The net trap


Thiruvananthapuram: The last reported case of a Government servant being terminated from service for merely enjoying a cartoon happened in 1942, in Germany during Hitler’s time. An official of the Reich Chancellory, Adolf Hitler’s seat of power, was summarily dismissed after the Gestapo reported that he was found giggling while reading an underground Jew pamphlet that carried a derogatory cartoon on the Fuhrer. 
Seven decades later a similar fate has befallen Premanand, an office attendant at the Secretariat, Oommen Chandy’s seat of power. He did on Facebook the equivalent of what the Reich Chancellory official did while reading the forbidden pamphlet.
Premanand ‘liked’ a cartoon criticizing Oommen Chandy in the solar scam; in Gestapo jargon “kicherte er” (he giggled). But neither did he make a Facebook comment nor shared the post. But two days later, on June 29, he was issued a suspension order.
Premanand was not alone. Chandraprasad, an assistant in the Law Department, too was suspended for the same crime: for merely giggling, for ‘liking’ another Facebook post that poked fun at the Chief Minister in the solar scam.
Early this month, a deputy chief engineer of KSEB, R. Suku, was suspended for a relatively larger crime: He gave an allegedly derogatory caption for a picture showing Oommen Chandy and former aide (clerk) Tenny Joppan astride a bicycle. Since neither the Government nor any of its offices have a system to monitor the social networking behavior of its employees, suspensions were based on complaints filed by ‘Facebook friends’. 
By the time the complaint against Suku reached the KSEB chairman, he already had a precedent. “My decision was not extraordinary as the Chief Secretary himself had recently suspended a last grade employee for just liking a comment which was anti-government.
Compared to the act of the office assistant, what the engineer did was extremely grave,” KSEB chairman M. Sivasankar said. The Chief Secretary, too, had a precedent. In May 2011, right after the UDF came to power the Police Department suspended a circle inspector for allegedly sharing a video on the Lokpal Bill. The video in question was a BBC clip titled ‘Why Congress Won’t Pass the Lokpal Bill’.
The incident also provoked the Police Department to come up with a circular warning against anti-government posturing in social networking sites. Mid- June, a civil police officer in the Armed Reserve Camp, Balajith Balu, was suspended for creating posts damning the Chief Minister in the solar scam.
The official stand is that the employees had violated Kerala Government Servants Conduct Rules 1960. The Rule states that no government servant should utter anything that could wreck the Government’s relationship with the people. The Facebook behavior of the suspended men has been interpreted as stealthy ways to portray the government in a poor light.
“Sharing a Facebook post is not treason,” former finance minister Dr T.M. Tho­­mas Isaac said. “And just because they are government employees does not mean that they have forgone their fundamental rights,” he said.
Kerala Secretariat Employees Association general secretary S.U. Rajiv argued that the Rules had prohibited only their joining political parties, not from holding political opinions. “If that was the case we should also be stripped of our voting rights,” Rajiv said.
The Supreme Court, too, had similar views. In a 1985 ruling, it said: “No authority is entitled to treat the exercise of the fundamental right of freedom of speech by a citizen as misconduct and deal with its employee for the misconduct of the exercise of fundamental freedom of speech and expression assured by Article 19 (1) of the Constitution of India.”
The present overzealousness of the Government looks a bit out of place. Former top bureaucrats like C.P. Nair and K.K. Vijayakumar, who had helmed the General Administration Department for extended periods, have no recollection of having ever invoked the Government Servants Conduct Rules. It was not as if the rules were not violated during their period.
Rules 60 and 61, which prohibit government servants from criticizing the government in public, were especially thrown to the winds. “What do you think service organization leaders were doing all these years when they stage their public meetings,” Isaac asked.
Former chief secretary C.P. Nair offers that the current crackdown could be a preventive move. “They might be trying to smother an incipient anti-government sentiment before it could break out into a riot of indiscipline,” he said.
Such a strategy, Thomas Isaac warns, could be suicidal. “What if the thousands of government servants decide to like and share the very same posts that had invited suspension? Is the Chandy government going to suspend all these employees?”

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