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First Stirrings : Rising above caste affiliations

He wanted to be a corporate lawyer, but his essay on ‘Should India go nuclear?’ put Ashok Nath into the civil services

FOR Ashok Nath, the 1966-batch UT-cadre IAS officer, the events started unfolding even before he appeared for the civil services examination. The septuagenarian says he had no intention of getting into the government. He had seen his father, the late Gopeshwar Nath, a Central Secretariat Service (CSS) officer, who lived in World War II barracks opposite Birla Mandir in New Delhi. He was more fascinated by his uncles, who were into the corporate sector and drew better salaries. “I wanted to be a corporate lawyer,” he recounts.

It was sometime in April 1965 that his father, a Director in the Secretariat Training School who would often deliver lectures at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA), Mussoorie, brought the civil services examination form for him. Nath says he filled up the form because he wanted to make his father happy. According to him, his father had sacrificed a lot to educate him, his brother and sister. Alumni of St Columbus, he and his brother graduated from the prestigious St Stephen’s College in Delhi University. He just had a few months to prepare. In August 1965, two months before his exams, the second Indo-Pak war broke out. “There would be blackouts in the city,” he recollects.

He wrote two history papers, two law papers and one public administration paper, but it was his English essay on ‘Should India go nuclear?’ which helped him make the grade. “I scored 80 per cent in the essay,” he remembers, having peppered his essay with quotes of American President John F Kennedy, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and the Latin phrase Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum (if you want peace, prepare for war). After a year’s training at the LBSNAA, he was initially allocated Delhi-Himachal cadre (both Union Territories then). In November 1966, after Himachal Pradesh became a State, he was placed in the AGMUT cadre.

His first posting for district training was in Meerut as Judicial Magistrate (first class). He was in the thick of things soon enough as communal riots broke out in the city. Subsequently, there was labour unrest in Modi Nagar after workers led by Left parties turned violent. The SDM (Sub Divisional Magistrate) ordered police firing and three people were killed. A judicial inquiry was ordered.

Some time later, Meerut Divisional Commissioner SC Singha sent him to oversee the construction of a dam near Dehradun. No sooner did he land there, a workers’ unrest began. Fearing that the strike might lead to flooding of villages, he ordered detention of the workers in a nearby school. Work resumed 20 days later, but when the DM and SP (Superintendent of Police) reached the spot, they gave him a dressing down for workers’ illegal detention.

His next posting was in Delhi in 1968. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, had just nationalised banks. “We would stop anti-nationalisation groups at a distance from the PMO and Parliament and allow pro-nationalisation groups to felicitate the PM,” he recalls.

But the former proved to be smarter than the police and administration. They carried placards displaying pronationalisation slogans in front and anti-nationalisation slogans behind. Once the demonstrators crossed the first police barricade, they reversed the placards. A scuffle ensued. After tear gas failed to stop the demonstrators, a lathicharge was ordered. Socialist leader Madhu Limaye was badly injured. A judicial inquiry was ordered. Nath received ‘breach of privileges’ notices from the Lok Sabha and six State Assemblies whose members were arrested after the violence.

In 1970, he was transferred to Tripura. It was during his tenure that the state bordering Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) witnessed an influx of refugees from Dhaka. A million refugees had arrived, doubling Tripura’s population. As DM, Nath was required to provide succour to the refugees and also keep an eye on the situation across the border.

On March 26, 1971, the East Bengal Regiment declared independence. Once Pakistan attacked India, Nath had to provide local help and build bridges for the Indian Army for a counter-attack from Akhaura, across the Fenny river. He says this was the first time he saw mortar shelling from up close.

From 1973 to 1978, Nath served in the Department of Company Affairs as Under Secretary and Deputy Secretary. He soon realised how the government interfered in appointments and postings in private companies and stifled the Indian economy.

In 1978, he was transferred to Mizoram and served first as Secretary (Public Works Department) and then as DM, Aizawl. For three years, he handled insurgencies and hostilities with the police and paramilitary in tow. During this period, he constantly lived under the shadow of the gun with CRPF personnel guarding his office and residence. In 1982, he did an MSc (Economics) from Wales.

Nath is appalled at the deteriorating stature of the civil services and standards of civil services examinations. He feels that the government, by granting multiple attempts and age extensions, has destroyed the recruitment process

Two years later, in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, he was sent to Chandigarh as adviser to Krishna Banerjee, then Chief Commissioner of the UT. They put the army on alert and arrested a number of Congressmen and averted a backlash in City Beautiful. In 1990, he became the first AGMUT cadre officer to become Joint Secretary (UT) in the Union Home Ministry. Subsequently, he served as Home Secretary in the Delhi Government and clearly remembers how he sent issues related to the Delhi Police to the Lieutenant Governor.

From 1992 to 1996, he served in Arunachal Pradesh as Secretary (Power and PWD). This was the period when he honed his photographic skills by shooting orchids, tribal people and water bodies across the length and breadth of the state. “My work took me from Tawang in the west to Vijaynagar in the east, from Kibithu on the McMahon Line near the Myanmar border to Pasighat in the south,” he recalls. Nath also organized the first orchid festival in the state. He still has 700 slides clicked during his stay in the state. A recent postage stamp carrying an Arunachal tribal girl was based on his photograph.

NATH spent another three years in Delhi (from 1996 to 1999) as Delhi’s Home Secretary. Then he shifted to Goa as Chief Secretary for the next two years. His last posting was Chairman of the Delhi Finance Corporation (DFC) in 2001.

Nath is appalled at the deteriorating stature of the civil services and standards of civil services examinations. “The DM would once be treated like a god. His office had a major role in administration,” he says, adding that the government, by granting multiple attempts and age extensions, has destroyed the recruitment process. “We were allowed two attempts between the ages of 21 and 24. Now you even have married persons training in Mussoorie. If they wish to mould them, they must catch them young,” he advises. Nath discouraged his only son and two daughters from joining the civil services.

The former IAS officer also wants removal of surnames to eradicate caste identification. He never used one and was thus identified with different states at different stages of his career. “The beauty of not having a surname is that in Tripura, they welcomed me as a Bengali, while in Punjab, people treated me as a Punjabi,” reminisces Nath, whose father migrated from Allahabad to Delhi when he was four years old.

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