Can civil servants express their views on law and governance?

Why in news?

A senior IAS officer, Smita Sabharwal from Telangana, tweeted from her private account in support of Ms Bilkis Bano and challenged the Gujarat government’s decision, flaring off a row over if she was in violation of the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules of 1964 and rekindling the debate on the freedom of civil servants to express their personal beliefs on subjects of law and governance.

Who are civil servants?

  • In a modern democracy, a civil servant is an official in the courtesy of the people and is drafted based on predetermined credentials. 
  • Civil servants are bureaucrats who ought to be acquainted with the laws and regulations of the nation and are envisioned to function in the best interests of the nation and its residents.

What is their expected role?

  • They are accountable for handling the resources given to them by the government and making benefit of them efficiently and effectively. 
  • A proper parliamentary system of government mandates civil servants to retain their integrity, courage, and independence.

What are the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules of 1964?

  • Conduct Rules depict precise principles as to what the Government expects from its employees.
  • Conduct rules involve both the official and individual life of the government servant.
  • If an official defiles conduct rules, he may face warning/disciplinary action/departmental proceedings.

What is rule 9?

  • Rule 9 of the Rules of the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules states, “No Government servant shall make any statement of fact or opinion… which has the effect of an adverse criticism of any current or recent policy or action of the Central Government or a State Government.”

What is freedom of expression?         

  • The citizens of the nation have the fundamental right of free speech assured to them under the Constitution, which is a matter of valid restrictions in the interest of ensuring the state’s sovereignty, international relations, health, morality, etc.

What do central conduct rules say?

  • When you embark on government service, you subject yourself to specific disciplinary rules. 
  • That averts a government servant from becoming a component of a political organisation, or any organisation of such a character, or describing herself voluntarily with respect to anything that has to do with the administration of the nation.

How Indian rules are different from others?

  • One of the most essential roles of the civil service, as stated by the head of the Canadian Public Service, is to “speak truth to power.”
  • This is banned in the Indian context because this tradition is of the British era. 
  • There is no suspicion that the British were very, very stern and didn’t want their officers to be talking about how inadequate the administration was. 
  • But in a democracy, the right to criticise governance is an elemental right and nobody can restrain that.

What judiciary said in Lipika Paul vs The State Of Tripura case

As a Government servant, the seeker is not bereft of her right to free speech, a fundamental right which can be trimmed only by a valid law.

The crux of this judgement in simple words

  • She (the petitioner) was entitled to retain her own beliefs and speak them in the way she desired, subject to not crossing the peripheries mentioned in the Conduct Rules which were applicable in Tripura.
  • A fundamental right cannot be shortened except by a reasonable law made by a legislature.

Why this judgement is important?

  • It abolished the state from manipulating vague terms of the policy of the government and government effort to penalise civil servants who condemn the government in any manner offensive or temperate.

What Kerala high court said in 2018?

  • One cannot be dissuaded from voicing his views simply because he/she is a government employee. 
  • In a democratic society, every organisation is governed by democratic benchmarks. 
  • Healthy criticism is a suitable way to govern a public establishment.

Why it is highly contextual here?

  • This critique indirectly safeguarded constructive and just criticism by defending the fundamental rights of civil servants.

The action of an IAS officer can be justified?

  • Since she counted the words ‘civil servant’ in her tweet because the dharma of the civil servant is to defend constitutional codes in letter and in nature and the authority of law.
  • In Bilkis Bano's case, both the nature of the Constitution and the rule of law were being degraded.
  • Hence her manifestation can be justified.

Can we justify rule 9 here in this context?

  • The rules don’t disregard Article 19. 
  • It is a rule, it’s not the law. It’s not in the Constitution. 
  • Freedom of speech is presented in the Constitution, but these are Conduct Rules and they are inflicted because there has to be some specialisation in an organisation to be functional.
  • There is a procedure for decision-making. 
  • Right from below, the matter is investigated, the pros and cons are taken up, the bureaucracy is given an option to review all the aspects, note their messages of complaint or aid, and eventually, it advances to the political executive. 
  • When a guideline is determined, it has to be regarded and conceded by the bureaucracy.


  • Anybody could question these rules as they are offending constitutional fundamental rights of a civil servant; then the Supreme Court would be compelled to come down and say either it is right, or it is wrong, and give reasonable explanations for that.