By Biswaraj Patnaik in Puri, November 22, 2017: Whenever there is talk of corruption in India, people blast the politicians first because most of this tribe are so insidious, mean and shameless. If a nation state is shining in glory, it’s due to the honest and courageous bureaucrats who force the headless, populist politicians to regain sanity and get back to order. Smart bureaucrats go by the will of the state and the conduct rulebook. They guide the political executive on the basis of wrongs and rights. Unfortunately, some bureaucrats take advantage and rob the people by misleading the political pinheads. But this phenomenon is rare.

The present day politician is always the biggest crook in any developing nation as, once elected, the unbridled self-serving rogues go on the rampage in all spheres of human activity only to gain privately by robbing the state. The public officials do prevent the damage only by putting the foot down and screaming, “You can’t do it Sir. It would land the whole establishment in grave trouble. Still, if you go on the override mode, I shall go on record with my strong dissent.” These public officials are known as spined bureaucrats who act with conscience and conviction.

As some believe, it’s not only the civil service cadre officers that constitute bureaucracy. Any decision making functionary heading a public office is a bureaucrat. For that matter, nationalised banks, particularly the gigantic State Bank of India is a colossal organisation with very intricate governance systems headed by experts chosen from a vast mass of aspirants through rigorous skill tests. Incidentally, until the late 1960s, the State Bank paid a much higher salary to its bureaucrats than the Union government did to the civil service cadre officers.

So, when the State Bank boss was considered a very big figure in India, a Lahore-bred genius called Raj Kumar Talwar happened to head the organisation with the highest number of branches and employees. Talwar adopted honesty as an abiding principle of his life, but was wise to recognise that many others would try to be honest only if it were a protection and not policy. Talwar was a man of steel, ethically perfect and skill-wise unmatchable. It’s on record that he is the person who revolutionised banking in a manner to help the ordinary poor start business and improve quality of life. He was the `Father of SSI (Small Scale Industries)’. As a unique visionary, he had become the benchmark of the banking industry’s ‘coming of age’ between the 1960s and the 70s. When he died in 2002, a most significant era came to an end.

Indira Gandhi had become a despotic leader by 1975. She ran the country as a personal fiefdom, supported immensely by an arrogant power-abusing son Sanjay Gandhi who spelt terror across the land. He had become an uncrowned prince of the empire called India. Every member of the three pillars of democracy was in frightening awe of him. The legislature and the executive were two sets of puppets in his hand. Not much later, he took grip of the judiciary too and forced the PM mother to dislodge or dismiss Supreme Court judges to pass favourable orders, the way one discards clothes.

This reminds one of the historic “Talwar Amendment” made in 1976 during the undemocratically imposed emergency in India. The story takes us back to show how ethically correct, people-friendly bureaucrats conducted themselves before the mighty political masters without fear when it came to choosing between “the right and the wrong”.

The imposition of the unconstitutional emergency in India had occurred on the 25 June 1975. The servile president Fakiruddin Ali Ahmed had signed the promulgation note before even the cabinet approval had come. The legendary bureaucrat called Raj Kumar Talwar was the incumbent State Bank chairman since 1969.

A Sanjay Gandhi chum had a cement factory which had gone red due financial bungling and misappropriation of funds by the directors on the board. This guy sought instant help from Sanjay by way of a fresh sanction of loan from the State Bank. As the amount sought was fairly big, the matter reached the chairman Talwar for approval. Talwar studied the case thoroughly and concluded loan restructuring can be done only if the thieving, inefficient founder promoter-cum-chairman step down and the board be replaced with methodically chosen domain experts. Sanjay Gandhi lost his cool for not being obliged without question. He called the finance minister C Subramaniam and told him to do something urgently to help the ‘cement friend’.

Pranab Mukherjee was then nominally under the FM as minister for revenue and banking. So, he was asked to direct the bank to waive the ‘promoter-change’ condition for restructuring. This little minister phoned Talwar to be told firmly that the condition could not be changed. Mukherjee said that he had instructions from the highest authority in the country. But Talwar remained unnerved.

A furious Sanjay Gandhi wanted Talwar to appear before him. Talwar refused, saying an ordinary son of the Prime minister had no constitutional authority to order him. Sanjay went mad and took an instant decision. He ordered the minister to ‘Sack Talwar’. This order was impossible to implement, because under the State Bank of India Act, a chairman could not be removed without sufficient cause. Helpless, the little minister offered Talwar a different assignment: to chair the just proposed Banking Commission. Talwar said he would be very happy to take the assignment as an additional job remaining the SBI chairman. The minister became very jittery as Sanjay Gandhi would beat him to pulp. So he told Talwar that the rigidity to rules and norms would cost him dearly. “You better vanish from the scene by resigning or we dismiss you”. Talwar did not give a damn and told Pranab that he simply did not care about their decision.

The message reached Sanjay Gandhi at lightening speed. He instructed the CBI to look for grounds on which Talwar could be dismissed. The CBI could only lay hands on the fact that Talwar had sent appeal notes to several corporate bosses seeking donations for the Auroville Project at Pondicherry. But not a single business head was willing to testify against Talwar as; he had done that in individual capacity and had forwarded the appeal note after getting it countersigned by the Prime minister India Gandhi and the UN Secretary General U Thant. Both the highest dignitaries had clearly recommended hearty support for the Auroville project. The CBI was forced to shut the case.

But Sanjay had become mad by now because a bank bureaucrat had beaten him hollow at all battles. Now he told the little minister to have the State Bank Act amended, making it categorically clear that the amendment be done with a special clause permitting the authority to evade assigning any reason for dismissal. With the entire opposition in jail then, the Parliament with only slaves, rubber-stamped the bill turning it into an act instantly. Now the minister felt enormously empowered. He thundered over the phone, “Talwar, now better save face and go home. Resign without wasting a minute or else we throw you out.” But Talwar was defiant as ever. “Get the amendment order and I walk out.”

Finally, on August 4, 1976, Talwar was served with a 13-month leave notice. He would have to hand over the charge to the managing director and vanish from the scene without further delay. Talwar smiled at the shocked colleagues saying, “My departure will not make much difference if you trust your conscience in all your actions. Remain courageous. This regime will go sooner than expected.”

The fact on record is that even with immense powers during the emergency, the mighty government could not sack Talwar without bending and breaking a prevailing law. At a time when the generals and apex court judges were trembling with fear, Talwar gave the omnipotent political bosses a damn only because he knew too well he was ethically correct. He was a sabre which could slay any enemy of the state.

As the legendary, trail-blazing Chairman was walking away from his work place never to return again, not a single colleague came forward to say ‘goodbye’, let alone give farewell. So frightened were they of the vindictive government. Thus was gone the greatest of the State Bank’s chairman from his own campus for being too correct technically and morally.

Talwar chose Pondicherry as home. Some of the leading financial organisations put him as head advisor or consultant but he was more devoted to the Auroville project which was completed against odds of funds shortage and people’s patronage. He lived in a simple house and used a bicycle to move across the city, incognito. The emergency regime toppled in good time but Talwar was slowly forgotten until his death in 2002. He had melted into the nondescript crowd since long. He died in 2002 at the age of 90, and happily so. But the fact that to remove him from service, the political scoundrels changed law will remain in history for long. The ‘Talwar Amendment’ is one of the most shameful acts by the legislature in recent history.

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