There are no checks and balances in this democracy : Kannan Gopinathan

An exclusive interview with the former IAS officer who recently refused the order which asked him to resume his IAS position to help in the Covid-19 fight


Ever since former IAS officer Kannan Gopinathan resigned from his post in protest against the lockdown in the Jammu and Kashmir last August after Article 370 was abrogated, he seems to have walked  directly into the crosshairs of the ruling government for his dissenting views. Gopinath has been a vocal critic of the government’s errant policies, be it the Kashmir lockdown, or the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Population Register (NPR) and National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Gopinathan has fearlessly spoken about the trampling of fundamental human rights by the current political regime and he found himself in the news once again after he refused to resume his position as an IAS officer following a letter he received by the government asking him to rejoin duties in light of Covid-19. After he refused to follow the directives for reasons he mentioned on his Twitter account, an FIR was lodged against him in Gujarat for apparently not following government orders. 

Priyanka Kavish from Sabrang India spoke to Gopinathan in a free-wheeling chat, about the FIR, dissent in India and the Covid-19 lockdown.

Sabrang India: How did you react to the FIR? Have you received any more information about it?

Kannan Gopinathan: I haven’t received any formal communication from the Gujarat police. I did receive some messages about it and though I can’t be really sure, it seems like the FIR is about the fact that lawyer Prashant Bhushan had retweeted one of my tweets from March 30. I started digging up my tweets to look at what I’d written because apparently the charges invoked against me are Section 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings) and Section 505 (spreading misinformation to disturb public tranquility and disturb law and order). He had retweeted only 1 tweet where I had mentioned the order by AIIMS Raipur ordering doctors to donate their one day salary to the newly formed PM Cares Fund. I had tweeted saying it was doctors working on the frontlines to fight Covid-19, how can their money be taken to be put in the fund and why? In the tweet I also said that, “Narendra Modi, I would like to say I’m ashamed, but I don’t know how many times a day I’ll say that.” I don’t know when Narendra Modi became a God and saying anything against him has become an insult to religion. How is questioning an elected Prime Minister an insult to religion? The order has been retweeted by all. I’m unable to make sense of it. Even what Prashant Bhushan tweeted nowhere called for an FIR. On the one hand, you have poor migrants on roads wanting to go back home, and on the other hand a minister from the I&B ministry is tweeting his own picture watching Ramayan. That behaviour was highly unacceptable. Another journalist too was booked for a tweeting a government order on the same charges. This should have created an outrage.

Sabrang India: Lot has been said about the government’s unpreparedness to deal with situations like Covid-19. What is your take?

Kannan Gopinathan: This government believes that they shouldn’t be the government that takes time to think, this is the government that acts. In their effort to be seen as the government that acts, it has effectively become a government which acts before it thinks. There are no checks and balances in this democracy which is what empowers the government to do whatever it wants.

Sabrang India: What about the people who filed this FIR and what about those who say you’re not paying back to the country by refusing to join back the services?

Kannan Gopinathan: There are sensible people who are not subscribing to the government’s views, but they are not coming forward to raise their voices. It is probably a survival strategy. If citizens don’t raise their voices, the progress of the nation will only go down. It is the collective thinking capacity of the entire country that has taken our country forward. The government is a part of it and isn’t the only thinking entity. When you’re stifling dissent, it is not a good mark of progress. Questioning the government is acceptable. Because we aren’t a dictatorship, the previous government could go and a new government could come. If criticizing the previous government was an offense, then the current Prime Minister would perpetually be in jail. I owe at least this much to the country – to raise my voice and express my opinion when I find something wrong, when I think something should be done differently or when I have an idea to do things better. Keeping quiet would be the most unpatriotic act I could ever do. I have held 20-odd responsibilities during my tenure. If I sit to calculate, the government will end my owing me more than I owe it for spending on my training. I’m ready to do anything for the government, except for asking me to keep quiet. If the government asks me to contribute in anyway, I’m most willing to do it. But if it asks me to shut up and do my job, and for the government the ‘shut up’ part is more important, I’m not willing to do. My resignation is done and in the past. They might take coercive action against me, but my decisions will not be affected.

