The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, April 1, 2001

Rituals that make mice of lions
By K.K. Khullar

WHEN an under secretary to the Government of India laughed aloud at some witty remark of the secretary, while the two senior officers present there were still trying to unfathom the depth of the secretary’s wit, he hardly realised that he had not only broken the iron rule of seniority in the government but had also violated the provisions of Rule 3 of the Central Civil Services Conduct Rules 1964 as amended from time to time.

While the rule of seniority stipulated that he should have laughed through proper channel, that is after the joint secretary and the deputy secretary had laughed, the Conduct Rule enjoined all government servants to conduct themselves in a ‘becoming’ manner. By the afternoon, he was served with a memo which said that officers are supposed to be circumspect in speech and avoid hilarity in their behaviour.

With a memo in his hand, he tried to meet the secretary who he thought had a sense of humour and whose joke he had appreciated. The PA to the secretary told him that the secretary was a great disciplinarian and would expect him to come through proper channel. Thereupon, he made a written submission addressed to the minister. The PS to the minister wrote on the PUC (paper under consideration) that it should be routed through official channel. Feeling helpless and frustrated he thought that the best thing, to do under the circumstances, was to do nothing.


The long and the short of the episode is that he was let off with an advice that he should be civil in speech and avoid levity in behaviour. The moral is that once your senior has laughed, you can follow suit even with retrospective effect. But the caution is that you should not laugh with the wrong side of the mouth. Within the bounds of seniority, ladies are allowed to laugh even in their sleeves although these days they have forsaken them. In governmental language, the officer was let off with a non-recordable warning.

The rule of seniority asserts itself in all spheres. It is all-embracing, applies at all times, in all places and in all situations, in all governmental functions, including working lunches. No one can dare fill his plate unless his senior has done it. No one can even finish his food before his senior finishes his. Even if he has finished eating he must pretend to eat. If there is no food in the plate, he should pretend to eat the plate. The tyranny of seniority in government is carried even to the wives. A senior officer’s wife is senior to the next junior officer’s wife, even though she may be younger in age.

In the context of toilets, the rule of seniority acquires new dimensions. When an officer goes there to discharge his responsibility, he has to look to his right and left. It is said that during this process, when an officer discovered that the man behind him was his own senior officer he made a hasty retreat and said: "Sir, after you". I have no doubt that this must have created a very good impression on the senior officer and resulted in a good CR.

CR means a Confidential Report. Today it is called Performance Appraisal. It is written annually on every official by his or her higher officer called the Reporting Officer. A good confidential report can change the course of many lives dependent on it. And so can a bad one. It can make or mar many careers. To gain a proper kind of CR, its possible recipients become extra-cautious in November, extra-courteous in December, extra-cordial in January and without identity in February or till such date the CR has been reported, reviewed, graded, sealed, dispatched and filed in the dossier.

The ritual is performed every year since the year of Lord Macaulay. The ritual is rehearsed every year by millions of state and central government servants. There are government officials who live merely to gain a good CR. There are others who die for it. The remaining live and die simultaneously till this deadly drill is over and the deadly document is safely buried in its proper place. "Let my CR be out, I will teach him a lesson", declared an official whom the senior had badly mauled on a petty mistake he had committed in procedure.

Seniority is not just your number in the seniority list and CR not just another document. Both are dreaded and both have made a mouse of many a lion. So, the other day, when speaking on merit-rating and delegation of authority, when I stated that the principle in the government is: "Delegation upto me, not below me", a participant in the workshop asked me: ‘Khullar Saab, with all these rules and regulations, how did you survive in the government’?

I didn’t survive’, I replied: ‘I was superseded’.

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