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Insights into Editorial: Steel frame or steel cage?

Insights into Editorial: Steel frame or steel cage?


Shah Faesal (35), who topped the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) examination in 2010, resigned from the government services.

He resigned from the government services, citing marginalization and invisiblization of around 200 million Indian Muslims at the hands of Hindutva as a reason.

His letter of resignation demonstrates his anguish over the pain Kashmir has experienced over the recent past.

Apparently, he feels that as a civil servant, he feels constrained to express his views.

He said the current regime’s subversion of public institutions such as RBI, CBI and NIA has the potential to decimate the constitutional edifice of this country and it needs to be stopped.



Duties of an IAS officer changing from Colonial times:

  • A district collector was seen as a meritorious monarch. He was the custodian of law and order. That was a key role in the colonial order.


  • Its cultural residues have persisted to the present times, and the status of the district collector in some States, the district magistrate or DM comes largely from his or her responsibility to maintain law and order.


  • Following Independence, the IAS acquired a nation-building tinge in its earlier colonial role (as the Indian Civil Service as it was then called).


  • From the local to the national levels, the IAS was seen as providing the firm and stable frame that India needed to overcome what were often described as ‘fissiparous’ tendencies in society.
  • The addition of a nationalist lustre to an otherwise unchanged status gathered yet another layer when nation-building extended to a ‘development’ agenda.


  • As a learned decision-maker, the civil servant was supposed to lend objectivity to the elected politician’s agenda and wishes.


  • This function made an impact on the lure of the civil service as a career. Success in the IAS examination was now seen as bringing the power to ‘do something’ for the larger good, and not merely as a conduit of personal security and comfortable life-style.



Mr. Faesal’s resignation: Marker of change:

  • Faesal’s decision to resign from the IAS after a short stint in it marks yet another stage in the change of perceptions.


  • He is not the first to mark this change. Young entrants to the IAS have been known to resign early for social causes or academic careers.
  • In each case, early abandonment continues to signify an act of renunciation for the pursuit of an ideal.


  • Such examples have indicated the rising perception that the IAS officer’s power is much too constrained, especially by those wielding political power.


  • Shah Faesal’s resignation tells us how the power to ‘do something’ now belongs exclusively to the politician.


IAS: the “Steel Frame” of India’s government machinery:

Sardar Patel famously called the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) the “steel frame” of India’s government machinery.

He, and many others, viewed the IAS as the solid foundation upon which the rest of the bureaucracy rested, a bastion of the nation’s best and brightest providing unfailing support to others in government.

To this day, even with vastly increased opportunities in the private sector, the IAS continues to attract India’s best and brightest.

Yet, despite the exceptional talent within the IAS, the institution no longer serves the greater interest of the country. Instead, there are reasons to believe that it might be hampering the country’s development.


Respect through merit:

Before Independence, and for a while after it, competing for entry into the IAS was motivated by the urge to seek status in society.

An open contest based on success in an academic examination presented the attraction of gaining social respect through merit.

The status that accrued to an officer was associated with the authority he had to exercise state power.

In those days, official power had few political constraints, especially at the local level.


A ‘syndrome’ which Costs Heavy Price:

  • Not only schools, even community functions organised on religious festivals are similarly adorned.


  • If the organisers cannot get hold of someone in service or politics at present, they go for someone retired. By the time they are in secondary grades, children absorb the message that a worthwhile life can only be led by gaining public importance.


  • Many children begin to feel that their best chance to make their parents happy is by doing things that bring fame and importance.


  • For doing this, there are more choices today, but the range continues to be narrow and the preferred ones are those with the biggest crowd at the entry.


  • The lure of competitive tests like the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) and the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) throws light on this cultural phenomenon.


Where is the Problem lies in exhibiting Excellence in other fields?

The civil services remain a big draw as the vast clientele of commercial coaching demonstrates. Probability of success is understandably low, and that is precisely what drives the coaching industry to ever increasing rates of growth and fee.

It is only after failing to make it into the highest civil services that students look towards other avenues. The same is true of tests in engineering and medicine.

It is only after failing to get into these professions that the young consider pursuing a career in other areas.

The experience of failure leaves its psychological scab on many young minds. They continue to feel, for a long time, that they could have ‘become’ someone important.

A touching story in this genre is of a schoolteacher who never went back to meet his favourite teacher. He said, ‘How could I tell my teacher that I could only become a teacher?’



Reforming the IAS will not be easy. The IAS is possibly the most powerful professional association in the country and will likely be resistant to any reform that encroaches on its authority.

Over the long term, improving the civil service will have a much larger effect than any specific policy reform.

As a society, we obviously pay a high price for maintaining this syndrome. If only an IAS or a political leader is perceived as having the capacity to ‘do something’, the rest can only carry out inconsequential routines.

It is a socially shared mystery.

In the case of Mr. Shah Faesal, it seems to be somewhat clear. His letter of resignation from the IAS can be read as an expression of his urge to alleviate the pain of Kashmir. He feels he can do it by joining politics. Let us hope he succeeds.