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Public Officials and Conflict of Interests in Times of COVID Lockdown

‘The cause for immediate concern is the apparent conflict of interests between the private propensities and the public duties of very senior officials, arising out of their participation in a “spiritual event” purportedly organised by a quasi-judicial tribunal.’
Public officials and Conflict

One of the many boundaries that an invisible virus and its astronomically multiplying progeny are successfully blurring right now, is that which divides the personal and public spheres of human activity. My need to go out to fetch vegetables, milk, medicines and other items essential to keep together body and soul (assuming there is one), during the lockdown, is purely personal in nature. But, it can have a lasting impact on a large segment of the public – at least 406 individuals according to one guesstimate, if I am not careful enough. As an infected person, if I do not cover my face with the right kind of mask, use sanitisers and maintain physical distance of at least two metres from the next warm body, I might become the vector of the disease, which may lead to even death for some. So, as a private citizen, I had better take precautions, my government tells me. Their advisory places a public interest restraint on my personal sphere of activities.

But who will arbitrate when one such boundary between the public and the private sphere is breached by holders of public office? The cause for immediate concern is the apparent conflict of interests between the private propensities and the public duties of very senior officials, arising out of their participation in a “spiritual event” purportedly organised by a quasi-judicial tribunal. According to a recent press release that the Union Ministry of Law and Justice circulated through the Press Information Bureau, serving members of the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal (ITAT), some unnamed serving judges of unnamed High Courts and unnamed IT officials, lawyers and their family members participated in a nation-wide online seminar addressed by a well-known spiritual preacher.

The meeting is said to have begun with a welcome address by the President of ITAT, himself a former High Court Judge, who extolled the magnanimity and spirituality of “Guruji” and requested him to give “his blessings” to the audience. According to the press note: “(Guruji) also said that the pandemic shifted the human focus from the accessories of life to the nuances of life, and gave an opportunity to look within and understand who we are, what we are and what is the pattern of life force. He emphasized the need to integrate the sources of energy and for experiencing the fourth state of mind which is different from the awakening, sleeping and dreaming state – Meditation.”

Further, the press release tells us, the Vice President of ITAT proposed a vote of thanks “requesting the audience to take home the overreaching message of Guruji for a meaningful and purposeful life, (he) further thanked him on behalf of the whole ‘Sangat’ for the kind advice to renew our faith in the Almighty, in ourselves and the goodness of the society at large.” All quotes cited above are reproductions of the actual language used in this press release, they are not my commentary.

At first glance, readers might find nothing wrong with such a nation-wide seminar, held through video conferencing, strictly in accordance with the COVID-19 advisory about physical distancing. Nor is it the wish of this author to belittle the public claims of the spiritual preacher’s NGO of feeding impoverished and migrant labourers stranded during the lockdown – 45 million meals reportedly distributed to 1 million families across the country and counting.

Instead, what ought to have been a purely private event catering to personal motivations, has now acquired official trappings not only in the manner of its conduct but also through it having been reported on the State-owned PIB platform, that too from a Central Ministry. The conflict of interests is glaringly apparent on multiple counts. First, the NGOs which the spiritual leader heads – the Art of Living Foundation and its sister organisations are tax exempt organisations. This makes them liable to be assessed for their income and expenditure just like other tax exempt NGOs to continue to avail the exemption year after year. It is quite probable that some of the officers who attended the event might be required in future to conduct assessments of the claims of these NGOs which receive huge sums of donations from the public. The ITAT itself might be the forum where any finding of the IT authorities might be challenged.

Civil service conduct rules which bind the IT officials state: “Servants of the State are entitled in their private lives freely to profess, practise or propagate any religion, they should so conduct themselves in public as to leave no room for an impression to arise that they are likely, in their official dealings, to favour persons belonging to any particular religion.” By attending a spiritual seminar and counselling session and doing so publicly, has not the independence and the impartiality of these IT officials and the members of the ITAT to perform their duties without fear or favour been compromised? Strangely, there are no conduct rules in place for the heads and members of quasi-judicial tribunals to portray an impartial image publicly.

Even more worrisome is the press release mentioning the presence of “sitting High Court Judges” in the seminar. We do not know who or which High Courts. The Restatement of Values of Judicial Life drawn up by the Supreme Court of India in its Full Court Meeting and adopted by the Conference of Chief Justices of High Courts in 1997, states, among other things:
“6) A Judge should practise a degree of aloofness consistent with the dignity of his office; and…
16) Every Judge must at all times be conscious that he is under the public gaze and there should be no act or omission by him which is unbecoming of the high office he occupies and the public esteem in which the office is held.”

Though not law in the strictest sense (as it was not enacted by any legislature), the Restatement of values of Judicial Life, has acquired the status of norms that are binding on the entire higher judiciary thanks to the famous Supreme Court Judges’ Assets case occasioned by an RTI application from a citizen, more than 10 years ago. One of the NGOs founded by the spiritual preacher, who graced the seminar, is litigating against Rs. 5 crore costs imposed on it by the National Green Tribunal for reportedly damaging the Yamuna Flood Plains in New Delhi. This matter is pending before the Supreme Court of India since 2017. The constitutional courts have zealously and guarded their independence and rightly so. However, if any sitting judge participated in the spiritual seminar, that in my humble opinion might be in violation of the Restatement of Values of Judicial Life. Where do we take this plea of impropriety for redress? The boundary between the State and the faith-based organisations is becoming hazier during the times of Corona than ever before. It is high time India put in place a law to monitor and remedy conflict of interests of these and other kinds that advanced jurisdictions like Canada.

The spiritual meeting reportedly ended with a meditation session described as follows in the Government’s press release: “The process involved reconnecting with one’s inner self, the thoughts that weigh on the mind as well as detachment from the material world as everyone fell into the realm of a fully conscious mind. Guruji’s voice guided through this realm and when everyone opened their eyes, all negative thoughts had trickled down.”

As these seminar benefits cannot be refunded to the source, it is fervently hoped, the negative thoughts which trickled down do not surface again during assessment exercises involving taxpayers. Instead, one looks forward to the IT Department implementing the tax laws in letter and spirit and absolving itself of the charge of indulging in “tax terrorism” frequently levelled by businessmen and politicians alike.

The author a transparency advocate based in New Delhi. The views are personal.

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