Acclaimed, Afflicted

on Thursday, January 15, 2009

The life and times of former Patna DM Gautam Goswami, who passed away recently


When Gulabi Ghat, the popular cremation ground on the banks of the Ganga in the Bihar capital, received a distinguished guest on a frugal bier on his final journey on Tuesday, January 6, the ambience betrayed a tragic irony. The cremation of Dr Gautam Goswami, the bureaucrat who was at once hailed for his many acts of exemplary uprightness and assailed for one alleged involvement in corruption, was marked by the sheer absence of any of the usual signs of public emotion befitting his rare status as the recipient of Time magazine's Asian Hero award just four years back.

Goswami, known as much for the international award as his alleged involvement in the multi-crore Bihar Flood Relief Scam of 2004, died of aggravated pancreatic cancer following a cardiac arrest at a Patna private nursing home at age 41. Widely respected by his colleagues in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) as a bureaucrat with proven courage and creativity, he had been facing charges of embezzling Rs 17.8 crore meant for flood relief when he was the district magistrate (DM) of Patna for the second time. In a vigilance probe ordered in April 2005, he was charged with deliberately diverting this amount to a fictitious organisation run by a contractor close to a top RJD leader and was rigorously hounded by the police till his surrender in July that year.

After his release from jail and the subsequent revocation of his suspension order by the Nitish Kumar government in December last year, an ailing Goswami was very hopeful of proving his innocence in the trial of the case that had just begun. But he lost the battle against cancer and died at his prime with the unbearable, unproven taint of a scamster. Only a handful of people, mostly his colleagues in the IAS and IPS, accompanied his body along with his family members and the air along the Ganga was heavy with an unusual stillness.

The taint had left Goswami almost untouchable for most politicians, members of his bureaucratic fraternity and the public. The people of Patna, where he displayed his excellence in duty during his two stints as DM, in 1999 and 2003, were once highly respectful of him, but now they were apparently too opinionated and hesitant to escort the fallen hero's funeral procession to the Ganga's banks.

The untimely, almost lonely death of this bureaucrat with so much proven excellence in public service has now thrown open the difficult question whether Goswami had sinned more than he was sinned against. Many of his colleagues in the IAS believe the man, with his unflinching zeal for service and habit of securing a solution to every problem regardless of the red tapes, was very unlikely to have succumbed to the lure of money.

"It was his growing popularity among the people and the media that made an influential section of Bihar's IAS officials too jealous of

The jinx with Goswami's 1991 batch of IAS

Gautam Goswami's death now makes many in the IAS wonder if the 1991 batch of the service was indeed jinxed. In the past only 17 years, Goswami is the fifth officer of the batch to have died. All these deaths of the young administrative officers have the uncanny similarity of having been rather freak incidents.

While Bala Vikram, a Punjab-cadre IAS officer of the 1991 batch, died all of a sudden minutes after he had gaily joined his wife after a tennis match, his batch-mate Veer Abhimanyu Raghav of the Sikkim cadre, who had secured the 18th all-India rank in the UPSC examination, died during a train accident by falling from his upper berth. He was the only passenger in his coach to die. A road accident claimed the life of Manipur-cadre IAS officer of the same batch, Viraj Verma, who hailed from Bihar. But it all started with the bizarre death of a young Rajasthani man who had secured the fourth rank in the UPSC examinations of 1991. He was murdered a day after the examination's results were announced.

"It now certainly looks like my 1991 batch of IAS is jinxed. Gautam's sudden demise at just 41 years of age now makes me believe even more so," said a visibly depressed Pratyay Amrit, chairman of the Bihar State Bridge Construction Corporation, who is also of the 1991 batch of the IAS.

him and angered quite a few politicians. He was clearly framed in the scam as a consequence," said a close relative of Goswami's to TEHELKA shortly before the fallen bureaucrat's cremation. A senior IAS colleague of Goswami's said with request for anonymity: "When, in the desperate, anxiety-ridden times of managing a huge relief operation in 2004, he was misled by his subordinates to divert a part of the relief money to a fake firm, he was merely made to conform to Bihar's pervasive culture of corruption at that time. But what he did for saving the flood-affected people's lives would remain a milestone in public service".

Goswami, a medical doctor by training before joining the IAS – he acquired his MD degree after receiving a gold medal for topping the MBBS exam from Benaras Hindu University (BHU) – had displayed his undiminished zeal for public service when he was released on bail in November 2006 after spending 18 months in jail. He had declared his wish to devote himself fulltime in the absolutely free treatment of AIDS patients. "His illness deteriorated mostly due to his feeling of demoralisation. The Nitish government revoked his suspension on December 2008. He could have lived longer if the government had done it earlier," said his lawyer Tuhin Shankar.

