Iron-Fist To ‘False Complaints’: J&K Circular Tightens Screws On Complaints Against Officials And Media Scrutiny

A circular ostensibly aimed at protecting ‘honest officials from harassment’ recommends punitive action under 182 of IPC and section 195(1)(a) of CrPC against whistleblowers and media

JAMMU/SRINAGAR: In a controversial move that critics are calling an attempt to curtail accountability of bureaucrats and officers in Jammu and Kashmir, the administration has issued a new circular aimed at cracking down on what it terms “false” complaints against public servants.

This development comes at a time when the region’s administration is virtually run by bureaucrats, who have become increasingly powerful in the absence of a political dispensation, delayed elections, and the ongoing disenfranchisement of the local population.

The General Administration Department (Vigilance) of Jammu and Kashmir issued Circular No. 14-JK(GAD) of 2024 on June 20, 2024, outlining measures to deal with complaints against public servants. The circular, while ostensibly aimed at protecting honest officials from harassment, has raised concerns about its potential to shield corrupt practices and further insulate the bureaucracy from public scrutiny.

Under the new guidelines, authorities can pursue prosecution under section 182 of the Indian Penal Code against individuals deemed to have filed false complaints. Additionally, they can initiate prosecution under section 195(1)(a) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, based on complaints filed with the court by appropriate authorities.

These measures significantly raise the stakes for citizens considering filing complaints against officials, potentially deterring not just false accusations but also legitimate grievances.

Secondly, and perhaps more controversially, the circular recommends punitive actions against media publications. It promises institutional support to officers for conducting inquiries into cases involving publications. If found complicit in spreading false information, the circular suggests taking action against these publications. This could include reporting them to the Press Council of India, cancelling their accreditation, and stopping government advertisements.

These measures pose a significant threat to press freedom in the region where critical voices and journalism, which aim to hold the administration accountable, have already been potentially silenced.

The circular justifies these measures by citing an alleged increase in false, frivolous, anonymous, and pseudonymous complaints against public servants. It claims that such complaints cause unwarranted harassment and mental agony to officials, affecting their decision-making abilities and causing administrative inertia.

However, civil society activists, though anonymously, argue that this move is a thinly veiled attempt to silence dissent and protect an increasingly unaccountable bureaucracy. With the absence of an elected government and the postponement of elections, bureaucrats have assumed unprecedented power in the region’s governance. Critics argue that this circular will further entrench their authority and make it more difficult for citizens to voice legitimate grievances against corrupt or inefficient officials.

The timing of this circular is particularly contentious, given the ongoing political vacuum in Jammu and Kashmir. Since the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, the region has been under direct central administration, with key decisions being made by appointed bureaucrats rather than elected representatives. This has led to growing concerns about the lack of democratic accountability and the erosion of local autonomy.

Activists have expressed alarm at the potential misuse of these new provisions. They argue that the threat of prosecution could deter whistleblowers and conscientious citizens from reporting genuine cases of corruption or misconduct, effectively creating a chilling effect on accountability measures.

“It has turned the basic principle of accountability in a democracy on its head,” stated an activist. “Instead of making the administration responsible to the citizens, it seeks to provide the officers and bureaucracy an impunity. It also threatens the whistleblowers,” he said.

As the administration moves to implement these new guidelines, questions remain about their impact on transparency, good governance, and the already strained relationship between the bureaucracy and the public in Jammu and Kashmir. With elections still on hold and political activities restricted, this latest move is seen by many as another step towards centralising power in the hands of an unelected bureaucratic elite, further alienating the local population from the governance process.

The circular, issued by the Government of Jammu and Kashmir’s General Administration Department (Vigilance), provides more extensive details about the handling of complaints against public servants. It acknowledges that despite previously issued instructions aimed at balancing good governance with protection for public servants, cases of undue harassment through false complaints are reportedly on the rise.

The order emphasizes that many complaints, after verification, are without merit. However, the process of investigating these complaints has led to “unwarranted harassment and mental anguish for public servants who are performing their duties in good faith”. This situation, according to the circular, is affecting decision-making processes and causing “administrative inertia”, which in turn impacts the disposal of government business and public service delivery.

The circular explicitly mentions that the procedure for dealing with false, frivolous, anonymous, and pseudonymous complaints needs to be strengthened. It aims to ensure that honest public servants are not unfairly harassed and that government business is not adversely affected.

The circular outlines two primary courses of action against those filing false complaints. These include pursuing prosecution under section 182 of the Indian Penal Code for making a false complaint and initiating prosecution under section 195(1)(a) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, based on a complaint filed with the court by the appropriate authority.

The circular also advocates considering departmental action against public servants making false complaints, as an alternative to prosecution.

It also recommends institutional support to government servants affected by “false complaints” threw a slew of methods including “assisting the affected employee to approach Crime Branch, J&K, for initiation of criminal proceedings upon receiving a report or request from a public servant, and facilitating public servants, who have suffered harm as a result of false complaints, to file civil lawsuits seeking damages against responsible individuals (including compensation for financial losses, emotional distress, or harm to reputation, with the provision for the public servant to engage a lawyer as per requirement on contingency fee arrangements, subject to available resources, for which each case shall be decided on merits).”

It also recommends “assistance of Law Officers from the Department of Law, Justice & Parliamentary Affairs for appropriate legal remedies in respect of acts done in official capacity, arranging formal inquiries by the relevant registering authority, where such complaints have been filed by any such registered organizations and issuance of formal press notes regarding complaints and inquiries to promote transparency, preferably every month.”

It also recommends punitive action against publications. It states that institutional support will be provided to officers for “conducting of inquiries in cases involving publications and if found complicit, taking action, including reporting the matter to the Press Council of India (PCI) and other measures like cancellation of accreditation and stoppage of Government advertisements”.

The circular, signed by Sanjeev Verma, Commissioner-Secretary to the government, has been distributed to all Administrative Departments, Heads of Departments, and Cadre Controlling Authorities, with instructions to implement these measures effectively.

While the specific details of these instructions are not fully elaborated in the provided excerpt, it’s clear that the government is taking a more stringent approach to what it perceives as “baseless complaints”.

The order appears to be part of a broader effort to streamline administrative processes and protect public servants from what the government views as unnecessary impediments to their work. However, without a balanced system of checks and balances, particularly in the absence of a democratically elected government, such measures risk being seen as a means to insulate the bureaucracy from legitimate scrutiny and accountability.

The circular’s issuance on June 20, 2024, indicates that this is a recent development in the ongoing evolution of administrative policies in Jammu and Kashmir. It reflects the continuing challenges faced by the region in maintaining a balance between administrative efficiency and public accountability, especially given its unique political circumstances.

Courtesy: Kashmir Times



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