From Indian Public Administration to Comparative Religious Studies and Christian Thought: Dr. L. Shanthakumari Sunder Speaks…

Posted: March 6, 2012 in General

[L. Shanthakumari Sunder completed her Masters in Zoology from Madras University and worked for a year at Lady Doak College in Madurai, Tamil Nadu before joining the IAS. She belongs to the 1974 batch allotted to the Karnataka cadre. She retired in 2009 as the Additional Chief Secretary and Development Commissioner, Karnataka. While serving, she obtained a Masters in Social Sciences from Birmingham University, England and yet another Masters in Economics from Mysore University. She was awarded PhD in 2008 by Mysore University. She is an active Christian with a keen interest in Comparative Religion. She lives in Bangalore, Karnataka, India.]

Recently, I attended a lecture of Dr. L. Shanthakumari at UBS Faculty Room, organized for the interested Bachelors, Masters, and Doctoral students. Her talk at that juncture inspired me to have a personal interview with her. This interview is the outcome of our back and forth verbal exchange.

Read the interview here…

Question: Dr. Shanthakumari Sundar, I think, your newly published book “Values and Influence of Religion in Public Administration” (SAGE Publications, 2011) is a grand new attempt by an Indian Christian Civil Service officer. Its cover page says, “This book is a study of the influence of religion on the values and ethics of the ‘steel frame of India’—the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and its successor, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). Examining pertinent subjects like the historical origins of IAS, colonial ethics, codes of conduct and Hindu ethics, the book presents a socio-religious analysis of corruption in India”. Can you share briefly with us the factors those prompted you to write a book of this sort?

Dr. Shanthakumari: When I joined the Service (Indian Administrative Service-IAS) in 1974, the Service was still known for its up-righteousness, integrity, honesty, fair-play and sense of justice. However after 1980s the scenario changed remarkably and corruption seeped into IAS too, which was the successor to Indian Civil Service (ICS of British Raj), the ‘Steel Frame of India.’ This was a rude shock to many of us, including me and I set myself to delve deep to find out the reasons for the degradation in the values of the Service that had set in. In the process I examined the religious values of the Service members, for religion lays down the foundations for developing values in a person, whether through church, or Mosque or temple discourses; also through Bible, Koran, Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavad-Gita. The values of Indian politicians, who are ruling the country under democracy, were scrutinized and that of society at large, who elect such politicians with their votes. This was my thesis for my PhD, awarded in 2008. The main motivation was to find out the deep reasons for the Service, the politicians and society in India being ridden with corruption from the context of socio-religious background.

Question: Thanks galore for your description. May you outline the central tenets of the book for us especially the theological students and educators in India and elsewhere?

Dr. Shanthakumari: Starting the study of IAS from the very beginning of ICS, a very interesting history of the Service unfolded. The incorruptible ICS started as a corruptible service of Writers under East India Company after 1757, but within 50 years or so, the Parliament in London sensed the dilutions of morals in England, due to corrupt ‘nabobs’ returning with loots from India. They started sending the cleanest hands as Governor-Generals, starting with Cornwallis and with strict rules that were implemented, brought the Service to order and it went on to gain the admiration of the world as the most incorruptible Service at that time. It was interesting to note that this desire to maintain a Service with integrity was a result of moral cleansing that was passing through England in 18th century under the leadership of William Wilberforce of Clapham sect, which itself was the result of Protestantism, Puritanism, and Wesley’s evangelization of England. These factors have been described under ‘colonial ethics.’ Despite the plundering of the country under colonialism, the morals of an average bureaucrat under British Raj were quite high. Enlightenment and the Secular Rationalist Humanitarianism that developed in England during that time were the major reasons along with Christianity touched by Enlightenment. Definitely Corruption was considered a crime punishable under law during the British rule.

The code of conduct prescribed for the Service after independence was a reflection of this morality of ICS and values like honesty, integrity, political neutrality, equality before law and justice were given utmost importance. Recruitment to the Service itself was thrown open to all Indians through an impartial All India Written Examination and interview conducted by Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). However after the 1980s, when the Kothari Committee recommendations were implemented, the examination was thrown open to all candidates both rural and urban with subjects like MBBS and Engineering also admitted in a large manner, with centers to write the exam opened even in rural areas and all the national languages made as media of writing the exam. While this achieved broadening of the base for representation of all communities in the country’s administration, it did dilute the standards of values as the new recrutees, especially from the rural areas, were not exposed to the liberal education that is available in the urban area. They came with all the baggage like caste system, dowry demands and corruption as a way of life.

