Freedom Issue 2016: Essay

The Un-Indian Civil Service

Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament and author
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The colonial core of the steel frame 

‘THE AGA KHAN,’ the College of Heralds in London once noted, ‘is held by his followers to be a direct descendant of God. English Dukes take precedence.’

The British ruled nineteenth century India with unshakeable self-confidence, buttressed by protocol, alcohol and a lot of gall. Stalin found it ‘ridiculous’ that “a few hundred Englishmen should dominate India”. He was not arithmetically accurate, but in principle he was right: it was remarkable that the British Raj was operated by so few people. There were only 31,000 Britons in India in 1805 (of whom 22,000 were in the army and 2,000 in civil government). The number increased substantially after 1857, but still, in 1931, there were just 168,000 Britons living in India (including 60,000 in the army and police and 4,000 in civil government)—to run a country approaching 300 million people. The British in India were never more than 0.05 per cent of the population.

They pulled this off with an extraordinary combination of racial self-assurance, superior military technology, the mystique of modernity and the trappings of enlightenment progressivism. There was also, of course, the cravenness, cupidity, opportunism and lack of organised resistance on the part of the vanquished, which—along with the judicious application of brute force—sustained the Empire. The Raj, in Eric Hobsbawm’s evocative words, was ‘so easily won, so narrowly based, so absurdly easily ruled, thanks to the devotion of a few and the passivity of the many’.

In Clive’s time the East India Company presided over a ‘dual’ system—the Company exercised power but propped up a puppet nawab. Warren Hastings ended the pretence and overthrew the nawab: direct administration was now under the control of the Company. Cornwallis, in 1785, created a professional cadre of Company servants who were to govern the country for the Company, reserving all high-level posts for the British, and placing Englishmen in charge of each district with the blunt title of ‘Collector’, since collecting revenue was their principal raison d’etre. The Collector usually exercised the dual function of magistrate in his district. The British thus ran government, tax collection, and administered what passed for justice. Indians were excluded from all of these functions.

With these tasks to be performed, a civil service came into being, nominated by the Company’s bigwigs from influential young people of their acquaintance, and trained after 1806 in Haileybury College, near London. After 1833, competitive examinations were introduced, though directors’ nominees could still be recruited on a nod and a wink. After 1853, selection was entirely examination-based, and thrown open to all White Britons. Demand for the imperial civil service was high, since the work was ridiculously well compensated, and the Company’s servants exercised genuine political power in India, which they could not hope to do in any equivalent job they might get in Britain. The tests did not seek to establish any knowledge of India or any sensitivity to its people; they sought to identify proper English gentlemen, and emphasised classical learning and good literary skills.

Several generations of some families served in India, some over three centuries, without ever establishing roots there: they sent their own children ‘home’ to school and endured years of separation from loved ones. It was not, of course, all self- sacrifice and hard work: ICS men earned the highest salaries of any official in the world, with generous furloughs and a guaranteed pension, and some at least found it ‘quite impossible’ to spend their income. The English political reformer John Bright, unsurprisingly, called the Empire a “gigantic system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain”.

The attitudes the ICS men brought to bear on their work in India had greatly deteriorated by the end of the nineteenth century from curiosity and concern to complacency and cant. ‘The whole attitude of Government to the people it governs is vitiated,’ wrote H Fielding-Hall in 1895, after 30 years of service in the ICS. ‘There is a want of knowledge and understanding. In place of it are fixed opinions based usually on prejudice or on faulty observation, or on circumstances which have changed, and they are never corrected. Young secretaries read up back circulars, and repeat their errors indefinitely… ‘following precedent’. ’

The British Labour politician Keir Hardie had described British rule in India as “a huge military despotism tempered somewhat by a civil bureaucracy”. That bureaucracy was all-pervasive, overpaid, obtusely process-ridden, remarkably inefficient and largely indifferent to the well-being of the people for whose governance it had, after all, been created. Lord Lytton, in a lighter mood, described British governance in India as “a despotism of office-boxes tempered by an occasional loss of keys”. Much of British bureaucracy was excessively formalistic; perhaps the obsession with procedure and paperwork resulted from a sneaking hope that anything resulting from the filling of forms in quadruplicate could not possibly be an injustice. It was also wedded inexcusably to its own pleasures, retreating to mountain redoubts in the hills for months on end to escape the searing heat of the plains, there to while away their time in entertainment, dances and social fripperies while the objects of their rule, the Indian people, were exploited ruthlessly below.

Their lifestyles, for the most part, separated them from the masses they sought to rule. The British in India created islands of Englishness, planting roses and giving their cottages nostalgia-suffused names

The British system of rule in India was, by any standards, remarkable. A 24-year-old district officer found himself in charge of 4,000 square miles and a million people. He was subject to the tyranny of the ‘Warrant of Precedence’ and the rigidities of protocol in a hierarchy- conscious society, the desperate importance of being able to play whist as an antidote to loneliness, and in due course, the incessant social obligations of higher office (a lieutenant-governor hosted, on a single day, a boathouse lunch, a thé dansant and garden party, and a dinner at the club). The diversions, though, were plentiful. In the summer capital of Simla, with its population of ‘grass widows’ enjoying the cooler air while their husbands toiled in the hot plains, the ‘main occupations’ were described as ‘gambling, drinking, and breaking the 7th Commandment’.

