“You cannot make people love the country at gunpoint”: Kannan Gopinathan, who quit the IAS over restrictions in Jammu & Kashmir following abrogation of Article 370

Kannan Gopinathan is worried, talking over phone with his wife. Their five-year-old son back home in Kerala was bitten by their pet dog while playing, and he tells his wife the date of the dog’s vaccination before she takes the child to a doctor.

Gopinathan is in a nondescript apartment block of Kolkata’s Santoshpur, with just a few clothes in a backpack. Most of the time, he is pillion riding a scooter through the lanes of the city, where he is on a two-day visit to attend a programme organised by the All India People’s Forum. The 33-year-old has been travelling throughout India since August 2019, when he quit the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) over denial of freedom of expression to the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

Excerpts of a conversation with The Bengal Story:

You quit your IAS job of seven years, and now you are looking at people’s problems and issues from another perspective. Do you ever think that you could have changed the system while continuing to be part of the bureaucracy? What happens to the bureaucracy if people like you give up on it?

The bureaucracy has been considerably disempowered. Moreover, bureaucracy can be a dangerous tool if it doesn’t function properly, because there is enormous power in the hands of the government and its various agencies. If the government uses a weak bureaucracy to do certain things that are not necessarily good for the people, then it can be dangerous and democracy will become weaker and can easily crumble.

I remember an IAS officer once ridiculing a colleague because did not have “control over a minister” and was always fighting with ministers on issues of corruption. Do you think it is possibly more effective to be a bureaucrat and to have command over ministers to get things done rather than get out of the system entirely?

It is a matter of perspective. I must listen to my conscience and take my decision based on my moral position. It’s not that I have faced any problem myself while doing my own job. On the contrary, my work has been very rewarding. But thousands of people are being denied freedom of expression in Kashmir. You cannot make people love India by threatening them with guns.

By August 1947, when all except Hyderabad, Junagarh, and Kashmir acceded to India, Sardar Vallabhai Patel carried the process of unifying the states. He appealed to the princes of India to accede to the Indian Union by transferring control of the defence, foreign affairs, and communications to the government. You can say, he held a gun to the princes and the kings, but not to the people. But now, we are seeing people of the country being held at gunpoint, elected representatives not being able to step out, communication being put on hold and people suffering.

To be part of the system that is doing all this, I have to justify my being there. And I could not.

The obvious question now for you would be whether or not you are going to join politics…

I have not decided anything on that yet. I am not averse to joining politics either. But I think we are talking about mainstream political parties and electoral politics here. We don’t consider the voices of the people important enough, or what people can do even outside electoral politics. People should constantly question the government. I don’t understand why people are so protective of an elected government, as if it were their own child. The government has enormous power and resources, so why protect it even more? Also, we need to think beyond electing a government or voting it out.

I also have certain problems with mainstream politics, and that is, political parties talk more about issues that don’t concern people. There is talk of caste, class, religion, but not jobs, food and economy.


You quit as an IAS officer, so are you seeing the world with new eyes? In what way is it different?

Earlier too, I saw people’s problems. But when you are part of the government, things look somewhat organised and in order. On the other side of it, it is more haphazard, chaotic. Also, there are so many problems, so many things that people are being asked differently, and they are being forced to look at differently.

When there was demonetisation, people were asked, “do you want black money to be weeded out?” and the answer was obviously “yes”. But the question to ask should have been “what is black money?” People have to be told that money is not black or white, transactions are. The same cash goes on becoming black or white depending on the transaction.

Now too, the questions being asked with respect to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) are similar. “Do you want infiltrators to go?” The answer will be obviously “yes”. But the question to be asked is, “should people without documents go out of the country?” Then the answer would not be such an obvious “yes”. Then people would think of the kind of documents one should have, and whether that should force people to be refugees based on that.

When people are infiltrators, the first thing they procure is a document. Ordinary people who are genuine citizens, do not think of getting documents because they are more concerned about jobs and food…

You are talking about the power of the people. In what way can s/he do something on individual capacity?

I know of scores of people who left WhatsApp groups because they couldn’t fight the barrage of fake news. Why give up on a little battle? One must stay on in WhatsApp groups (including family groups) and take the bull by the horns instead of running away. Check facts and fight your little battle. People’s voices and movements can influence a lot. It happened when the green activists staged protests against cutting trees in Mumbai’s Aarey, and the Supreme Court stepped in.

Right now, as I look at it, there’s a metaphorical stadium, and only one group of people are talking and cheering the government. The others have left the arena. They need to come back and ask questions.

What are your future plans?

I really don’t know. I have used up three fixed deposit investments, and I have savings for two more months. I might have to take up a job, or just distance myself from all this and do my work alone. I talked somewhere about the possibility of doing a regular job, and a lady who had come to listen to the discussion was really angry. She asked me why I had quit my job if I were to take up another job. But then, it’s not easy. A “chargesheet” has been filed against me by the Union home ministry earlier this month…

I haven’t chalked out everything about the future just yet. I am travelling a lot throughout the country, learning so much, and people are inviting me to talks and discussions. My travel fares are being paid, but there are so many expenses… I don’t come from a rich family, I have responsibilities. I’ll figure it all out in a few months’ time.

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