The 150-kilometre road trip from Narnaul to Delhi took all of three hours. For young Ashok Khemka, it was well worth the effort. The newly minted IAS officer, posted in Narnaul, had a date with a charming young woman in Delhi and was keen to see her. The young lady in question was his fiancée and Ashok, on his maiden posting as an IAS officer of the Haryana cadre, was naturally eager to meet her as often as possible.
As a member of the 1991 batch of LBSNAA in Mussoorie, he had found himself in the crosshairs of groom hunters. Ambitious parents of marriageable daughters descended (and possibly still do) on the academy on an annual basis to stalk young trainees in the hope of finding an “IAS match”. Khemka had managed to evade them all. It was in Delhi that he had met Jyoti, the woman destined to illuminate his home.
She had graduated from the University of Delhi and was contemplating a course in journalism. But Jyoti’s father had taken a shine to Khemka and was keen on the match. Jyoti had a deep respect for her father’s opinion, so she had decided to go with the flow. Jyoti and Ashok were engaged in a quiet ceremony at her home on the auspicious occasion of Dussehra in 1993. Every alternate weekend, he would head to Shakti Nagar in Delhi to meet her, before hightailing it back to Narnaul. He had no idea that someone was keeping tabs on his movements.
As a sub-divisional officer (SDO), Khemka reported to the deputy commissioner of the district. He had not exactly hit it off with his boss, who fancied himself a man of culture and a connoisseur of music and dance.
The rookie IAS officer was expected to raise funds for such novel ventures as the beautification of an archaeological site and music and dance competitions, which were invariably followed by an after-party.
Although it was never explicitly stated, he was given to understand that he should encourage applicants for driving licences to cough up a “donation” towards a social service scheme or make a contribution to the Red Cross, or open a small savings account. The district would achieve its targets in terms of small savings certificates and Red Cross receipts and the deputy commissioner would have money for his pet projects.
Khemka was flabbergasted. He had not signed up for this! His batchmates had predicted that Haryana was no place for a cerebral bania (a person from the mercantile community). The rough and rambunctious Jats, who preferred lathis to words, would soon have him on the run, they said. However, Khemka took his assignment to the Haryana cadre in his stride. Unlike his ambitious colleagues, who believed that bigger states would offer them more clout, he was content with his medium-sized theatre of action.
His contentment was soon to evaporate; his first stint as an IAS officer was downright miserable. He had annoyed his boss in Narnaul by refusing to collect ‘donations’ to fund his little fads. What put the seal on the deputy commissioner’s animosity towards Khemka was the newbie officer’s objection to the cosy get-togethers at his official residence.
The deputy commissioner was accustomed to inviting artistes, many of them young girls, for performances. Khemka would be summoned to drop them back home late at night. The fact that his superior officer was a bachelor made him queasy about the whole exercise. With a deplorable lack of tact, he said as much. Enraged, his boss decided to get back at him and made a reference to the chief secretary to chargesheet Khemka. Adverse notings were duly made in his annual confidential report (ACR).
Careers in the IAS live and die by ACRs. The performance appraisal tool serves as a brahmastra (an unfailing weapon) in a system where promotions are based on seniority, and subject to satisfactory ACRs. Anything less than a glowing ACR implies that the officer is not up to the mark.
Obviously, the deputy commissioner needed to justify his decision. He recalled that on one occasion he had summoned Khemka and found him AWOL (absent without official leave). So he questioned the caretaker of the bachelor quarters that served as Khemka’s official residence. The caretaker confirmed that the officer was indeed out of town on the said date.
That was all the ammunition the deputy commissioner needed. Khemka was hauled up for “leaving the district without permission”.
For good measure, he had pencilled in the dates on which Khemka was allegedly AWOL – the weekends on which he had gone to Delhi to meet Jyoti. Added to this were alleged complaints regarding Khemka’s handling of the registration and licensing sections. Hence, said the boss, Khemka’s integrity was doubtful.
Khemka was traumatised. His career had been grounded before it had taken off.
His lucky break came thanks to the district superintendent of police, who had a soft spot for him. A promotee Indian Police Service (IPS) officer, mature and good-hearted, he regarded Khemka with an indulgent eye, considering him an eager beaver who had yet to learn how the system worked. In good time, he would “grow up” and become a fine officer.
Police wireless communication records revealed that on one of the dates the DC claimed Khemka had been AWOL, the young officer was actually in Narnaul. A fracas involving farmers had erupted in town and Khemka, as the magistrate in-charge, was on the spot handling it. Here was a solid piece of evidence that knocked the stuffing out of the deputy commissioner’s complaint.
A certain chief judicial magistrate was also ranged on Khemka’s side. He introduced the beleaguered officer to an influential individual, who assured him that all would be taken care of by the divisional commissioner, a superior authority. Khemka would never know whether it was this gentleman’s efforts or the merits of his case that did the trick.
The deputy commissioner’s remarks in the ACR were rejected and Khemka’s ACR went from “dissatisfactory” to “very good”. The charge sheet against him was dropped after a personal hearing with the chief secretary.
Khemka learnt two things. First, he became aware of the power of extra-constitutional influencers in governance, which usually worked against public interest but could sometimes work for the good. Second, that refusing to conform would cost him.
The way he saw it, divine intervention had rescued him. He had followed his conscience and sacrificed prudence for integrity, but had not been called upon to pay the price. Perhaps fortune had preserved him for bigger battles.
Excerpted with permission from Just Transferred: The Untold Story Of Ashok Khemka, Bhavdeep Kang and Namita Kala, HarperCollins India.