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The Kashmir Lockdown.

If India is in crisis, it is because good guys like ex-IAS Kannan Gopinathan rather quit

To arrest India’s decline, it is important that the government attract, retain and empower the good guys. Kannan’s leaving is a loss to the government.

 Updated: 27 August, 2019 8:59 am IST
Kannan Gopinathan | File photo | Facebook
Kannan Gopinathan | File photo | Facebook
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Given how difficult it is to enter the Indian Administrative Service, Kannan Gopinathan’s resignation would have captured public attention even if it had not been in protest against the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah government’s clampdown in Jammu & Kashmir, even if he had not previously distinguished himself by anonymously slogging it out doing disaster relief work Kerala in 2018.

To an ordinary person, the act of walking away from something that millions aspire for and only a few hundred get might appear irrational or worse, insane. To cynics who expect public officials to be bent or pliant, Kannan is a naive misfit who would have failed psychometric testing for the job had there been one. To the liberals at the fringes of public discourse, he’s a hero who chose liberty over complicity.

Also read: ‘Disillusioned’ after J&K crisis, IAS officer quits service. Gets trolled as anti-national

A moral dilemma

Kannan brings to sharp focus the moral dilemma of a conscientious public official: What do you do when the government’s policy diverges from your personal convictions on the right thing to do?

In ordinary circumstances, there is the option of recording your dissent, but implementing a lawful decision that you disagree with, to the best of your abilities. Civil servants frequently go through such episodes, and after a while, many choose not to even bother expressing a difference of opinion on file, lest it ruffle powerful feathers.

The dilemma assumes an altogether different level of seriousness when the circumstances are extraordinary. What do you do when you perceive government policy being illegal, unconstitutional or even immoral? The moral dilemma becomes one of trying to change things for the better from the inside, or quitting to fight from the outside.

At a time when the world is looking for simple moral certitudes, it is tempting to declare one or the other position as the right one, and either celebrate IAS officer Kannan as a hero for quitting or denigrate him for being “anti-national” for having the temerity to publicly disagree with the government. Yet, to do so would be a mistake: for while Kannan has made the right choice, it is not necessarily the only right choice. A different person in his shoes could well choose to stay on, and in doing so, wouldn’t necessarily be making a less ethical decision.

Also read: Modi govt clamps down on IAS, its association goes conspicuously silent

An ethical calculus

Giving his reasons for resigning Kannan said that he felt as a civil servant he could no longer pursue his ideals. Referring to the Modi government’s clampdown in Jammu and Kashmir, he told Manorama that “it is the worst social and political situation after the Emergency. The fundamental rights of over 80 lakh people are suspended without even officially declaring an Emergency…I cannot fathom the guilt and regret of not acting on time, when I think about such violation of rights our society is going through.” He is not against the government’s prerogative to abrogate Article 370. Rather, he objects to the de facto suspension of fundamental rights of Indian citizens in Jammu and Kashmir. He does not want history to count him as complicit in an act he considers wrong.

So, he rightly quit. In his ethical calculus, the benefit of fighting from the inside was lower than the costs of suppressing the voice of his conscience.

Yet, a different person in his shoes could have done the right thing by staying in service. Consider.

Every big organisation has good people, bad people and the ones in between. The good do good things, the bad do bad things and the ones in between sometimes do good things and at other times, do bad things. The final outcome is the sum of the resultants of the consequences of the actions of these three types of people. If our cities are safe, our villages livable, our law enforcement trustworthy, and our judiciary dependable, it is to the extent that the actions of the good outweigh the actions of the rest. If we see things are going downhill in the country, it is to a great extent due to the scales tipping against the good people.

Also read: These IAS officers are scripting stories of change across India & making lives better

What a good republic needs

To arrest India’s decline, it is important that the government attract, retain and empower the good guys. Kannan’s leaving, by all accounts, is a loss to the government. Given his track record in Mizoram and Dadra & Nagar Haveli and his volunteering in Kerala, India lost a good administrator. His stated reasons for joining the IAS, his standing up to a political appointee and articulation of his reasons for leaving mark him out as an officer the government of India ought to have fought to retain. It sent him petty show cause notices instead.

