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Dissent and expression of Dissent

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Dissent and expression of Dissent

The last General Elections were different. Not in the sense of their outcomes but what came to be known about the internal deliberations within the Election Commission. There haven’t been many occasions in the past when the differences between the Election Commissioners came out in the open when the election process was underway. One of the Election Commissioners had apparently dissented when issues relating to the violation of the Model Code of Conduct by Narendra Modi came up for consideration before the Commission. The issue came to be highlighted in some segments of the media. The occurrence (if it indeed was one) also raises the following issues that are not related to the merits of the case but to the idea of dissent and the manner in which dissent is expressed:

Should there be dissent/difference of opinion?

  • What is the purpose of dissent/difference of opinion?
  • Is there dissent/difference of opinion in the bureaucratic domain?
  • Should there be a public display of dissent/difference of opinion?

In Bhim Koregaon case, Justice D Y Chandrachud clearly articulated the need for dissent: “Dissent is a symbol of vibrant democracy”. No one will doubt that it is. Democracy thrives on differences of opinion. Debates are the essence of democracy. There can’t be a debate if everyone agrees on an issue.

Long before the Koregaon case, the purpose of dissent was articulated pretty succinctly by Justice H R Khanna way back in 1976 in ADM, Jabalpur vs Shivkant Shukla (AIR1976 SC 1207) when it was being argued that the right to approach the court for enforcement of Fundamental Rights was suspended during Emergency. Justice Khanna, while dissenting with the majority, opined that “a dissent in a court of last resort ……is an appeal to the brooding spirit of the law, to the intelligence of a future day, when a later discussion may possibly correct the errors into which the dissenting judge believes the court to have been betrayed”. Ultimately, what Justice Khanna stood for, became the law. Dissent brings forth certain aspects of an issue that may not be held to be valid by the majority at a particular point in time but keeps the door open for wisdom dawning at some later date.

All the debate so far has been around judicial and quasi-judicial domains where the dissenting individual(s) enjoyed the same status as others but had a differing point of view. There are indeed differences in opinions, as there should be, within hierarchical structures, like the bureaucracy, as well. However, very rarely do they take the shape of dissent as, once a decision gets taken, everyone down the hierarchy abides by the decisions and there is no public display of differences that may have existed. However, what is troublesome within the bureaucracy is the increasing tendency amongst civil servants not to air their views even during the course of internal discussions on account of the perceived risks associated with airing such views. Moreover, such views don’t get to be known generally except when they are revealed in the context of an inquiry/investigation or in a subsequently written memoir. The risks entailed in airing such differences of opinion in a hierarchical structure are much more as the superior authority can hold such a view against the officer and penalise the concerned officer through adverse mention in the Annual Confidential Report, transfer to a “punishment” post and the like. But, despite such risks, there are officers who do air their views in hierarchical structures as well. However, barring a few exceptions, they don’t necessarily go to town with such views.

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As a civil servant, there were many instances when one faced such a dilemma. One such occasion was in 2003. When posted as Secretary, Horticulture in Uttar Pradesh, I got a cryptic written order from the Horticulture Minister to suspend a Deputy Director. Under the extant Rules, the Minister had the power to suspend this officer. However, the directive did not list any reason for suspension. The concerned officer was not only efficient but enjoyed the reputation of being honest. An informal inquiry revealed that the Minister sought certain “favours” from the officer. The officer had expressed his inability to comply. Hence, a directive was issued to suspend him. This was the prevalent strategy in the state at that point in time to browbeat the officers. The option before me was to comply with the orders or face the consequences myself. Using a particular provision relating to procedures, I sent a dissenting note to the Chief Secretary for onward transmission to the Minister. The Chief Secretary chose to sit on the file (red tape can be beneficial on occasions) and the Minister could not muster the courage to speak to the Chief Secretary. Hence, despite a written directive, a suspension order was not issued. However, the Minister did manage to speak to the Chief Minister in a different context. I never got to know what transpired between them but I got transferred.   This was a small price (if at all it was one) to be paid to protect an officer from suspension.

Dissenting views are articulated in a number of domains and it should happen in a vibrant democracy. However, whether there should be a public display of such views is a moot point. What happened between the CBI Director and Special Director some time ago or the press conference held by a few judges of the Supreme Court brought the concerned institutions to disrepute.

Also Read: Why should I join the IAS?

These were instances of not merely harbouring a dissenting view, these were public displays of “dissent”. This is indeed worrisome. It may be a “sacrilege” to advise the honourable judges (one of them rose to become the Chief Justice) because only they decide what is right and what is wrong. Still, as far as other institutions are concerned, they would best be advised not to resort to a public spat.  There are honourable ways of settling a dispute by honourable men and women.

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Anil Swarup IAS (Retd)
Anil Swarup IAS (Retd)
Anil Swarup is a former 1981 batch, Uttar Pradesh cadre  IAS officer, and was awarded Director's gold medal for "best officer trainee" at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA). He served the Government of India in various capacities for 38 years and went on to become Secretary, Department of School Education and Literacy and the Coal Secretary of India. He also served as Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Additional Secretary, Labour & Empowerment, Export Commissioner in the Ministry of Commerce & Industry of India and as the District Magistrate of Lakhimpur Kheri. He couldn’t make it to the “elite” Indian Administrative Service (IAS) on his first attempt but qualified for the Indian Police Service where he worked for one year before clearing IAS in his next attempt. He is today an author of several looks like 'No More a Civil Servant,' ‘Ethical dilemmas of a civil servant’ and ‘Not just a civilservant’. The views expressed are his own.


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