A woman civil servant, who took on a powerful clique of business and political interests and was suspended from her job, has become the rallying point of civil servants across the country and is drawing support from civil society against what is perceived as growing criminalisation in the Indian political system.
The suspension of Durga Shakti Nagpal, a doughty 28-year-old 2009-batch officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) by the state government July 29, has led to a public outcry, but, according to a retired civil servant, triggered the "collective conscience of the country to rise against criminality in politics".
Her suspension for allegedly taking on the politically well-connected sand-mining dons, backed by powerful real estate barons, has stirred the country and made the young bespectacled woman - aptly named after the Goddess Durga of the Hindu pantheon who is worshipped as a symbol of feminine power - a crusader who dared to tread where others feared.
As outrage mounted against the arbitrary manner the state government suspended the woman IAS officer, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav gave the entire episode a religious twist by saying that the sub-divisional magistrate of Noida was removed for razing a mosque wall and which could have led to inter-community tensions in the area and not for any action against the "sand mafia".
The regional Samajwadi Party government in Uttar Pradesh is viewed as pro-Muslim. Muslims comprise about 20 percent of the state's over 200 million population.
But subsequent events have disproved this argument.
Muslims in Noida, a fast-growing suburb in the eastern periphery of Delhi that has seen a spurt of building activity in the last decade and sports rows upon rows of commercial towers and multi-storeyed condominiums, have refuted the government's stand that the official was acting against the community.
The All India IAS officers Association has rallied behind the young officer.
"All IAS officers across the country are with us. We have got tremendous support from the media and the common people," association secretary Sanjay R. Bhoos Reddy said.
He said the association decided to come out in open support of her because of frequent harassment of honest and upright officers by their political bosses.
"In the last 22 years, there have been 200 suspensions in the country, of that 105 are in Uttar Pradesh. That is the reason we are taking it up now. We don't get into individual cases, but when it becomes a systemic malice, we had to interfere," Reddy told IANS.
"It is a very difficult battle because we are a part of the system and we have to fight against the system," he added, saying they had received large support from ordinary people and the media.
Durga has now become a cause celebre in India's vigorous social media which has come out in open support of the gutsy woman official. Both Twitter and Facebook had overnight pages on her name with thousands following news about her. In just four days, her Facebook page has already over 4,500 followers.
Even the judiciary patted her back for taking action against illegal mining but stopped short of pronouncing judgement on her suspension, saying it was outside its purview.
This is not the first time a bureaucrat has been punished for taking on the powerful sand mining mafia. In the past, an attempt was made to kill then sub-division magistrate (SDM) Vishal Singh who was finally removed by a previous government.
The seemingly unceasing mining operation on the Yamuna and Hindon riverbeds in western Uttar Pradesh is encouraged by the increasing demand for sand for construction by realtors, mostly operating in the Noida, Greater Noida and Ghaziabad areas.
Social activist and farmer leader Dushyant Nagar, who had tipped the administration several times on illegal miners, said: "It is not only the sand mining mafia that is behind SDM Nagpal's suspension. The builders' lobby too has a strong hand in the episode. In fact, they have a greater role."
According to Surinder S. Jodhka, professor and chair at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems in Jawaharlal Nehru University, the growing Indian middle class is no longer happy to sit quietly, but wants to force the government's to notice what ails the society.
"This is the whole thing about the arrival of the middle class. Five years back the middle class would have looked away, but we have seen the way they are now voicing concern over large number of issues, like the anti-corruption movement, or women's safety issues, and the growing criminalisation of politics. It certainly indicates a change for the better."