A Humane Public Servant

- By Prof. Haragopal

I met S.R. Sankaran on 6th October 2010 evening to finalize his programme to release K. Balagopal’s book on the occasion of first endowment lecture to be delivered by Aruna Roy at Warangal on 8th October, the first anniversary of Balagopal. Sankaran was looking forward to this occasion but in the course of more than an hour that I was with him, he did say that he was feeling feverish, and had body pains but assured me that he would be alright. I hardly realized that it was my last meeting with him. We did discuss a number of things including the developments in Chhattisgarh, about kidnap and killing of constables and release of some of them after an appeal from a cross section including revolutionary writer Varavara Rao and formal thanking that the Chief Minister Chhattisgarh conveyed to Vara Vara Rao for the appeal. Sankaran asked me what are the underlying values of this entire episode? This is the question and concern that he had all through his life. It is in this process of continuous search for higher human values and uncompromising practice of those values that his life was woven. During hundreds of hours of interaction and working together with him there was not even a moment where his discussion or practice diluted those values. This was something amazing. One could not escape the feeling that Sankaran humanized his nature and naturalized the human in himself. There are any number of experiences one can cite from Sankaran’s life that are humane and humanizing. He distributed all his earnings all through life to the needy and poor without an iota of expectation from the other. He would tell the poor that the money he was parting was not his personal money so that poor who already burdened with poverty will not have to carry the additional burden of lifelong gratitude. Whenever we were moving in the city he would citeRemembering Sankaran 96 the places where food was available at a very low price! His concern was that whether very poor in Hyderabad could afford the food. This deep concern either for the urban or rural poor for him was so natural a concern that his reflexes were spontaneous. Sankaran, born in a Brahmin family in Tamil Nadu, has overgrown his past to a level where his identification with human beings particularly the suffering was total. The more under privileged the people were, higher was his concern. It is this that made him totally identify with the dalits, tribals, bonded labour, the manual scavengers, orphans and the disabled. He used all his exceptional creative capabilities in their service. This identification was so high that he was at home with them and made them feel at home with him. That perhaps accounts for his simplicity, modesty, low profile and self-effacing interpersonal relations where none felt smaller in his presence. The ease with which he mingled with the ordinary people was as amazing as his exceptional self-respect that he maintained with the privileged and powerful. He pleaded for the cause of the poor with the highest political authorities at the State and National levels. He commanded utmost respect at all levels demonstrating that moral authority that one carries (because of the spotless life style) was able to match, if not surpass, all forms of formal authority. This is the dimension of Sankaran that one of the research scholars in the University of Hyderabad has been probing into.

Sankaran’s moral power was backed by his intellectual capabilities, administrative skills, unfailing memory of the rules, regulations, procedures, laws and several legislations. He was able to recall the detailed provisions of any Act from his memory with an unbelievable ease. His colleagues, superiors, political authorities depended on his advice, support and trusted him to an extent that they would endorse his meticulous notings without, quite often, going through them. For Sankaran, the formal positions that he held at various levels was a trust that the people and the nation reposed in him. He carried that trust with great sanctity. This he did not only when he negotiated with different national agencies, but also international. For instance when he was to negotiate for a loan from Asian Development Bank for power, he refused to sign a MOU which insisted on prior approval of any law that Indian Government would enact on power. He signed only when they dropped this provision. Once he refused to meet a World Bank team as Secretary to Govt. of India when they wanted to see him withoutRemembering Sankaran 97 prior intimation. When higher authorities advised him, he retorted that can an Indian officer walk into World Bank office without prior intimation? This he did with the Indian Army when they entered Tripura without prior intimation to the State authorities. He thought that it was violation of federal arrangement of power and the defense forces had to retreat under the pressure.

This adamant Sankaran was the one into whose office any common man could walk into. He got a standing order issued to the security at Andhra Pradesh secretariat that any poor rural and innocent looking person coming for him be allowed without insisting on any of the procedural rigmarole. When he was the district collector Nellore there was a telling incident that while a well off person was waiting for the collector, an agricultural labourer walked into his office to represent the matter and went out. The well off person questioned Sankaran’s propriety of behaviour. Sankaran told him that waiting for him does not cost much but for a daily wage labourer it means a loss of wage for the day which means going without food for the entire family. Sankaran otherwise was so polite and refined that one cannot imagine that he behaved this way? But it was true.

