Book review | 'Memory Clouds' compiles reminiscences of retired officers

Book review | 'Memory Clouds' compiles reminiscences of retired officers
'Memory Clouds' is a compilation of articles that have appeared over the years in the 'First Stirrings' column of the 'gfiles' magazine, edited by senior journalist Anil Tyagi, that is aimed at India's civil service.
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New Delhi: Have any lessons been learnt as India approaches the 10th anniversary of the horrific November 26-29, 2008, Mumbai terror attack? Precious little, if one goes by the reminiscences of a former Mumbai Police Commissioner about the mayhem that killed 166 people, many of them foreigners, and injured hundreds more.

Even worse, these reminiscences, as also those of over 75 retired bureaucrats and police and army officers, bring into sharp focus the time-warp India is in - a slumber it seemingly will not come out of soon.

"The government of India's response after 26/11 has not been commensurate with the seriousness of the crime. It suspended all dialogue with Pakistan. Children do these things. The lapse of a few years means we have squandered chances to put Pakistan under pressure internationally," the recently-released compendium ('Memory Clouds') quotes former police commissioner MN Singh as saying.

Rubbing it in, he adds: "We just bark, we do not bite. Unless we bite, Pakistan will not come to its senses. Pakistan is still harping that Kashmir is the core issue... I agree that Kashmir is the core issue. Unless we are able to resolve it, we will continue to face a threat... For the sake of Kashmir, the rest of the country cannot be punished."

If an issue like Kashmir that erupted 71 years ago continues to boil, can there ever be a closure for the events of 2008?

Sample this from Ved Marwah, a former Delhi Police Commissioner whose last posting was as advisor to the Jammu and Kashmir government, as he points to the pitfalls involved when, in the wake of 26/11, one of the proposals was to establish a National Counter Terrorism Centre on the lines of the US body.

"It is a pity that every chief minister is crying foul against the proposed National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC). But the Union Home Ministry is also not free of fault. They should have taken on board all the state governments and political parties before announcing such an important legislation," Marwah says.

"We need an agency which will link all agencies. That is why this particular step by the Centre is very good. But they should have put it under an independent agency rather than putting it with the Intelligence Bureau. The Intelligence Bureau's role is very different," Marwah adds in his article.

Thus, as the security forces, the bureaucracy and the politicians spar, the time warp only lengthens.

'Memory Clouds' is a compilation of articles that have appeared over the years in the 'First Stirrings' column of the 'gfiles' magazine, edited by senior journalist Anil Tyagi, that is aimed at India's civil service.

Of particular interest, in the light of the current spat between the government and the Reserve Bank of India, are the reminiscences of MP Narayanan, who is best-known for turning around Coal India Limited.

"I think Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) can perform better if the bureaucracy of this country can work on one principle - having selected a chairman of a PSU, give him freedom to work and trust him. The paradox is that the triangle of businessman, bureaucrat and the politician has a hold over the PSU. They enjoy power without authority, without accountability," Narayanan says in the piece.

Several of the writers have talked about the need for more accountability in the government as well as the armed forces. In the words of Lt. Gen. Noble Thamburaj, a former Vice Chief of the Indian Army: "After serving 40 years, I feel the need for greater transparency and greater accountability. We have to shed old traditions. We have to make the military more relevant. Performance should be given priority over seniority to make the military more vibrant for the future."

Several others before Lt. Gen. Thamburaj have spoken in similar vein, and, possibly, several more will do so in future - but the inertia will continue, feel many writers, unless some fundamental changes are brought about.

Contending that "the problem with the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) is the congenital fascination for mediocrity", writer-bureaucrat Ashok Vajpayee says, "Today, young officers have all the wrong dreams - to have a rich father-in-law, to make money... The worst thing is that the corrupt officers are not punished. Article 311 (of the Constitution) should be scrapped because this protection has been misused by the bureaucracy itself," Vajpayee maintains in the article.

There are, of course, many - among them former Prime Minister Chandrashekhar's Private Secretary SK Mishra; former Delhi Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung; former Cabinet Secretaries BG Deshmukh, Ajit Seth and Prabhat Kumar; former Foreign Secretary Romesh Bhandari and former Delhi Chief Secretary Pramod Swarup Bhatnagar - who are gung-ho, but even this doesn't explain the inertia that prevails in the bureaucracy.

Still, the book is an interesting read, because, as GFiles editor Anil Tyagi says, "It evidences that the politicians of yesteryears were less interfering and respected the officers."

What, then, went wrong?

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