His widow, Dr Anuradha Goswami, was too inconsolable to speak, but his grieving father, Dr Utpalendu Goswami, suggested that his son was put on a political and social trial long before the real trial in a court could begin. A sobbing Utpalendu Goswami told TEHELKA: "He himself knew, and all of us in the family and his close friends in the bureaucracy knew, that he was innocent. He was waiting for the time to prove it. But the entire atmosphere of stigma and animosity created around him caused him constant mental torture all these years and this worsened his sickness. The hero of Time died before his time".

Goswami's continuous rise in fame and his steep moral and physical fall bear ironies and drama quite befitting the life of a Shakespearean tragic hero. It was the management of flood relief operations in 2004, where his earnestness and skills earned him the Time magazine award. Yet it was the allegations of financial fraudulence in the same flood relief operations the same year that led to Goswami's arrest and his imprisonment for 17 months before he was granted get bail. It was Aravind Adiga, the then India correspondent of Time magazine, who had written a glowing piece extolling Goswami's work. Goswami, who received the honour in Seoul, soon got embroiled in allegations of corruption and got sick rapidly while Adiga rose to turn a novelist and win the Booker Prize for his first novel, The White Tiger, based on a poor man from Bihar.

Goswami's 17 years in the IAS – he was an all-India rank-holder in the civil services main examinations of 1991 – were marked by his nearly meteoric rise in popularity. According to people who knew him from close quarters, it was this childlike sensitivity, creativity and sincerity about his duties as an officer that set him apart from most others in the civil services in Bihar. The Time magazine honour in 2004, where he shared space with such icons as Bollywood heartthrob Shahrukh Khan and musician Anouska Shankar, was the icing on the cake of recognition Goswami had attracted for his achievements as a bureaucrat.

He had a persistent proclivity for treating the sick even when he was posted in administrative jobs. In Rosera, in Bihar's Samastipur district, where he got his first posting as the SDO after joining the IAS, he would devote a day every week treating patients free. "That was something amazing to come from an IAS officer and very fortunate for the poor. Goswami had that tenderness of heart, which he retained throughout," said Subhomoorthy, a Rosera-based social activist and associate of Jaiprakash Narayan, to TEHELKA.

The bureaucrat, born in Bihar's Rohtas district and educated in Ranchi and Benaras, shot to limelight and became a darling of the media first in 1999, when the general elections were conducted peacefully in trouble-prone Patna district under his close observation as the DM. Then, during the campaigning in April 2004 for the general elections, he became the darling of the masses and the idol for many aspirants of the IAS for his courage to physically stop the then Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani from continuing with his campaign speech to a rally at Gandhi Maidan in Patna beyond the stipulated time limit of 10 pm. "Mr Advani, your time is up," is what Goswami reportedly told Advani after climbing onto the podium and putting his hand on the microphone.

But, according to Goswami's family sources, he was too frustrated with the political interferences in a bureaucrat's work in Bihar and therefore decided to quit the IAS to join the Sahara India Pariwar as a vice president. He joined the company while his resignation was yet to be accepted by the state government, but soon his name cropped up in the relief scam along with RJD MP and Railway Minister Lalu Prasad's brother-in-law Sadhu Yadav and Santosh Jha, a contractor close to Sadhu. With a non-bailable warrant and a cash award of Rs 1lakh for his arrest chasing him and his new employer sacking him, he spent over a month on the run. When an anticipatory bail proved elusive, he surrendered in the vigilance court in July 2005 in his usual dramatic style, putting on a turban and sporting a lavish moustache to hide his identity and reaching the court in a Hero Honda motorcycle.

Goswami's doctor wife would now rear her two children – son Vishal, 11, and daughter Bipasha, 8 – without the love of a father but, more importantly, with the ever palpable air of the kids having had a father who became spectacularly famous but died incredibly infamous. Maybe the trial in the flood relief scam would one day exonerate him of the charges. But that day Goswami would not be there to say what he was saying was right.


Anonymous said...

Do you think Goswami really did it? Or do you think it's just a big fat lie?

quinn said...

Okay lets look at some facts:

Goswami, a medical doctor MD degree after receiving a gold medal for topping the MBBS exam from Benaras Hindu University (BHU)

17 years stint in IAS(Indian Administrative Service)

He was an all-India rank-holder in the civil services main examinations of 1991.It is one of the toughest in the country and takes a min of 3 years of studies just to crack it.

Management of flood relief operations in 2004, where his earnestness and skills earned him the Time magazine award.

Does a man of such calibre join the Civil service for the lure of money when he could have joined a private Biotech firm and easily have earned 10-fold or migrated to a developed country like most youth of his calibre do.

Anonymous said...

good points and the details are more precise than elsewhere, thanks.

- Norman