Anguished over what they called it growing intolerance and vigilantism in the country, a group of retired government employees have written an open letter to the government expressing their concerns and seeking corrective action.

The letter is signed by 65 former bureaucrats including many former IAS, IFS and IPS officers who have clarified that they have no political affiliations.

You can see all the names here:

Among these many signatories are former Prasar Bharati CEO Jawhar Sircar, former Punjab cop Romania Julio Ribeiro, former Calcutta Metro general manager Geetha Thoopal, former Bengal chief secretary Ardhendu Sen, former Planning Commission secretary NC Saxena, former ambassador to Nepal Deb Mukharji, former chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah and former information and broadcasting secretary Bhaskar Ghose.

What are the contents of the letter?

The letter cites a range of issues and recent events in India about which the bureaucrats feel a "deep disquiet" and address the growing climate of religious intolerance primarily aimed at Muslims. Without naming PM Modi, the letter alludes to one of his controversial campaign speeches in Uttar Pradesh: 

''In Uttar Pradesh, in the run-up to the elections, an odious and frankly communal comparison was made between the relative number of burial grounds and cremation grounds. The question was also asked as to whether electricity was being supplied equally to different communities during their religious festivals. All this without any basis in fact or evidence. The banning of slaughter-houses targets the minorities and affects their livelihoods as well''.

Source: b'Writers protest against religious intolerance in Delhi/File Photo: PTI'

The letter goes on to address the menace of vigilantism and intolerance which manifested itself in the cases of Akhlaq's lynching in Dadri, Pehlu Khan's lynching in Jaipur, attacks on nomadic shepherds in J&K, anti-Romeo squads in UP and gau-rakshaks across the country.

The letter also refers to the victimisation of students and teachers at JNU and Hyderabad University for raising "troubling questions about equality, social justice and freedom".

''We are also seeing an ugly trend of trolling, threats and online intimidation of activists, journalists, writers and intellectuals who disagree with the dominant ideology. How does this square with free speech?" the letter asks.

What are their demands?

The petition urges reinstatement of reason-based debate, discussion and calls upon all public authorities, public institutions and constitutional bodies to defend the spirit of the Constitution of India.

Here is the full letter:

We are a group of retired officers of All India and Central services of different batches, who have worked with the Central and state governments in the course of our careers. We should make it clear that as a group, we have no affiliation with any political party but believe in the credo of impartiality, neutrality and commitment to the Indian constitution. A sense of deep disquiet at what has been happening in India has prompted us to write this open letter to chronicle our reservations and misgivings about recent developments in the body politic. What has gone wrong?

It appears as if there is a growing climate of religious intolerance that is aimed primarily at Muslims. In Uttar Pradesh, in the run-up to the elections, an odious and frankly communal comparison was made between the relative number of burial grounds and cremation grounds. The question was also asked as to whether electricity was being supplied equally to different communities during their religious festivals. All this without any basis in fact or evidence. The banning of slaughter-houses targets the minorities and affects their livelihoods as well. Such intolerance breeds violence in a communally charged atmosphere – even to the extent of a local leader in UP provoking an attack upon the residence of a superintendent of police, whose family was terrorised.

Vigilantism has become widespread. An Akhlaq is killed on the basis of a suspicion that the meat he has is beef and a Pehlu Khan is lynched while transporting to his place two cows he had bought and for which he had the necessary papers. Nomadic shepherds are attacked in Jammu and Kashmir on some suspicion as they practice their age-old occupation of moving from one place to another along with their cattle and belongings.

Gau-rakshaks function with impunity and seem to be doing so with the tacit complicity or active encouragement of state machinery. Punitive action against the perpetrators of violence does not take place promptly but cruelly, the victims have FIRs registered against them. The behaviour of vigilantes – who act as if they are prosecutor, judge and executioner rolled into one – flies in the face of law and jurisprudence. These actions undermine the rule of law and the Indian constitution since only the state – through its various organs and institutions – has the power to enforce the law.

Vigilantism has become popular as ‘anti-Romeo’ squads threaten young couples who go out together, hold hands and are perhaps in love with each other. A thinly-veiled effort to prevent a Hindu-Muslim relationship or marriage, there is no justification in law to harass these couples, particularly when there is no complaint from the woman of being ill-treated.

Student groups and faculty members on campuses like Hyderabad and JNU, who raise troubling questions about equality, social justice and freedom, are subject to attack by the administration, with a supportive government to back them. In Jodhpur, a planned lecture by a renowned academic was cancelled under pressure and the faculty that organised the event subjected to disciplinary action. What happened in Jodhpur has happened at other institutions as well. Argumentation and discussion about different perspectives – the life-blood not only of institutions of learning but of democracy itself – are being throttled. Disagreement and dissent are considered seditious and anti-national. Such attitudes have a chilling impact on free speech and thought.

Several reputed NGOs and civil society organisations are being charged with violating the provisions of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act and the Income Tax Act. While we agree that genuine violators should be identified and penalised, we note with dismay that several of the targeted groups are those who have taken stands against government policies, expressed dissent or supported communities in cases against the state.

We are also seeing an ugly trend of trolling, threats and online intimidation of activists, journalists, writers and intellectuals who disagree with the dominant ideology. How does this square with free speech?

There is a growing hyper-nationalism that reduces any critique to a binary: if you are not with the government, you are anti-national. Those in authority should not be questioned – that is the clear message.

In the face of a rising authoritarianism and majoritarianism, which do not allow for reasoned debate, discussion and dissent, we appeal to all public authorities, public institutions and constitutional bodies to take heed of these disturbing trends and take corrective action. We have to reclaim and defend the spirit of the Constitution of India, as envisaged by the founding fathers.