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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 6, January 26, 2013 - Republic Day Special

A Reluctant Civil Servant!

Saturday 2 February 2013, by D. Bandyopadhyay


Making Sense of Bihar—An Autobiography of a Civil Servant of Bihar by Shree Shankar Sharan; Abhinav Publications, New Delhi; 2012; pages: 426; Price: Rs 500.

If one wanted to read the usual stuff generally contained in the autobiography of a civil servant, where “I” dominates the whole write-up, one would miss it in this book. Witty, simple, humble, self-effacing as he was in his real life, Shree Shankar Sharan in this book reveals more of the contemporary social and political issues of Bihar in the six decades of the post-independence era than the life of a civil servant.

It is subdued witticism that comes out so cogently in the title of the book “Making Sense of Bihar” where caste and the position in society in which one is born determine one’s future. Human beings are often not judged by their intrinsic virtue or merit but basically by their social or caste birth-mark. Talking about the caste feud in Bihar he makes a very perceptive remark about how caste rivalry vitiated the social and economic advancement of Bihar in the post-independence period. He writes:

“But feuding started from the first government after independence between Shree Babu, the Chief Minister, who was strong on administration, and Anugrah Babu, the Finance Minister, who was strong on organisation and humanitarian work of organising relief in distress... An unfortunate caste colour was given to their alleged stressful relationship because hierarchy did not fit with their equal status and image onto which rural biases of their respective caste, Bhumihar and Rajput, against the other were superimposed. The rivalry between its two leaders occasionally seemed fierce....It vitiated the general movement in the State away from the caste system, weakened the rule of merit, distorted the reward and punishment scheme of governance and offered a sanctuary to men of middling competence but a flattering disposition. More seriously, it diverted attention from the advancement of backward classes, which exploded with the Mandal agitation and the birth of OBC politics.” (pp. 406-07)

One cannot but appreciate how succinctly and pithily Shree Shankar Sharan explains the enigma of Bihar which, with all its natural resources and abundant individual human resource talent, succeeded in remaining a “backward State”. Such a critical and objective analysis of the socio-political scenario could only come from a sharp and detached observer, who again—because by birth he belonged to the ruling establishment—had had the opportunity to watch and examine matters from far too close a quarter.

Shree Shankar Sharan was born in a “political family”. Lal Bahadur Shastri was his own maternal uncle (mama). His another uncle was Anugrah Babu who was a redoubtable Finance Minister of Bihar. About his own family he writes: “We came of a patriotic family and wore Khadi, a badge of patriotism.” With his family links with the top-notchers of Bihar politics, it would have been too easy for him to join politics and thrive in that field with the excellent social and family network which mattered. Though he never mentions it in his autobiography, going through the book with interest I had the feeling that in his own sub-conscious mind he missed a possible lively and colourful political life. He provides an explanation for his joining the service: “But while we waited for the future we lived our lives very much as our fathers did. From school to marriage to career, we accepted what they chose for us. They were usually wise, but we did not learn to make choices. A new conforming generation was growing up.” (p.47)

This passage clearly points to his hidden regret for not having been able to make his own choice of career.

SHREE SHANKAR SHARAN and I belonged to the 1955 batch of the IAS. During the training period we came close. But in our careers we drifted apart because we were sent to different States and our deputation periods in Delhi did not coicide. However, after our retirement from the service we again came close because of some of our common pursuits.

I immensely enjoyed Shree Shankar Sharan’s thumb-nail sketches of some of our batchmates in our training school at the Metcalf House in New Delhi (1955-56). For the benefit of our batchmate friends who might read this piece without going through the book, I would like to quote a few sentences from his autobiography.

“Some wrote poetry like Vinode Pandey. Some romanced like Singla. Some excelled in debates like myself. Some polished their tennis like Malti Tambe. Some made wise and at times brilliant comments like Guhan, the topper in the IAS examination, some kept aloof like Seshan. Some impressed with their polish like Tandon or their eloquence like R. Srinivasan. Some bubbled with boyish charm like K. Srinivasan or looked perpetually unsure like Bandyopadhyaye. It was a motley crowd that grew over each other in course of a year. In the race for performance, surprisingly, it was the unsure Bandyopadhyaye who outdid everybody else. His amendment to the Bengal Tenancy Act presume possession of bargadars, undertenants, on land they tilled, without a written document or proof, by shifting the burden of proof on tenants. The other to have made a niche in history was Seshan as Chief Election Commissioner. He broke out of his official skin, which was nothing to write home about, to become a domineering, feared and respected CEC who set down rules of do-s and don’t-s for political parties during election campaigns, which are still followed. Guhan resigned to join the Institute of Development in Chennai and became a respected name in the elite circles while R. Srinivasan was elected as the President of the WHO (World Health Organisation) and later promoted medical ethics. I kicked up a storm by seeking voluntary retirement and making a debut in politics in the Janata Dal. But I discovered that my nature lay in withdrawing from the rat race of power politics to turn into a political thinker, commentator and crusader for values and ethics in politics by frequent interactions with the people.”

At last Shree Shankar Sharan found out what he was cut out for which the not-too-friendly social and family ambience in his early life prevented him from doing.

This book is remarkable for protraying and analysing the intricacies of casteism which dominates the life and living of the elites of Bihar. He has tried to unravel the enigma of Bihar wrapped in a riddle to the serious students of social science. Bihar seems to defy Marx. Here caste dominates class. Manu still seems to rule refuting class struggle.

One has to read through this book to properly appreciate the sarcasm embedded in the title.

Architect of ‘Operation Barga’ during the Left Front Government in West Bengal, the author was Secretary (Rural Development) and Secretary (Revenue) in the Union Government. Now retired, he is currently a Member of the Rajya Sabha representing the Trinamul Congress.

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