to air his views – political or otherwise – on social media.

More disconcerting for the government was a reported strike threat by the 500,000-member state government employees' union, led by Arun Dwivedi, if their freedom of expression was curbed.

However, the state chapter of the IAS officers' association will not take the matter up unless Gangwar lodges a formal complaint. Its president, Basant Kumar Singh, said the association is not involved in the matter yet.

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