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Tale of raw injustice on R&AW's 11th floor
A Rediff Correspondent
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August 23, 2008

One read with a surreal feeling reports about the attempt by Nisha Bhatia, a directly-recruited officer in the research and analysis service of the Research & Analysis Wing, to commit suicide in the reception of the Prime Minister's Office while waiting for an appointment with a PMO official to once again ventilate her grievances against some R&AW officers.

Her grievances related to the behaviour of some officers towards her, including the joint secretary under whom she was working, and other senior officers. It is reported that she also had other grievances about being denied another foreign posting.

According to sources in R&AW, this was the second time she was trying to air her grievances to the PMO. She had done so earlier this year following which a committee comprising three women officers -- a retired Indian Foreign Service officer now working on re-appointment in the National Security Council Secretariat, an IPS officer of the Karnataka cadre of joint secretary rank in the R&AW, and a research scholar of a New Delhi [Images] think-tank working in the NSCS -- was reportedly constituted to go into Nisha's grievances.

Nisha apparently had no confidence in this committee and hence reportedly refused to testify before it. The committee passed an ex-parte order, rejecting her allegations against some of her colleagues and concluding that she had psychiatric problems for which she should seek counselling. The committee came to this conclusion purely on the basis of R&AW's allegations against her without any independent corroboration.

It is unclear from media reports whether the committee took the following steps:

  1. Interviewing former chiefs of the R&AW and other senior retired officers under whom she had worked in order to find out whether they noticed any abnormality in her behaviour.
  2. Asking the R&AW in writing as to why it was not holding a formal departmental proceeding against her on specific charges by recording evidence against her in respect of each charge, giving her an opportunity to defend herself and removing her from service if the charges were proved.
  3. Why was it seemingly avoiding a formal departmental enquiry as laid down by the government for such cases and why is it trying to have her condemned as a mental case instead?
  4. Suggesting to the R&AW that it should post her under another joint secretary and ask him to report on her work and conduct after a year, and keeping the enquiry against her pending till then.

Sources claim that if the committee had taken these steps, it would have strictly abided by the rules of natural justice. If it had not done so, it had let itself appear as an accomplice of R&AW in having her condemned as a mental case.

From the press note issued on behalf of the Cabinet Secretariat after her attempt to commit suicide, it would seem that after the committee reported that Nisha needed psychiatric counselling, the R&AW ordered her to appear before a psychiatrist of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences for an examination. She declined.

Thereupon, the AIIMS psychiatrist too passed an ex-parte order that she seemed to be a mental case, on the basis of the allegations made by the R&AW against her, without independently verifying them.

This is evident from the following sentence in the press release: 'Based on examination of reports of her erratic behaviour, a senior medical officer of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences opined the presence of a psychiatric illness in her and advised psychiatric opinion to assess her condition. Ms Bhatia was advised to go for medical counselling, which she refused.'

Nisha wanted to know under what provision of the law the R&AW ordered her to appear before a psychiatrist. What were the details of the misconduct, which made R&AW conclude that she was prima facie a mental case requiring examination by a psychiatrist?

These are spelt out in the press release. To quote: 'Unauthorised communication and contact with media, insubordination, misbehaviour, abuse of authority and sending of objectionable and offensive SMSs to senior officials of the government.'

A retired officer of R&AW said, "The copy of the press release is not only anti-woman, but also unethical. One would have called it unethical even if the person targeted was a man and not a woman. Did it ever strike the committee of three women officers and the R&AW that projecting her in public as a mental case would tend to damage her image not only in the eyes of the public and her colleagues, but also in the eyes of her children and other members of her family?"

"How would the hearts of Nisha's children and other relatives bleed when they find her being described in the manner she has been in the press release," he asked.

If a government department in any Western country had projected a public servant as a mental case in a press release and if that public servant or his or her relatives had filed a suit in a court, the court would have awarded millions of dollars in damages.

There have been other instances of government servants committing or attempting suicide. The government treats such cases with sensitivity and does not rush to the press with a detailed press release.

In Nisha's case, within a few hours of her attempting to kill herself, the Press Information Office, at the apparent urging of the R&AW, issued a detailed press release seeking to demonise and damn her. This is a blatant attempt to pre-empt any public criticism by projecting her in negative colours, say Nisha's sympathisers.

"One understands that there were ups and downs in Nisha's personal life in the late 1990s, which did cast a shadow on her career. Despite this, she maintained her composure and was given an important foreign posting," says her former colleague.

After her return to the headquarters, she was posted as the head of the training division of the R&AW with the rank of a director, which is one rank below that of joint secretary.

When Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, the government had laid down that only very capable officers, who could act as role models for young trainees, should be posted as heads of training institutions. They were also given additional emoluments of 30 per cent in order to encourage good officers agree to head training institutions.

The very fact that Nisha was chosen as the director (training) in 2003 showed that she had a good record and was viewed as a good role model for young trainees.

What happened subsequently that she allegedly became a mental case as projected by the R&AW? If she had really become a mental case, how come it continued to keep her as the head of the training division at the risk of her becoming a bad role model? Did the committee of three women officers address these questions?

The bane of the R&AW since its inception has been its poor man management.

Successive chiefs and other senior officers have been living in an ivory tower of their own, inaccessible to junior officers and unsympathetic to their problems and grievances.

Junior officers of the R&AW call this the 11th floor mentality. The secretary (R), his two special secretaries and the officer dealing with secret service funds sit on this floor. All important decisions regarding promotions, foreign postings and foreign travels are taken on this floor.

One R&AW chief even introduced two identity cards for his staff -- one for entering the office and another for going to the 11th floor. Only a very small group of the specially privileged had access to the 11th floor. Fortunately, the second identity card was abolished when that chief retired.

Over the years, there has been a serious mental divide between the senior officers and the rest, resulting in a lack of staff harmony, espirit de corps and camaraderie. These are qualities which one finds everywhere in the Intelligence Bureau, but not in R&AW. That is why there are more negative stories about the R&AW in the media than about the IB.

There was an instance some years ago in which a Sikh officer with a very good record complained about being overlooked for an important foreign posting for which he was eminently qualified. When the cabinet secretary asked as to why he was not considered, the 11th floor, without batting an eyelid, told him that he was a suspected Khalistani sympathiser without an iota of evidence.

It did not occur to anyone in the PMO and the cabinet secretariat to ask the head to show the evidence on the basis of which it had concluded that he was a Khalistani sympathiser. Now an attempt seems to have been made to project Nisha as a mental case when she repeatedly protested about her not being considered for another foreign posting.

It is said that when A S Dulat from the IB was posted as head of the R&AW for a short period from November 1999 to January 2001, he introduced the IB culture of easy interactions between senior and junior officers, greater accessibility to the chief for junior officers and greater sympathy and sensitivity in dealing with the grievances of junior officers.

After his superannuation, the organisation is back to its old ways.

The time has come to post another IB officer as the head of R&AW to professionalise and humanise its man management practices.

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