And yet there is no doubt about the heroic efforts of many individual civilians, who dug canals, founded colleges, administered justice and even, in some cases, advocated Indian self- rule. Their names became part of the geography of the Subcontinent: towns called Abbotabad, Lyallpur and Cox’s Bazar, Corbett Park, Cotton Hill, the Mcnabbwah canal. As a rare left-winger in the ICS, John Maynard, explained, ‘ugly pallid bilious men’ were able to ‘do great things in the very midst of their querulous discontents and unideal aspirations’.

But their lifestyles, for the most part, separated them from the masses they sought to rule. The British in India created little islands of Englishness, planting ferns and roses and giving their cottages nostalgia-suffused names like Grasmere Lodge (in Ootacamund) and Willowdale (in Darjeeling). By the early nineteenth century, the British had established themselves as a separate ruling caste, but at the top of the heap: they did not intermarry or inter-dine with the ‘lower’ castes (in other words, Indians); they lived in bungalows in their own areas, known as cantonments and ‘civil lines’, separated from the ‘Black Towns’ where the locals lived; they kept to their clubs, to which Indians were not admitted; their loyalties remained wedded to their faraway homeland; their children were shipped off to the British public school system and did not mingle with the ‘natives’; their clothes and purchases came from Britain, as did their books and ideas. At the end of their careers in India, for the most part, they returned ‘home’. As the English writer Henry Nevinson observed in the first decade of the twentieth century: ‘a handful of people from a distant country maintain a predominance unmitigated by social intercourse, marriage, or permanent residence.’

The Indian Civil Service, peculiarly, insisted that all ICS men remain bachelors until after the age of 30. This made them ripe for capture by the ‘fishing fleet’, as the boatloads of Englishwomen who came over to India to trawl for husbands in the mid- and late-nineteenth century were known. These ladies were usually rejects of the British upper and upper-middle-classes, women who were too smart or too plain to find a ‘good husband’ in their late teens or early twenties in England: once you were deemed too old for the English marriage market, it was either the boat to India or a spinster’s life as governess at home—and tales of the comforts of British life certainly made the boat a more attractive option. ICS officers (and other civilians, for that matter), forbidden to consort with local women, bored, lonely and frustrated by 30, were ripe for the picking. At English clubs and tennis matches, elegant balls and tiger shoots, the women of the ‘fishing fleet’ allowed themselves to be reeled in by eligible civilians. Insulated from India by their upbringing and new social circumstances, waited upon by a flotilla of servants and ignorant of contact with any other Indian, and susceptible to the prejudices of White Victorian England, these women were often the most guilty of racism and disdain for the country. They were responsible for turning British society prim and proper and rather priggish in its attitudes to relations with Indians.

That was the life of ICS men. Then, after 25 or more years in the Subcontinent, they retired to Cheltenham or South Kensington, to English suburbs that became known as ‘Asia Minor’ or ‘the Anglo-Indian Quarter’, surrounded by reminders and relics of the land they had ruled. One civilian settled in Teddington on the Thames and named his last home ‘Quetta’, for the capital of Baluchistan. Another, William Strachey, set his watch to Calcutta time even in England, as the writer Sir David Gilmour describes it, ‘eating breakfast at tea-time and living most of his life by candlelight’. It is a poignant image. But the candlelight has dimmed: the places named for the British have mostly been renamed— Lyallpur, in Pakistan, has been renamed Faisalabad, for a Saudi King.

After 1860, Indians were allowed to take the examinations too. But the Indian civil service remained, in ethos, British. One Viceroy, Lord Mayo, declared, “we are all British gentlemen engaged in the magnificent work of governing an inferior race.” Few shared Queen Victoria’s rumoured romantic feelings for brown skin.

Europeans occupy almost all the higher places in every department of Government. While in India they acquire India’s money, experience, and wisdom; and when they go, they carry both away with them. Thus India is left without, and cannot have, those elders in wisdom and experience who in every country are the natural guides of the rising generations in their national and social conduct, and of the destinies of their country; and a sad, sad loss this is!

The very element that indicts the ICS in the eyes of an Indian—its foreignness and its disconnection from the Indian people for whose benefit it was supposed to govern—was seen as a virtue in English eyes. The promised admission of Indians to the ICS was resisted at every level of the British government, and it had to be prised from the British grasp like the last gold nugget from the fist of a dead prospector. Even a moderate Civil Servant like H Fielding-Hall (who wrote books about India after his retirement suffused with sympathy for Indians though leavened by imperial attitudes), had this to say in objecting to the admission of Indians into the Covenanted—that is, the senior—civil services: ‘the Government of India is not Indian, it is English. It is essentially English, the more so and the more necessarily so because it is in India. …. England has made herself responsible for India, and she cannot shirk or divide this responsibility.’ He added: ‘Government must do its work in its own way, and that is the English way. No Indian can tell what this is.’

