-Rajesh K. Jha
Two news items have recently been hot topics of discussion on the multitude of social media discussion forums of the civil servants of various denominations. Statements and articles by Shah Faesal, the IAS topper from the 2009 batch of civil services (J&K cadre) have created a minor uproar in the closed group circle of civil servants. Some have wondered at the audacity of a civil servant to speak so candidly while others have looked at it as a sacrilegious breach of the civil services conduct rules that bind government servants to a certain code of conduct in private and public. Around the same time came a the news of a DoPT consultation paper on social media which seeks to prohibit civil servants from using social media platforms for expressing their views which could be construed as criticism of the government. This circular too became a topic of hot and heated discussion on the WhatsApp groups, Facebook and other social media channels. While we may leave Shah Faesal’s brilliant article for discussion for a later time, the issue of restriction on the use of social media by government servants for expressing their views raises a number of complex questions which need to be confronted.
The emergence of social media as a primary tool of interaction among people is a fairly new phenomenon. At many levels it has blurred the distinction between what is private and what is public. Every family has now a WhatsApp group to keep in touch with their kith and kin who may be physically separated by long distances. Does a post on such a group qualify as public interaction? Other social media platforms could also be seen in the same light. It can be argued that when a post is made on Facebook, it is potentially available to anyone for seeing and hence it is public. However, if my Facebook setting allows only friends to see my postings or only certain kinds of posts to be seen by certain groups of people, does my post fall in the public domain or private domain?
Very often people share articles and opinions on Facebook and WhatsApp. On twitter, it is a standard disclaimer to say that ‘retweets are not endorsements’. Even if, there is no express disclaimer, sharing of articles or pictures on the social media could very well be for reasons other than endorsement. For example, people may share an article for the reason that it articulates a position brilliantly, even though they may not quite agree with it. I may be impressed by the literary quality of a piece of writing or the technical finesse of a piece of photograph or by the sheer humour or wit of a cartoon or image and share it on social media. It is ridiculous to blame one for sharing of articles or writings espousing a certain view point which could be critical of government policies just because they could be publicly available for viewing by anyone. How is it different, for example, from running a library that contains books of all kinds including some which are critical of the government? Is a government servant to be barred from running that library too since it potentially allows people access to opinions which are critical of government?
The conduct rules for government servants have existed for a long time. It puts certain restrictions on them in expressing themselves from a public platform. The spirit of restrictions on public engagement of the government servants is that they remain apolitical and independent of affiliation with political organisations. However, a large number of government servants wrongly assume that publicly identifying with the party in power and its political and ideological position is fine. These days, we see a new breed of government servants who flaunt their political and ideological affiliations on the social media because it may tally with the current dispensation. Identifying with the ruling party is as much a political act as criticism of the government policy and hence wrong.
Ideally, the civil service is expected to be apolitical which means neither being identified with the party in the power nor being hostile to those which are in opposition at any particular point of time. The only commitment of a civil servant has to be to the constitution of the country and their job is to uphold it at all cost and in all respects. Unfortunately, few civil servants remember this and they presume that their loyalty is only to the political masters of the moment. This injects a serious distortion in the way civil servants function, often compromising on the institutional and constitutional propriety expected of them. It would be interesting to see if the new rules that are in the process of being formulated would take into account this interpretation of engagement on the social media or stick to the rather flawed and limited understanding that civil servants should not criticise the current policies of the government.
Indeed one can argue that social media is a misnomer. In a sense, the social media today is an extension of the private sphere of an individual. It is a part and parcel of an individual’s existence as a social being in so far as it allows him the avenue of interaction with the fellow human beings defined by his professional and other associations. Drawing from the insights offered by Habermas about the concept of ‘public sphere’, it could be said that social media actually represents the collapse of the public sphere into the extended private sphere. It is, in Habermasian term, part of the individual’s ‘lifeworld’ which gives meaning and content to it as a human being. Indeed one can argue that social media is an inalienable part of life, essential for dignity as a human being. Any attempt to abridge it for any group is akin to restrictions on life as a full human being.
A distinction needs to be drawn between the active modes of public expression of one’s views and the passive ones done in a closed circle. In an exaggerated sense, we often hear of people having thousands of friends on the Facebook but for most of the people it is not beyond a few hundred at the maximum, presuming one is very active on the social media. For the vast majority of people, the world of social media is quite limited. Probably it is no bigger than the number of active contact people have in a village set up, over their clan or extended families. On the other hand, publishing an article in a newspaper or on a news-portal or speaking on a television channel or speaking at a political rally could be considered an active channel of expression and public engagement. Reasonable restrictions on government servants in this sphere could have a justification. However, social media channels like WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. are passive and closed channels in a practical sense, even though they may be accessible to wider public and technically universal. To restrict government servants from expressing themselves on these channels, conceptualised as an extension of one’s private space, is neither justified nor practical.
The conduct rules for the government servants putting certain restrictions on them in terms of writing of books, articles or expressing their views from a public platform have existed for a long time. Over a period of time, though, these have become relaxed. We don’t hear about their strict enforcement often. It has been a welcome development keeping with the spirit of the times. While the majority of interaction on these social media channels is devoted to birthday wishes and similar sundry inanities, people also discuss problems related to their service conditions and other burning issues of the times without much inhibition. It provides a useful outlet for anger and frustration even as some innovative and novel ideas are broached in the discussions. Nobody would argue that this has led to any serious breakdown in the functioning of the government at any level. Interactions on social media between government servants could in fact provide an avenue for the government to understand the issues that exercise the minds of its functionaries from top to the bottom.
In an age when the expansion of modes of communication is taking place at a speed that is impossible to anticipate, much less to control, it is naïve to imagine that any set of people can be restricted from interacting and sharing at the level of ideas however uncomfortable these may be to the government. If the government decides to seriously implement the proposed rules on the expanded ambit of restrictions on civil servants expressing themselves on social media, it is nothing less than an attack on a right to live which includes broadest freedom to interact as an individual for a life of dignity. However, if it is intended only as a brainwave of some ‘bureaucrat’ somewhere, these changes would serve no purpose except to add to the thousands of other outdated rules and regulations that continue to remain in the Swamy’s handbook updated from time to time and considered fit for dustbin by most of the government servants.
Both ways, we need to keep our eyes open and mouth shut, perhaps!