Social media clashes hit India’s civil servants

By on 06/03/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Careful what you tweet: social media clashes are prompting calls for changes to the rules in India (Image courtesy: Cherishsantosh).

As India’s public debate moves online, civil servants are running up against the ‘Service Rules’ that govern their participation – prompting calls for the Rules to adapt to the digital age. Abhimanyu Kumar reports

As India’s boisterous, energetic public debate moves onto social media, the ‘Service Rules’ that constrain public officials’ freedom of speech are coming under ever greater pressure – prompting a reaction from a national government which is both tech-savvy, and more sensitive to criticism than its predecessors.

The issue has come into the spotlight after Shah Faesal, the director of education in Kashmir – and the top scorer in his year’s Indian Administrative Service (IAS) entrance exams – resigned after he was censured for criticising aspects of Indian culture, including calling the country “Rapistan” for its high levels of sexual violence.

As Outlook India reported last year, “Faesal found himself in trouble when the government sent a notice to him for his tweet on rapes in India. Offended by the tweet, the Department of Personnel and Training [DoPT] forwarded a copy of communication along with enclosures in which several references were made to the IAS officer’s tweets saying the tweets are ‘prima facie in contravention of the extent provision of the All India Service (Conduct Rules) 1968, All India Services (Discipline and Appeal) Rules, 1969.’”

Feeding the fire

Faesal quit, and has since prompted further controversy – this week praising Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan. Now apparently becoming a professional media thorn in the side of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, Faesal’s trajectory shows the risks presented both by civil servants’ participation in social media – and of the government reacting aggressively to online criticism.

The Service Rules which Faesel was deemed to have breached haven’t been adapted to the digital world, but their principles are transferrable: civil servants may say publicly what is on their mind, but they can’t criticise any policy of the central government or make comments which might damage its relationship with state governments or foreign countries.  

Prime minister Narendra Modi has said clearly that officials are free to use social media – but the Service Rules apply in full, a senior official in the Department of Personnel and Training – the cadre-controlling authority of the IAS – told Global Government Forum.

“They are free to use social media to promote the work of the government and its policies, even their own contribution in implementing them. But no criticism of the government and its policies is allowed,” said the Delhi-based official.

Don’t cross the line

Faesal isn’t the only official to have come a cropper. A civil servant from Uttar Pradesh, a large North Indian state, found himself in trouble after criticising the majority community for starting riots. He was publicly reprimanded by the ruling BJP’s deputy chief minister in the state.

Speaking to Global Government Forum , former civil servant and commentator Avay Shukla said that social media certainly has the potential to aid public servants in their work – not only for promotional activities, but also as a “grievance redressal” mechanism.

However, he warned that social media should not be used for “self-promotion… self-publicity or airing of personal views, as many bureaucrats do. The idea of garnering maximum number of ‘followers’ is, to my mind, not a legitimate use of social media.”

Expressing disapproval of certain remarks made by Faesal, Shukla argued for updates to the regulation of civil servants’ social media use. “There is a need to revise or update the Conduct Rules, which were made when there was no social media,” he said. “The revised rules should lay down the permissible uses of social media by a government servant and the limits which need to be adhered to by them.

“The distinction between official and personal accounts should be addressed, but the basic Conduct Rules should also be applicable to the latter. A bureaucrat does not cease to represent the government even when he is using his personal account, and should therefore exercise restraint even in that.”

About Abhimanyu Kumar

Abhimanyu Kumar is a journalist based in New Delhi, India. He writes on issues related to politics and governance for Indian and foreign media. He was previously with The Hindu and The Sunday Guardian.

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