India is desperately short of public officials with constitutional morality – people in government who uphold the dignity of their office. Judges stray beyond their mandate and make policy. Legislators stray beyond their mandate and take over administration. Civil servants do the bidding of their political masters, even when the demands are unconstitutional. If the Indian republic is in a crisis today, it is fundamentally because overstepping constitutional dharma is par for the course. Especially at such times, it is in the national interest that conscientious civil servants stay on. They are frontline soldiers in the battle to restore the constitutional health of the republic.

Kannan Gopinathan is right. Others like him who did not resign are also right. There is no universally correct choice. The lesson from Kannan Gopinathan’s resignation is not that everyone should do the same, but that each individual must consciously arrive at their own right answer.

The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal. 

Shouldn’t Kashmir Affect You?


“Shouldn’t Kashmir Affect You?”: Kannan Gopinathan On Why He Quit IAS

The former bureaucrat had quit the administrative service on August 21 to protest what he claimed was the denial of fundamental rights to lakhs of people in Jammu and Kashmir.


Kannan Gopinathan said life has no meaning without liberty, as is the case in Kashmir.



  1. Ongoing J&K clampdown is meant to prevent deaths, rejects Ex-IAS officer
  2. Life has no meaning to humans without right to liberty: Ex-IAS officer
  3. The 33-year-old bureaucrat had quit administrative service on August 21

Former Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer Kannan Gopinathan on Tuesday rejected the centre’s claim that the ongoing clampdown on Kashmir is meant to prevent deaths due to violent reprisals, saying that life holds no meaning to a human being without the right to liberty.

“Life and liberty go together, and that’s the beauty of a constitutional democracy. If they say that they will put you in jail to save your life, would that be acceptable to you? You can argue something like that for a certain period, yes, but this has been going on for three weeks now,” he told NDTV in an exclusive interview.

The 33-year-old bureaucrat had quit the administrative service on August 21 to protest what he claimed was the denial of fundamental rights to lakhs of people in Jammu and Kashmir. “It’s not like my resignation will cause even a flutter, but one has one’s own conscience to answer to,” he had said then.

Jammu and Kashmir was placed under lockdown as a “precautionary measure” earlier this month, when the centre took the surprise step of scrapping the state’s special status under Article 370 of the Constitution and bifurcating it into two distinct union territories. It also placed many of its political leaders, including another former IAS officer Shah Faesal, under arrest.

Mr Gopinathan said he empathised with the people of Jammu and Kashmir even though he was not personally affected by the government’s clampdown. “Should something affect you personally for you to take a decision?” he asked. “My other question is: when freedom is being curtailed in your own country, when people aren’t being allowed to express themselves freely, shouldn’t it affect you?”


The former IAS officer said that while taking a decision like revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood was the government’s legitimate right, people should also have the right to react in a democracy. “The government takes a decision and then shuts down the reaction to that decision, saying that it could be violent… it’s an argument that can be used anywhere,” he added.

Mr Gopinath said journalists should have played a more proactive role in denouncing the Kashmir shutdown. “The media, which is supposed to advocate liberty and freedom of speech, should have said that they must be allowed to speak freely. Whether the government listens to the media is a different matter altogether,” he added.


He, however, did not elaborate on whether he would follow Shah Faesal’s example and join politics. “Now that I have quit the service, I would like to earn a livelihood by connecting with the public in whichever small way. If I can do that by working at the grassroots level, it would be good. I have not thought beyond that,” Mr Gopinath said.


Why do different cultures see the constellations similarly?

Almost every person throughout the existence of humankind has looked up at the night sky and seen more than just a random scattering of light. Constellations of stars have helped us shape our own ongoing narratives and cultures – creating meaning in the sky above that guides us in our life on the ground below.

Of course, we don’t all see exactly the same night sky – there are subtle differences depending on where we are on the planet, what season it is, and the time of night, all of which are imbued into the meaning we construct about the stars.