A survey and interview of the serving IAS officers in Karnataka conducted, exposed that neither the recruitment nor the training or the molding by the senior officers was to be blamed for the increase in corruption in the Service, but the political system that is there as a result of democracy. Politicians as well as the bureaucrats come from society and hence the factors that influence society are suspect. So I took up the detailed study of Hindu tenets (because Hinduism covers 85% of the Indian population), as seen in Upanishads, Bhagavad-Gita, Manusmriti (Indian social law code) and Arthasastra (Ancient Indian economic treatise). This showed the origin of all the known values and disvalues in Indian society, like caste system and the injustice, preference for boys over girls, suppression of women, mukti restricted to Brahmins and world viewed as maya and hence not of much value, corruption as a way of life, etc., emanating from these treatises.

Question: As a retired Indian Public Administrator and, right now, as a New Testament reader and learner, can you share your thoughts about the way we can integrate Christian religious thoughts and social norms efficaciously?

Dr. Shanthakumari: My study provided ample proof for the fact that the moral teachings of Jesus in the New Testament and the life he led as per these morals, leaving behind an example for us to follow, need to be instilled in our education system from the very first class for the children, so that a new generation with the right morals will come about. God created both men and women equally and that everyone is equal before God and that there could be no discrimination before God, have to be stressed, so that caste system and its unjust practices die fully. Inheriting the Kingdom of God means to live a life of moral up righteousness has to be stressed upon, as something that is demanded of us from Jesus Christ and God, whom Jesus called as his Father. There is no room for telling lies, or corruption or bribery or dishonest ways in the Kingdom of God. Our churches have to take up an active part in disseminating the message, both for salvation and for a moral living which is the result of salvation.

Question: Do you think that the message of the New Testament can be a ‘paradigm’ in the contemporary socio-religious and politico-cultural context of India-How and why?

Dr. Shanthakumari: The New Testament message is basically that forgiveness of sins on repentance is available to humans through faith in Jesus Christ and thus gains salvation of our souls so that we can enter eternal life. It also speaks of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, abiding in such believers enabling them to live a godly life as witnesses to Christ’s message. This is the religious context of the New Testament. Once the morals which flow as a result of knowing Christ as Lord and not just as a moral teacher are imbibed and the help of the Holy Spirit starts to direct the path, the political and cultural aspect of a community also will transform. Towards this goal we, especially those of us who call ourselves as Christians, must move relentlessly. We can definitely build on what is good in our existing culture.

Question: I know that right now you are reading and learning Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. How you would apply the message of the book to the contemporary Indian ecclesiastical context?

Dr. Shanthakumari: The main problem with Christianity in India is its divisions which not only confuse the Hindus, but also amuse them. Such divisions were found in Corinthian church also, which is the result of giving importance to human personalities more than Christ himself. Unless we of the various denominations forget our differences and unite in the name of Christ, we are a divided house and cannot make any impact. In spite of the highly demanding moral teachings of Christ, the example of Jesus Christ and the available help of the Holy Spirit that we indulge in such despicable habits is amazing. Unless we Christians can live a life reflecting the values taught and cherished by Christ, we can never be the salt on earth and light of the world.

Interviewed by Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

  1. Ani Thomas says:

    Dear bro, thank you for posting this interview. Indian democracy needs people like her who live out the life of Jesus Christ in every area of her life.Only the Word of God can transform anybody.

  2. Yes, I agree with you. “Christian participation in the Indian politics”–one of my age old dream. As M. M. Thomas & P. D. Devanandan dreamed, Christian participation in Nation Building is a necessity in the contemporary Indian context.

  3. […] (6) From Indian Public Administration to Comparative Religious Studies and Christian Thought: Dr. L. Sha… […]

  4. PRIYA DK says:

    The deterioration of morals among public servants is all too obvious today. However, I do not feel that this is a result of making the Civil Services exams more accessible for rural Indians or because of the teachings of any particular religion. The British did stress the “British sense of honour” although they did not always follow it – the Doctrine of Lapse, the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre were all very big chinks in their so-called moral armour. However, among the Imperial powers, the British were probably the most reasonable. The fact that America got its independence180 years before we did, and the fact that ours was probably the ONLY country on earth that gained independence through non-violent means attest to a basic British sense of integrity. The point is that integrity should result from an internal revolution, and we should develop an internal locus of control. For this to happen, it is essential to demolish all public shows of grandeur with posters ( a la Jayalalithaa) and create an awareness among human beings (beginning in their childhood itself) that all such glory is very very short lived, just like the dried-up and crushed pandal decorations that litter our streets. This tawdry side to glory has to be seen and experienced.

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