Image via Dawn

There is a popular saying amongst the Tamils, “even if one grazes chicken (which is really a non existent work), it should be grazed in the government”.  Employment in the government sector is coveted for the respect it commands in society and the social security it provides to the individual in terms of permanency and pension benefits. There are other economic and social benefits as well. From the peon to the level of the director, all government employees who are bachelors are able to bargain bigger dowry packages for themselves. Parents who are government officers enjoy a concealed advantage in getting admission in to reputed schools for their children. Perhaps that is why we see the strange contradiction of even the most militant Pongu Thamil and lamp lighting great heroes day student activists, after passing out of their Universities, engage in fast unto death struggles to obtain appointments under the very same government they opposed while in the University! Not only do they gain employment, but also fully imbibe the latent culture of our bureaucracy and turn in to docile servants of their  political masters. These bureaucrats are so much part of our social fabric, in a position to be able to decisively influence community life around them, and we hardly notice them or write about them.

Bureaucracy predates the modern era, of course, but it was not until the late 18th and early 19th centuries that bureaucracy as we currently understand it was established mainly in Europe, and then introduced to other countries through colonial rule. The modern Nation-State required a new mode of power that was capable of managing the increasingly complex task of disciplining society. Foucault argues that the conjuncture of urbanization, a ‘floating population’ (the masses were no longer firmly fixed to feudal estates), and an enormous increase in the scale of the number of people to be supervised or manipulated, necessitated development of disciplinary methods. Furthermore, mass production and rationalization of the economy also required more complex management processes. For the old order, violence, or the threat thereof was the tool used when exercising power. This was costly in a political and economic sense, and more importantly was insufficient to the task. Bringing a rational-legal authority, bureaucracy achieved the same, but now with greater ease. The ascendancy of disciplines in governance and bureaucratic institutions can be seen as a profound shift in how power was wielded.

The theory put forward by Foucault saw its culmination in the Nazi regime in Germany. Coupling legislations with administrative procedures, the Nazi bureaucracy carried out surveillance, documentation, detention and extermination of all marginalized sections of society, including the Jews. True, they did not formulate those policies, but implemented them effectively. Because of this they were named as the “Middle Managers of Murder”.  This finally put to rest other theories that romanticized the modern bureaucracy as an alternative to earlier forms of despotic and aristocratic dominance. Some did argue that because the German bureaucrats shared the values of anti-semitism of their rulers, this was made possible. But after observing the role played by the native bureaucrats within the colonial administrations of the 19th and 20th centuries, it was realized that it was also possible for a  bureaucracy to go against the very interests of its  own class or nationality. In India, for instance, the participation of the several lakhs strong bureaucrats in a non cooperation movement would have got the British Raj packing and returning in a matter of weeks. Instead, not only did they uphold the regime, but also were the principal propagators of the ideology of the supremacy of the colonial masters. They were actually described at that time as the ‘steel frame of the British Empire’.

In the post colonial world, other challenges confronted the masses. The rise of the Nation-State, which at all times “seeks to homogenize its population  in order to consolidate its power”, posed new problems for minority Nations, and governance in general.  Here also, the discriminatory policies in sharing of resources and opportunities, changing demography through State sponsored colonization schemes and  land alienation policies, all were implemented by the bureaucracy. In most cases, by a bureaucracy belonging to the group that was being systematically marginalized and annihilated. This universal characteristic is all the more apparent in the Tamil speaking areas of the North and East in Sri Lanka. There, no writ could be carried out without the collaboration of the Tamil and Muslim bureaucrats. They are the cogs of the machinery that constantly undermines the authority of the Provincial and Local Councils;  they withhold vital information from the people, information that could propel action for justice; they throttle NGOs and Civil Society organizations, which are in the final analysis, the only challenge to the burgeoning power of the State; and indulge in corrupt practices even in extreme situations of managing welfare centers of the Vanni refugees. The most frustrating element is, in the context of the communities that have been seriously affected by a 30 year war, the callousness  displayed by them in utilizing the available resources for development of the people. It is rare to find a government department that utilizes all the allocated funds for the year and does not return them to the Treasury. When an officer is put on the Mat for disobeying (rightly but) to an order of a politician, no solidarity is demonstrated or even expressed by the others of the clan.

Alright, we know the arguments on the other side. “If I don’t tow the line my job is gone and another replaces me”, “Who will look after my family if I lose my job?”, and so on. While describing the reality, these statements also allude to the imperative need   to restore the dignity of the profession of the public service. Does it suffice to remain as servants of their political masters life long? Is it fulfillment enough?  It is time that those in the public service began to re- envision their structure and role.  And an opportunity to do so in an environment of reduced risk has been provided by the LLRC. It speaks of the intense politicization of the bureaucracy and a whole host of other issues pertaining to reconciliation and reconstruction processes.  It might be useful to activate the Trade Unions of the higher level officers which facilitate meetings to discuss the recommendations of the LLRC, mapping the constraints faced in the implementation from their point of view. The conclusions of these discussions could form the basis of a possible negotiation process with the head of State and other stakeholders. The aim here is to create a bureaucracy that abides by a general code of ethics that is formulated on the basis of Universal Human rights, and is autonomous in that sense. At the minimum, this discussion amongst fellow comrades could bring forth new awareness on their own identity and institutional relationships.

The growth of the present form of bureaucracy was in conjunction with the transition from Monarchy to a Capitalist Democracy. Its “up focused” and “impersonal” attributes are a reflection of this history. In the 21st century, with the Arab Spring and Occupy movements of the world and the advent of new strands of the ideology of democracy, this form and structure is bound to change. However, the question is whether to wait for those change to occur, or, be the architects of that change. Bureaucrats also have social responsibilities which they have to carry, lest they be called “Middle Managers of Ethnic Cleansing” at a later date.