The Rediff Interview/T N Seshan
'Today the journalist is junk, unadulterated junk. The IAS officer is junk. Your police officer is junk...'
We are under the impression that today's bureaucrats are under
tremendous pressure from politicians.
Today, yes. But it is no worse than what it was 30 or 40 years ago. It is just that the
general atmosphere has weakened and become bad.
When did it start, the slow deterioration?
When did cancer start in my grandmother? God alone knows.
But you were part of the system. So, you might have known and
My grandmother had cancer. Nobody knows when it started. You
can only look at milestones. For example, one milestone was when
the government adopted the socialistic pattern of development.
It is a milestone; that it ultimately turned out to be bad is
a different matter. It was a milestone. Two, it happened when
the government deliberately built up animus between the technical
man and the generalist. The politician deliberately built up an
animus between the technocrat and the bureaucrat in '61, '62,
63. When Panditji died, parliamentary government took a beating.
Because he believed in parliamentary government as if it was a
religion. Nobody thereafter believed that Parliament was as sacrosanct
as he did.
In 1975, there was a death blow to the system in the form of the
Emergency. It came back in 1977, but in the meantime the damage
had been terribly done, and every civil servant would be identified
as either loyal or disloyal. So you had to decide whether to wear
the tag, "I am loyal, I am loyal, I am loyal" or not.
A loyal civil servant whose loyalty is not to a purpose but to
an individual is a great danger. A servant who is loyal to the
purpose is a good civil servant. A civil servant who is loyal
only to the individual had to say, ''Yes sir, it is midnight outside,''
when the sun was burning hot.
Did you have to encounter such situations in your career?
From day one. Three days after I took independent charge itself.
I have written about it in my biography. There is no difference
at all in the situation except that the number of people who will
stand up have gone down from 99 per cent to 98 per cent to 80 per cent to 40 per cent to 20 per cent to 10 per cent.
Was it because politicians have become stronger or bureaucrats
Both. It was both. They could harass an honest civil servant
by every possible means.
Did they harass you too?
Yes. One day somebody asked me to do something at 10 o' clock.
I said, no. At 10.15, I was transferred from deputy secretary,
rural development to deputy secretary, finance. At 10.45, they
changed me to deputy secretary, small savings. When I was about
to go home at 4.45 in the evening, I became the director of human
welfare. When I reached home, the chief secretary called and asked
me, "Seshan, do you know Krishnagiri?"
I said, "Yes, sir".
"You are going to Krishnagiri", he said.
I said, "Yes, sir." I was to be sent to Krishnagiri to
bifurcate the district because they have split the Salem district
into Salem and Krishnagiri districts.
"How will you go?", he asked me.
"I will find out, sir. There will be some train or car".
"I didn't mean that. You know Krishnagiri does not have a
collector's house," he said.
"I suspected it, sir, because it is not yet a district,"
He went on and on and finally I thought it was necessary to introduce
a small amount of rudeness. When he asked, "What will your
wife do?", I said, "That is not the government's concern,
Next morning I went to the office at 10.30. There was a message
that the chief secretary wanted to see me badly. I went to his
He asked, "Seshan, how much do you know R Venkataraman?"
I said, "Sir, I know Mr Venkataraman is one of the most powerful
ministers in the Cabinet." (There were only eight ministers in the Kamaraj Cabinet.)
"When did you last meet Mr Venkataraman?", he asked.
"Two months ago. When there was this big meeting called the state
development committee meeting and I was the chief carrier of files
for my secretary."
"Did you speak at the meeting?"
"No, sir. I stood up three-four times to hand over the files
to the secretary."
"You did not meet Venkataraman last night?"
"You did not meet him this morning?"
"How does Venkataraman know about you?"
"Sir, that question should be addressed to Mr Venkataraman
most appropriately and not to me."
"Venkataraman has asked for you by name to become the director
of transport. How does he know about you?"
"Sir, I never asked him for any transport job."
I walked up to the door, came back and said, "Sir, you might
send for me again in the next 15 minutes to ask me one other
question. Let me put you out of misery on that question before
you ask me. My own brother is Venkataraman's industrial secretary.
Sir, the day I entered service, my brother and I had a contract
that he would not come near my career. So, my brother has not
spoken to nor have I asked my brother to speak to Mr Venkataraman.
And my brother dare not speak to Venkataraman about my posting.
Do you want me to go to Krishnagiri? I will go."
And during the next three years, I ran buses.
Your opinion about politicians also must have changed as you
encountered many of them, as you spent more and more years with
Politics, as I told you, in the early and middle '40s and
the early '50s consisted of people who had come to the field
as a result of two mottoes. One was service and the other was
sacrifice. It was not a full-time job for them. Jawaharlal Nehru
would have been a brilliant lawyer but he sacrificed his career
in order to come to politics. Today who sacrifices what to come to politics?
As a person who moved closely with them, tell us why political morality has deteriorated and why politicians
have become more self-centered.
Because like the law of bank currency, bad currency drives
out good currency. If there is a choice between good behaviour
and bad behaviour, bad behaviour usually takes over and there
is a collation spiral of bad character. If you are doing good,
the chances of others looking at you and emulating you are small.
If you are doing bad, the chances of other people emulating you
are more. You just look at your child. In his class of 20 students,
one student might be outstandingly good in behaviour. But 10 students
use foul language and cheat. The likely chance is that he goes towards the 10 and not to the one. Because that
is human nature. Human nature turns to chaos. So, in the end,
what we lost was character.
What could be the reason? It is happening everywhere.
We lost character everywhere. Fundamental laws of physics:
human nature turns to chaos. I will give you a simple example.
Don't go to your son's bedroom for 15 days. It will look
like a warfield. To make it clean, you need to put in energy.
To make it unclean, you don't need any effort. Third law of thermodynamics.
Did you try to cleanse the system?
When you are inside, yes. When you are inside the boat, there
is just so much of cleaning that you can do.
Did you have to compromise?
Didn't it make the situation more difficult for you in your
dealings with politicians?
I never reached a point at which my conscience said that there
was no alternative but resign. There are lower levels of compromises
that I have made. But the higher levels of compromises, where
you do something manifestly, no. I have certainly not done anything
illegal. I have never done anything which is immoral.
You described politicians as wretched. When did they become
wretched for you?
The same time when the journalists became wretched. The same
time when the doctors became wretched. The same time when the
scientists became wretched. The same time when the lawyers became
wretched. So they didn't become wretched specially. Today your
journalist is junk, unadulterated junk.
Only journalists? Won't you include others?
The IAS officer is junk. Your police officer is junk. The doctor
is junk. Your engineer is junk. Your lawyer is junk. Your journalist
T N Seshan's photographs by Sanjay Ghosh
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