But around the world and throughout history, we find remarkably similar constellations defined by disparate cultures, as well as strikingly similar narratives describing the relationships between them.

Read more: Kindred skies: ancient Greeks and Aboriginal Australians saw constellations in common

For example, the constellation Orion is described by the Ancient Greeks as a man pursuing the seven sisters of the Pleiades star cluster.

This same constellation is Baiame in Wiradjuri traditions: a man pursuing the Mulayndynang (Pleiades star cluster).

In the traditions of the Great Victoria Desert, Orion is Nyeeruna, a man chasing the seven Yugarilya sisters.


Cultures thoughout the world have perceived Orion (top right) as a man pursuing a group of women – even though in the southern hemisphere he appears the other way up. Erkki Makkonen/Shutterstock

These and other common patterns, as well as the remarkably complex narratives describing them, link the cultures of early Aboriginal Australians and the ancient Greeks, despite them being separated by thousands of years and miles.

Similarly, many cultures in the southern hemisphere identify constellations that are actually made of the dark spaces between the stars, highlighting absence rather than presence. These feature predominantly in the dark dust lanes of the Milky Way.

Across cultures, these again show remarkable consistency. The celestial emu, which is found in Aboriginal traditions across Australia, shares nearly identical views and traditions with the Tupi people of Brazil and Bolivia, who see it as a celestial rhea, another large flightless bird.

Significant differences too

There are also significant differences seen between cultures, although the fundamental roots remain.

The Big Dipper is identified across many northern hemisphere traditions, but for the Alaskan Gwich’in this is merely the tail of the whole-sky constellation Yahdii (The Tailed Man), who “walks” from east to west overnight.

Although we share a fascination with the stars, we have little documented knowledge of how particular constellations were identified by certain cultures. Why and how do we see the same patterns?

Our upcoming research explores the genesis of these different names and different groupings, and the idea that many came about mainly as a result of cultural variations in the perception of natural scenes. Thus an individual’s view of a phenomenon can become the generalised view of a group or culture.

These differences may have endured due to the necessity of communicating these groupings across generations through complex oral traditions.

These oral traditions are often mistakenly compared to the children’s game of Telephone, in which a message is whispered down a line of people, resulting in errors as the information is passed on. In reality, they are far more organised and rigorous, enabling information to be passed on for thousands of years without degradation.

British psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett realised in the early 20th century that these errors typically reflect a person’s beliefs about missing or uncertain information filtering into the original message. The information passed from one person to another accumulates and ultimately informs an individual’s beliefs about the nature of the world.

In oral cultures – like those of Indigenous Australia – the focus of transmission is on ease of communication and recall.

The outstanding difference is that Aboriginal oral traditions constructed narratives and memory spaces in such a way as to keep the critical information intact through hundreds of generations.

Search for meaning

How this came about and how a thread of meaning endures across individuals, space and time are fascinating questions.

In collaboration with Museums Victoria, our team is exploring how cultural differences in our traditions and stories can come about as a result of very small variations in the nature of perception and understanding in different people, and how this is influenced by both personal belief and geographical location.

Investigating how meaning in the stars is developed and passed on emphasises the fundamental aspects of humanity that we share across cultural bounds, despite differing beliefs, geographical isolation, and location.

Read more: The stories behind Aboriginal star names now recognised by the world’s astronomical body

As part of National Science Week, more than 200 people submitted their own constellation and story in response to a star field projected onto the ceiling of Victoria’s Parliament House; the preliminary data-collection phase in this study.


What do you see? Head to and share your interpretation. Star StoriesAuthor provided

Humanity’s ongoing fascination with the stars has only recently been fuelled by our ability to dream about leaving the planet and visiting them. More fundamentally, they are a reflection and a framework for our life on this planet.

The meaning we find in the night sky seems, ironically, to ground us in the changing world in which we find ourselves. This is as important now as it was 65,000 years ago when people migrated to Australia using the stars.

This article was co-published with Pursuit.