There can be any number of such instances from his life and work. The firm and determined Sankaran was the same Sankaran who was so kind and compassionate. He carried his mission with courage of conviction and honesty of purpose. This conviction had roots in Indian Constitution and its egalitarian vision: the Indian State has been mandated to carry forward the vision and Sankaran believed as a civil servant that it was this task that he was to carry on. He was so clear in his goals that either the political power or vested interests could hardly obstruct his work and whenever they interfered he educated them, persuaded them, if necessary defied them holding that the constitutional mandate was far superior to all the pragmatic political compulsions and other considerations. He demonstrated beyond any doubt that civil servant can carry on social purpose if only the Weberian legal rational authority backed by the requisite individual moral authority. Having served the Indian people through the State for almost three and half decades, he superannuated and sought no other positions of power. He chose to live in the state of Andhra Pradesh which he served with great pride and dedication. In the early 1990s when heRemembering Sankaran 98 returned to the state after serving as secretary Rural Development, Government of India, the Naxalite movement picked up further momentum and the State not being able to respond to the demands of the movement mounted up lawless violence to contain the movement resulting into spiral of violence and counter violence. Sankaran thought and believed that Naxal movement was a political question and they did represent the aspirations of the poor and deprived. It was his deep concern for the poor that propelled him to carry on another significant experiment of his life. Fortunately for him there were persons with public credibility and a democratic space created by varied social movements, more particularly, the Civil Liberties Movement in Andhra Pradesh. He initiated a series of discussions and consultations with likeminded persons to do something to contain the violence and loss of human life. I feel somewhere his ‘moral power’ was the gravitational force. About fifteen to twenty persons (that included this author) came together to form Committee of Concerned Citizens of which he remained the Convener till he passed away.

It was Sankaran’s concern, high human skills, clarity of purpose and trust that he enjoyed with the State and armed struggle that made the experiment possible. The members of the Committee were from varied backgrounds of different inclinations, persuasions and angularities. He succeeded in carrying all the members through this significant experiment. Not that it was a smooth affair. There were differences of perceptions and opinions, there were lively sometimes serious differences but at the end there was the consensus. There was not even a single instance where members differed with each other publicly. These members together were such a formidable social force that none could have ignored the Committee. The State, society and the movements took the initiative very seriously. The endeavour received open support of all political parties, trade unions, teacher associations, democratic groups and more significantly of the media. This entire experiment involved enormous work, in terms of negotiations, constitutionals and correspondence. He personally carried almost the entire correspondence, public pronouncements and press conferences. I remember how he was willing to go to every news paper offices to hand over the press statements and to personally brief the editors of the News paper officers. This personal visit to each News paper office did matter although I know of instances where we had toRemembering Sankaran 99 wait in waiting rooms for meeting the editors. He used to say in a lighter vein that news paper offices were as good as secretariat bureaucracy! There were several ups and downs in this effort. The first setback was killing of the three top Peoples War leaders with whom some of the members of the Committee spent two full days. This led to the retaliation on Chandrababu Naidu which in turn led to dissolution of State Assembly and preponement of the elections in which the TDP lost the elections. Sankaran was one of the first to cast his vote against the TDP out of sheer moral anger. The 2004 elections were fought on the agenda of peace talks between the Government and the Naxalite parties. The TDP lost and the Congress party that promised peace talks won with an impressive majority.

The Congress Party particularly the enthusiastic Home minister Jana Reddy initiated the steps for peace talks. In a couple of instances when the Home Minister sought help of Sankaran to sort out the issues with the Chief Minister, Sankaran successfully persuaded the CM particularly when the ban on peoples war to be lifted to facilitate their participation in peace dialogue. That was the period when I have seen a very happy and Jubilant Sankaran who was child like- whistling and singing in the kitchen where he used to prepare filter coffee. This happiness did not last long. The peace talks ended prematurely, false encounters came back after eight to nine months to violence free Telangana and loss of human life again began. This had upset Sankaran, he felt personally let down. I personally feel that this was one of the reasons why he declined Padma Bhusan: perhaps he lost respect for the Indian state of which he was a part and lent great legitimacy to its power.

The last act of Sankaran was preparing the final report about the whole episode. He deeply felt that it was moral obligation of the Committee to report the details to people. It was at this stage I was very intimately involved andused to watch Sankaran composing the report hours together on the computer. His linguistic capabilities and his handling of the computer was equally amazing! I used to feel nervous to see his extra ordinary technical skills matching any young IT professional. We prepared the final report and he gave all his savings for printing expenses, in spite of our resistance. He neatly packed each report and personally posted to everybody who he thought mattered in the country. This wasRemembering Sankaran 100 his last public and democratic act. That ‘peace talks’ as a means of reducing the violence and averting loss of human life and bring back politics to central agenda is a part of political development of Indian society. This is no mean achievement of CCC collectively and Sankaran individually. He was not only a significant part of this history but what was able to accomplish something of historical relevance. This experiment will remain a part of not only collective memory of the society but a rich democratic legacy that there is the historic possibility that those carrying on armed struggle could also sit around a discussion table and talk to the rulers. It is an irreparable loss to the Nation that he would not be around for advice, moral support when there is some mention in the air that Govt. of India may initiate peace talks with the Maoists at the National level S.R.Sankaran was a true public servant who did such a yeoman selfless service to the cause of humanization of the state, a state which is otherwise rooted in power, authority and in hierarchy. Thereare other some renouned civil servants who equally rendered valuable service but all those exceptional officers agree that they are no match to Sankaran. This legendry public servant will refresh the memory of future generation that there was one officer in administrative history of India who can be compared with Gandhi both in approach to life and living through every day life for the principles he firmly believed and fearlessly practiced without a compromise even with degeneration of political masters