Sabrang India: How are you helping out during this crisis?

Kannan Gopinathan: I’m in touch with people from various countries and we’re coming up with different strategies who are communicating these with government officers. Ground relief is important, but it shouldn’t be limited to that. If you’re someone who can analyse and has been in the know of things, then you owe a different kind of service to the nation. I spend a lot of time reading our response and the response of different countries to this crisis.

Sabrang India: What do you think of the government’s response to this crisis?

Kannan Gopinathan: The biggest criticism is that the government is seeing the entire pandemic from the “middle class” and “upper middle class” perspective. Every policy decision is based around it. The housekeeping staff of a society is allowed because you’re not in contact with them but a domestic helper is not because you fear catching the virus from them. There is an obvious divide in the policy decision. Yesterday, arrangements for students to go back, but migrant labour was not allowed to return. The students should be allowed to return too, anyone who wants to go back should be allowed to return. They will be asked to return someday anyway. The poor person has a right to go home. I would like to ask people if they could be able to live in a shelter, where there are so many people, toilets are shared and you’re given food. These people have a home to go back to and they want to go back. If none of these people are infected, they should be allowed to go home. If some of them are infected, it is again a dangerous situation because the chance of spread is much higher because there is no social distancing at the shelters. Each day delayed, the spread is getting bigger. I’m talking rationally now. I said it before the lockdown too, saying that people should’ve been allowed to go back home. The seasonal migration even without Covid-19 would have happened because the harvesting season is here. It is irresponsible that the government didn’t anticipate this. Because of the lack of the insight of the government, the people are suffering. The middle class is ignorant towards this. Even when the Mahabharata was fought, Arjun was allowed to ask questions. Here, we aren’t even allowed to do that. The government has portrayed that it knows what it is doing and the only way to fight this crisis is to do what the government says.

Sabrang India: Why do think people are following everything the government says?

Kannan Gopinathan: Once the government knows it can run the narrative, it doesn’t matter what the reality is. The government gave a direction that anything about migrants shouldn’t be shown on TV. It isn’t that the issue isn’t there, it’s just that we aren’t being shown anything about it. It is easy to blame the police or administration. State capacity is limited too and the only way to get people to follow directions is through example. So yes, the police or administration may make mistakes or be over-enthusiastic in implementing orders, but these are the directives by people who make these policies because they feel it is easier to control by example. The government is being highly irresponsible if it can’t tolerate different views. The collective wisdom of the country must be used because the government doesn’t have solutions for everything. The country shouldn’t be punished for your inability to tolerate different views.

Sabrang India: What do you think the future will be like after the lockdown?

Kannan Gopinathan: I don’t really know. The government needs to ramp up testing, at least test a lakh a day. The virus is not going to end after the lockdown. Because the testing hasn’t been done on a large scale, the susceptible population which isn’t immune to the virus will remain more or less the same even after the lockdown. We’d be as blind as we are now. We should have ramped up testing capacity and hospital beds, etc. and in areas where this is done, the lockdown can be relaxed slowly. District level testing should be ramped up. We haven’t decentralized the capacity of testing. Unless we do that, we won’t be able to deal with it the way it’s supposed to be dealt with. We are getting a narrative because it is centralized. The ministry will come and give numbers, but the false sense of security will be more dangerous. The kind of messaging going out is wrong too. We have somehow criminalized the disease. Someone having is seen as a potential killer, spreading the disease. This is not the case. We are so afraid of the disease because of the communication about it. For a poor person, the thinking is that, if he goes and gets tested positive or even go check for symptoms, there is a 100 percent chance that he’s going to be put in isolation, his family is going to be put in isolation and then he’s going to be ostracized. This is going to affect people in an economic way, not just a social way. The communication was – ‘Don’t spread’. We need to change the narrative to – ‘If you’re affected, please get tested and treated.” Getting the infection isn’t a crime. This had happened with leprosy and HIV in the past. The narrative shouldn’t revolve around there being no cure, but around treatment and survival.


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