A senior Indian bureaucrat, posted in India’s largest and most populous state, Uttar Pradesh (UP), is under pressure after calling out politicians who bait Muslims for electoral gains. In the wake of a major riot between Muslims and Hindus in the small town of Kasganj, Raghvendra Vikkram Singh, currently the district magistrate of Bareilly district, expressed his anguish on Facebook. His post sparked furious debate, with many perceiving it as a a veiled criticism of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Patry (BJP), which is in power in UP and federally.
Singh’s stinging criticism came following a riot on Republic Day, which commemorates the adoption of India’s constitution on January 26, 1950. UP is divided into 75 districts for administrative purposes, and Kasganj, some 340km northwest of Lucknow, is the political center of one of those districts.
A preliminary probe has established that the violence, in which a 22-year-old student, Chandan Gupta, was killed, flared when a “Tricolor bike rally” organized by groups affiliated to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, regarded as the BJP’s parent organization, prompted clashes in the Muslim-dominated town. The ralliers are alleged to have raised anti-Pakistan slogans. Over 100 arrests have been made since the weekend.
Singh’s post described a “strange trend.” “To visit Muslim areas and raise slogans against Pakistan. Why? Are the Muslims Pakistanis?,” he wrote in a post that may cost him his own after being interpreted as a veiled accusation that right-wing organizations had deliberately incited communal violence. His implication is that Hindutva elements equate Indian Muslims with Pakistan. Singh deleted his post and quickly tendered an “apology” after it went viral and drew the attention of national media.
Singh’s is not a voice in the wilderness, however. In June last year, worried at the growing intolerance against minorities after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, a number of retired bureaucrats wrote an open letter calling for caution. And earlier in January, 67 retired bureaucrats also issued a joint letter protesting at minorities being targeted and killed by groups enjoying tacit support from Modi’s BJP. These bureaucrats included former Secretaries to the government of India, intelligence and police officials and prominent activists.
UP’s deputy chief minister, Keshav Prasad Maurya, has said action could be taken against Singh over his comments. Rules prohibit government servants from making such remarks on social media. UP’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, is reported also to have been unhappy about Singh’s post.
Singh is a former army officer who served in the Indian Army as a short service commission (SSC) officer. He served in strife-torn Jammu & Kashmir, as well as in Ranchi and Hyderabad, before becoming a civil servant. Hailing from the Bahraich district of UP, he also has a master’s degree in Economics from Gorakhpur University.
Singh’s post also posed another question: “Why not raise slogans against China, which is a bigger enemy?” Pakistan is viewed as an “enemy state,” but India also fought a war against China in 1962 and the latter is seen by many as its principal rival in Asia. Singh appeared to denounce India’s communal politics, in which Muslims are baited but China’s adversarial antics are ignored. He did not respond to requests for comment from Asia Times.
Liberal at heart
It is quite unusual for a bureaucrat to voice his or her views on political issues publicly. However, Singh’s intervention appears to have struck a chord with many of his colleagues. “Our service rules forbid us from making public statements or comments which invite criticism of the government. However, Singh’s post was not of that nature,” says one Indian Administrative Service official.
“He must be lauded for speaking the truth,” is the view of a professor at Lucknow University. “Rather, he is being threatened and victimized.”
In his post, Singh also mentioned an incident in the Khelam area of Bareilly last year, when a group of kanwariyas, or devotees of Lord Shiva, entered a Muslim-dominated village and allegedly raised slogans against Pakistan.
Known for his liberal views, Singh has been a regular Facebook poster, weighing in on various controversial issues, albeit subtly. Topics on which he has commented include Union minister Satyapal Singh’s recent remarks disputing Darwin’s theory of evolution, the controversy around the film Padmavat, Hindutva politics generally and the recent mutiny in India’s Supreme Court.
Singh is also an avid blogger and newspaper columnist. He has written a lot on defense-related issues and about the evils of the caste system in Indian society.
Those who know him say he deleted his post about the riot under pressure. A serving senior bureaucrat told Asia Times on condition of anonymity: “He is known for speaking from his heart. He just explained the modus operandi of the rioters without naming any person or group. His assessment was right. I wish he had stuck to his stand. Instead he chose to change and apologize due to pressure from the government and narrative in the media and social media.”
Rajesh Mishra, the BJP’s Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Bareilly, has gone so far as to demand Singh’s arrest for “maligning the reputation of the government.” Right-wing activists have pounced on Singh and called him a “jihadi.” However, Om Prakash Rajbhar, minister for social welfare in UP’s Yogi government – although he hails from an allied party – has given Singh his support. Muslim leaders have also commended his views. State Congress Leader Virendra Madan called the entire controversy around Singh’s Facebook post a deliberate attempt of the government to divert people’s attention from the Kasganj riot and its own failure in averting bloodshed.