An Invalid Character Certificate

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A loose comments by a senior officer about the character of the author, in the presence of her husband – they are officers in the Assam state services – was humiliating for both of them. Hemashri bares the working of a government department, the insensitivity of some of its officers, lack of respect for women colleagues, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

Not that I nurture any grudge but some painful memories never fade away!

Character certificate is a delicate issue. In our filed postings, often we used to get requests to issue character certificates of strangers which were required by the applicants for jobs. It was always a tricky situation. Refusal would lead to rejection of such prayers. As a public servant, it was against our ethics to cause distress to job seekers. On the other hand, in a terrorist infected trouble prone state, it could be very risky to issue such character certificates without proper verification. There was a time when we could not locate any specific guidelines clarifying procedures for issuing such certificate. So we had to handle it by applying common sense. We asked the applicant to get a certificate from the Principal or head of the educational institution attended last by the applicant. Based on that certificate we used to countersign or issue a fresh one. Gradually, we found specific directions for police verification for certain category of such certificate. All that I learned was character certificate is a delicate area and it is very crucial for the one who needs it. It may make or mar a person’s career.

During my time as a student, I had to apply for such document on several occasions and I feel happy that every time I received very generous certificates about my character and conduct. However, one such certificate would remain a painful memory until my last breath.

After ten years of field postings in several far-flung areas of the state, we suddenly received orders of transfers. That was some eleven years ago when both my husband and I were posted in a far-flung, outlying subdivision. The district headquarter was 133 kilometres away and it was a sleepy hamlet where the subdivision was created a few years ago. We had two infants to take care of and a critically sick mother, seven hours away from that place. Life was challenging. Most officers in that subdivision had their families in the state capital and so they were away every weekend. We two were the only ones available during weekends or holidays at the district headquarter.  Our trips were restricted to emergency situations for ailing parents or when the kids were sick. The only reliable doctor in the small hamlet was a general physician, who attended all categories of patients. Life was good in that green land with pristine pure air.

All of a sudden, we husband and wife received transfer orders at two different locations. My husband was transferred to a further interior place, while I was made an election officer in the neighbouring subdivision which was under the same district. Elections were due in a few months and as per official norms officers serving for more than three years in a district are transferred to another district before elections. So we understood that joining the new posting would lead to another transfer within a few months.

There were many officers who never saw the state beyond the boundary of the state capital yet officers like us were serving sincerely in an outlying subdivision were sent off to two far away locations. We came down to submit a representation narrating our issues. However, the responsible seniors refused to even give a hearing not to speak of sympathetic consideration. The local MLA of our place of posting was a cabinet rank minister, who treated officers working in his constituency very respectfully. He came to know about our crisis and we came to know he had given a note to place us in his department. Accordingly, our vindictive transfers to two different locations got cancelled after serving in far-flung areas for more than a decade. We both got new transfer orders in two different wings of a huge department. This raised many eyebrows as we were unknown officers working in interior locations till that time.

Postings in the state capital were a monopoly of the kith and kin of powerful bureaucrats and politicians. To welcome me to the state capital after a dedicated tenure of ten long years in various nook and corners of the state, I became a news item in some obscure local daily where I was rumoured to be the favourite lady of the influential minister. We took it as our challenge to justify our placement. After a few months on the eve of the election, my husband was again transferred to an interior place, which was obviously a vindictive strategy. We both went to submit a prayer that only a few months back he had joined in this new posting. The powerful bureaucrat told my husband, “You go and join this posting. I have not disturbed her till now.” Looking at me, the man distorted his face and told me, “I have gone through your file and saw your background. You may be a bright officer but why the minister recommended your posting? I must tell you I have formed an opinion about your character.” I was shocked to hear such cheap comments from a responsible bureaucrat and that too in presence of my husband. It was not only an injustice to a lady but a humiliation to a man to berate his wife. Tears rolled down my cheeks and yet in a nonchalant manner, I retorted back, “Sir, I would like to request you to form an informed opinion about me. Nothing more. While forming opinion or judgement about my character, my service track record of last ten years should also be taken into account instead of just a note of it on some other basis.” I never felt so humiliated. Till this day, that remains the murkiest character certificate in my life. Unfortunately, the minister faced trial in a case and he even served conviction yet both my husband and I were in that department for a long time even after his departure from politics. My husband earned many laurels as a core member of the team which conducted the first Teacher Eligibility Test, which leads to an unprecedented record of issuing appointment letters to 26,000 teachers. The module for this was developed from Andhra Pradesh and my husband was given credit for meticulous planning and smooth execution of this process which was a highly transparent procedure.

I do not know what the man sitting on his high horse with faulty ears to form a judgement based on inputs from third rated people now think of us. Often we cannot access influential people sitting in important posts but who are their advisors or favourites give an inkling of how they operate. This man’s most trusted counsel was an officer, who was a senior in my college. This confused man’s claim to greatness was that his father was also a bureaucrat of disrepute. As people graduate to higher ranks, they should have an obligation to be fair to all. This man in the high post will never perhaps even realise what pity I feel for his obnoxious behaviour. No matter where he reaches he will never be able to command our respect.

I have every reason to believe that my character certificate stands invalid if it’s allowed to be examined by a neutral third party. The man who tried to intimidate could never really scare me. Life moves on.

This bitter incident gave a precious lesson to be very careful, while issuing a character certificate, no matter how humble the applicant appears to be.

©Hemashri Hazarika 

Photos from the Internet

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Hemashri Hazarika is an Officer of the Assam Civil Service since 1997. Her research on Assam Civil Service brought reforms in 2015. A first-class Postgraduate in Economics from Gauhati University, she was awarded JRF/NET by UGC in 1997. Her experience as a bureaucrat has sensitised her to human sufferings. A solutionist by passion, she takes an active interest in issues related to Governance, Development, Women, Children, etc. Reading, Writing, Speaking and Painting are her hobbies.