The new pension rules curtail the freedom of expression of retired officials, said 109 former officers who have worked with the Centre and state governments.

In May, the Centre notified the Central Civil Services (Pension) Amendment Rules, 2020. The amendment introduced a condition that prohibited former bureaucrats of security and intelligence organisations from publishing anything related to their work, including their experience and information on their area of expertise without clearance from the head of the organisation.

The retired officials will have to sign an undertaking that they will not publish any information without clearance. Their pension could be withheld or withdrawn, fully or partially, if they do not comply with the government order.

“With this order, India also acquires the dubious distinction of being, possibly, the only major democratic country in the world today which effectively bars its employees from expressing their views after retirement,” the Constitutional Conduct Group said in an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday.

“It would mean that before publishing any article or speaking at any seminar or interview, the retired officers concerned would have to obtain prior permission,” the signatories said.

The group noted that the rule was applicable to all officials, including those who retired decades ago. “This is not merely a restraint on free speech, which it is, but an effort to entomb all relevant information and knowledge in the coffin of untrammelled state power,” they said.

The former bureaucrats wondered about the need for such an amendment to the Central Pension Rules when the Official Secrets Act, 1923, already existed. The Act allows governments to take action against all officials who “reveal information prejudicial” to the country.

The signatories added:

“The recent amendment to the Pension Rules attempts to impose a silence that will seriously affect scholarship and be a permanent impediment to an understanding of the imperatives of our security concerns. Officers who have spent a lifetime in security-related matters are unlikely to be irresponsible and reveal sensitive secrets.”

— The Constitutional Conduct Group

The former bureaucrats said that those who framed the new rules had not thought about the consequences of the order. “The reported assurance from the establishment that the order, in fact, makes it easier for the officers to contact their former employer to seek clarifications before they speak, is too fatuous to even merit comment,” the group said.

They added: “If strictly enforced, it could also mean, in effect, that no retiree from the specified services can participate in seminars or discussions, let alone engage in Track II dialogues, even if this is, possibly, not the intention.”

The Constitutional Conduct Group highlighted that a similar order was passed under the United Progressive Alliance government in 2008, but was withdrawn later.

“The well-known lawyer AG Noorani had pointed out at that time that ‘the fundamental right to freedom of speech, which includes the right to know, is not absolute. But the state can impose only ‘reasonable restrictions’ on the right, on grounds specified in Article 19 and only by ‘law’ and not by an executive fiat’,” the signatories said.

The former bureaucrats said that if the government wanted to protect national security, then the authorities could open a dialogue involving consultations with the political and civil society along with the legal fraternity to find a replacement for the Official Secrets Act.