‘We’re being watched’: Kashmir decision to vet social media feeds of new employees sparks alarm
The Government Has Also Instituted A Provision Allowing It To Make Employees Take Premature Retirement ‘in The Public Interest’ After A Review.
Hanif Ahmad, 29, desperately wants a government job. Over the last two years, the post-graduate in computer applications has applied for four government positions. But as Ahmad (named changed to protect identity) awaits the final list of selected candidates, he has been absorbed by a new source of anxiety – his social media accounts.
On March 3, Jammu and Kashmir government issued orders to say that no new government employee in the Union territory would be paid a salary or allowances until they had undergone a verification process by the Criminal Investigation Department. Popularly known as the “eyes and ears of the government”, the Criminal Investigation Department is the premier intelligence agency of Jammu and Kashmir Police.
The order has alarmed Ahmad even though he believe doesn’t have anything to hide. “Anyway, I ensure that my social media is non-controversial and apolitical,” said Ahmad, the son of a retired government employee. “But I still don’t want to take any chances. If I get the job, I will deactivate all my social media accounts.”
Old rules, new conditions
The March 3 order, issued by the General Administration Department, said the police verification process was not new: orders issued by previous state governments had made the procedure mandatory.
“It has, however, been observed that these instructions are not being adhered to in some Departments/Subordinate offices, as a result of which many individuals with dubious character antecedents and conduct have been paid salaries and other allowances, without obtaining their mandatory CID verification,” the order stated.
In order to expedite the process, the order said, the government had framed a “simplified mechanism”, devised “in consultation” with the Criminal Investigation Department. The mechanism is laid out in an annexure to the March 3 order.
Though the employee details solicited in the annexure are more or less the same as those in the rules already instituted, the March 3 order also mandates the new entrants in the government service to submit details about their social media accounts like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
“This is a tricky clause,” said a government employee in Srinagar, requesting anonymity. “What if the government does like some content shared by the employee on social media during his non-service years?”
When he was hired, the employee said, he had filled out various forms related to his antecedents and character. “I remember submitting details for police verification and character certificate as well,” he said. “But that’s it. There’s nothing about social media and all.”
Review of performance
The March 3 order isn’t the only way in which the government is extending its scrutiny of the conduct of government employees in Jammu and Kashmir.
In February, Jammu and Kashmir government issued an “urgent” order, asking the deputy commissioners of ten districts in the valley to submit details of all employees who will complete 22 years of service or attain the age of 48 by December 2021. Besides the basic job-related details about these employees, the order also sought details about the involvement of employees in political activity or in cases of law and order including militancy and stone-throwing incidents.
This followed a move by the government of the Union territory led by Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha last October to amend Article 226 (2) of the Jammu and Kashmir Civil Service Regulations, the rule book for the government employees. A provision was added to say that government employees will now undergo a performance appraisal after completing 22 years of service or reaching the age of 48.
The provision also gives the government the power to make government employees take premature retirement in the public interest if their performance is found unsatisfactory in the review.
To carry out the review of performance, a department has to establish an internal committee comprising the administrative secretary, head of department concerned and two senior officers nominated by the administrative secretary. The basic criteria on which an employee’s performance will be reviewed include the “integrity” of the government servant and her effectiveness in performing her duties.
While the J&K Civil Service Regulations had a laid out framework for sacking employees on the basis of corruption, malpractice, bad behaviour and non-performance, the amendments were carried out to bring the regulations at par with those of Central government employees.
Just over a month after the amendments were effected, Jammu and Kashmir government announced its first premature retirement under the new rules. In November, the government issued a premature retirement notice to Fayaz Ahmad Siraj, an employee of the Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education. Siraj had completed 27 years of service on October 14.
In Jammu and Kashmir, the government is the biggest employer. The erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir had around 4.5 lakh government employees. Due to its special status under Article 370 of the Constitution, all those employees were residents of the erstwhile state.
But that does not hold true anymore. After Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its relative autonomy on August 5, 2019, and was downgraded into two Union territories, it also lost its exclusive state subject law. Under this state subject law, only residents of Jammu and Kashmir were eligible to buy immovable property or work in government jobs in the region. That changed last year when New Delhi announced new domicile rules for the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
Under the new rules, anyone living in Jammu and Kashmir for a continuous stretch of 15 years is eligible for domicile status, which allows them to buy immovable property and get government jobs in the Union territory. Many Kashmiris allege that the change is part of the Indian government’s strategy to alter the demography of the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley.
Scroll.in spoke to six government employees working in different government departments on condition of anonymity to get a sense of how they viewed these official initiatives.
Several said they saw this as a strategy to dilute the presence of locals in the workforce. “Earlier, if a Kashmiri was sacked from his job, it was given that he would be replaced by only a citizen of Jammu and Kashmir,” said an employee from the government’s Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution department in Srinagar.
“But now if someone is sacked for whatever reason, that vacancy opens at an all-India level.”
Employee union leaders in Kashmir agreed with that assessment but said that it wasn’t possible for them to be vocal about the problem. “It’s definitely an issue but we can’t do much about it while working for the same government,” explained a senior union leader in Srinagar.
The possibility of domiciled residents filling vacancies created by sacked government employees is likely to weigh heavily on the minds of unemployed young people of Jammu and Kashmir. “They should raise the matter with the government and express their concerns over it,” the union leader said. “We as an employees’ representative body will support them.”
In a politically charged region like Kashmir, where a mass movement claiming the right to self-determination has been underway for decades, not many are convinced that the government’s introduction of premature retirement provision is aimed only at ensuring a quality workforce. Many feel the provision might be used as a guise to sack employees who might have shown sympathy for the dominant pro-freedom sentiment in Kashmir valley.
“Let’s assume a government official refuses to implement an unpopular policy of the government or he doesn’t comply with the government’s thinking, he can be shown the door through this performance review,” said an official in the revenue department.
The new provisions have the job of government employees in the Union territory become difficult, he said. “There’s a fear in a government employee’s mind that he’s being watched,” he said.
This atmosphere of surveillance has forced many to give up using social media altogether. “If you see, most of the government employees have inactive social media accounts,” said the revenue official, adding his accounts are inactive too. “They only write Happy Birthday posts.”
‘Not in government’s favour’
Khursheed Alam, who headed Jammu and Kashmir’s largest employees’ union, the Employees Joint Action Committee, for many years, believes that the government already has enough checks and balances in place for public employees.
“The set of rules, which deal with the conduct of employees, are already there,” he said. “Then there are organisations like the Vigilance and Criminal Investigation Department etc. There are all things to monitor the working of an employee. What’s the need to hang this sword on the head of a government employee unnecessarily?”
Alam, who joined Peoples Democratic Party in 2013 after voluntary retirement from the service, said that employees’ organisations were too scared to talk about the government’s decisions relating to the conduct of employees. He linked their silence to other curbs that had been imposed in the Valley in the aftermath of August 2019.
“Workers are worried and trade unions are apprehensive,” he said. “Nobody wants to get under the scanner of the government. There’s too much pressure on these bodies as well. After all, all of them are at the end of the day government employees.”
But the government’s decision to create an atmosphere of anxiety would be counter-productive, Alam said.
“There’s a Persian couplet which says when a labourer’s heart is happy, he works double his capacity,” he said.”But this is opposite to that. It looks like the government doesn’t trust its own people.”