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This book published in 2010 should be read by civil servants and particularly IAS officers because the autobiography represents a career that is no longer replicable. It is a reflection on what the service once stood for and also a time when civil servants were respected for their competence, integrity and forthrightness.
Somiah’s book reads like an uninterrupted journey of one notable achievement after another and to that extent the title is misleading. Far from “standing alone”, Somiah benefited hugely by the high standards and respect for the civil service that prevailed in his time, albeit not without some aberrations.
Much has been made of his refusal to acquiesce in granting relief to tendu leaf contractors in Orissa which earned him an average entry in his ACR only to be annulled when a commission of enquiry vindicated his stand. The story is not compelling in the present context when officers are confronted with similar situations very frequently and have perforce to reconcile themselves to the fact that they have to perform a duty even when the system may not stand by them. Outsiders to the civil service will nonetheless look upon the tendu leaf story as evidence of Somiah’s toughness.
Somiah’s career cannot be compared with that of present day serving and recently retired officers. He remained with the Government of India continuously from the early eighties, all through functioning at the level of Secretary to Government until he was appointed as union Home Secretary, followed by Central Vigilance Commissioner and finally the Comptroller and Auditor General of India – a position he held until 1995. It only shows that the career profile of those recruited in the 1950s was very different from those who had joined several decades later, when the window of opportunity to serve at the topmost levels, has shrunk enormously.
The book is replete with examples of his interactions with Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, Buta Singh, Arun Nehru, Dr Manmohan Singh and many others. The anecdotes bring out their individual personality traits and style of functioning and display the immaturity, peremptoriness, pique, procrastination and obsequiousness of different players at different moments. Told in an unaffected and casual manner there is no shade of malice and yet each episode captures the moment, supported by sufficient detail to make the accounts interesting and credible.
More important than the episodes are the descriptions of the decision-making process at the highest levels – at times rule-bound and structured and at others, informal and dependent on personal trust and understanding. This is particularly evident when Somiah describes his role as the union Home Secretary when the stand-off between Buta Singh and Arun Nehru was taking place, the attempt at the Prime Minister’s assassination at Rajghat, the unprecedented rise of terrorism, his negation of the Governor’s plan to enter the Golden Temple, including embargoing any unilateral action without consulting the Centre and his successful batting for the deployment of the National Security Guards (NSG) to surround the Golden Temple. These incidents and many more are described along with the attendant pulls and pressures that perforce form the backdrop of any high-level decision making process. Each anecdote brings out the pivotal position that the Home Secretary played and how important and convincing Somiah’s own role was.
Another story which comes out in a first person relates to the Shah Bano case and the role played by Arif Mahmood Khan and the eventual enactment of the Muslim woman (protection of rights of divorce) act – widely seen as an act of appeasement to win the Muslim vote.
Similarly his account of personally reading Satanic verses by Salman Rushdie and concluding that the book needed to be banned in the interest of mainstreaming law and order in the country comes as something of a surprise. How many people know that one individual could take such a decision?
An incident of labour unrest in the Indian Express and the manner in which he refused to acquiesce to the demands of the editor Arun Shourie and told him “ he could do his worst” shows that Somiah was a man with a backbone and capable of rare plain speaking.
The book is replete with anecdotes involving many officers who are no longer alive or are well into their 80s. They were considered stalwarts in their days and the sense of esprit de corps that existed comes out very well.
There are also numerous accounts of Somiah’s visits abroad and within the country and his love for nature, greenery; wildlife and the simple joys a close family life. These interludes are diversions from the main story which remains focused on his own career graph which went from strength to strength and never saw a U-turn. The descriptions of numerous official and personal visits and vacations however lack the spice and imagery which could have made them memorable. They only serve to show that Somiah had a happy family and enjoyed his forays into the countryside immensely, thereby driving home the point that it is possible to hold a powerful office – in fact several powerful offices including that of the CVC and the CAG and not allow official regalia to usurp the space that should stay devoted to family life.
This book delves into a past that has unfortunately left us forever. Still it remains a fairly accurate historical account of how things were managed within the government and to that extent it is certainly worth reading by younger civil servants who want to read about “the good old days.”