There was always, of course, the excuse of a substantive, as opposed to merely racialist, argument: it was, Fielding-Hall explained, impossible to place Indian civilians in places where cooperation with military or military police officers would be essential. But the essence of the problem emerged soon enough. Whites in India would never accept an Indian in a position of real authority, Fielding-Hall insisted in 1913: ‘that an Indian should rule Europeans, and that it should be to an Indian they looked for the maintenance of peace and order and for the administration of justice, criminal and civil, is unthinkable. The stability of the administration is due to its being English, and any threat to that stability would not be borne.’

In substantiation of his case, Fielding-Hall recounted the experience of an early Indian in the ICS, a ‘Mr Chetty’, who after an English education at Wren’s and Oxford, ranked high in the Civil Services examination and was posted to a district in India. But there the club—the centre of all social life for officialdom and other English civilians— refused to admit him as a member. This was more than a personal privation: it was an absolute handicap in his career, since so much official work, and so many professional relationships, were dealt with and processed over a drink at the club. Fielding- Hall, who did not disapprove of the racial discrimination practised by his fellow Englishmen, blamed it on the unwise policy of recruiting Indians for jobs only the English should do. He muses about such an ICS Indian: ‘Socially he belongs to no world. He has left his own and cannot enter the other. And you cannot divorce social life from official life. They are not two things, but one.’ He adds: ‘In the end Chetty shot himself. It was a sad end for a man gifted and likeable. And although such an end was unusual, the causes which led to it are universal. I have known several civilians who were Indians, and… I think they were all unhappy.’

This reads chillingly to any modern mind, but Fielding-Hall was by no means the worst of his tribe: reading him, you realise he was more broad- minded and humane than most of his peers. The British had no illusions about preparing Indians for self-government; their view of Indians was at best paternalist, at worst contemptuous (well into the twentieth century, they spoke and wrote of the need to treat Indians as ‘children’, incapable of ruling themselves).

It is not as if the best and brightest staffed the posts available to Britons in India. Lord Asquith declared in 1909 that “if high places were given to Hindus half as unfit as the Englishmen who then occupied them in India, it would be regarded as a public scandal.” Mediocrities ruled the roost, and they were paid far more than Indians since they had to endure the ‘hardships’ of the Indian heat—despite the warmth of the sun offering a welcome respite, for most, from the cold and fog of grey, benighted Blighty. They were also, as a rule, singularly smug and self-satisfied and insufferably patronising in their attitudes to Indians (when they were not simply contemptuous). Jawaharlal Nehru put it sharply: the Indian Civil Service, he said, was “neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service”.

Racial discrimination was pervasive in the ICS. While Indians were theoretically entitled to senior positions in the Indian (formerly Imperial) Civil Service, and Satyendranath Tagore (elder brother of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore) broke into its elite ranks as early as 1863, most applicants were turned down and only a handful succeeded him for decades afterwards—and the ones who did, including Satyendranath Tagore, suffered the most appalling racial discrimination and personal humiliation in their careers. After 30 years’ ICS service in a series of insignificant posts, Satyendranath, who was a brilliant linguist, lyricist and social reformer, could only retire as a judge in the provincial Maharashtrian town of Satara.

The very element that indicts the ICS in the eyes of an Indian—its foreignness and its disconnection from the Indian people for whose benefit it was supposed to govern—was seen as a virtue in English eyes

Lord Lytton, writing confidentially as Viceroy in 1878 to his superiors in London, was frank about the betrayal of the ‘educated Indians whose development the Government encourages without being able to satisfy the aspiration of its existing members; every such Indian, once admitted to Government employment in posts previously reserved to the Covenanted Service, is entitled to expect and claim appointment in the fair course of promotion to the highest posts in that service. We all know that these claims and expectations never can or will be fulfilled [emphasis in original]. We have had to choose between prohibiting them and cheating them, and we have chosen the least straight-forward course.’

The cheating continued in awful ways for several decades more. Another of the very early Indian entrants into the ICS, Surendranath Banerjee, was dismissed from the service altogether in 1874 for a minor infraction that might not have earned an English officer a reprimand. He went on to become a distinguished academician, journalist, editor, orator (one English journalist hailed him as the finest orator he had heard in English since Gladstone) and twice President of the Indian National Congress—but it is noteworthy that an individual of intellectual and administrative ability far in excess of most of his contemporaries should have been seen by the British not as a talent to be made use of in the Government’s interest, but as an element to be eliminated by dismissal from its employment.

Similarly Aurobindo Ghosh—then named Ackroyd Ghosh—after studying at Manchester, St Paul’s School and Cambridge University, ranked second out of several thousand candidates in the examinations for the Indian Civil Service but was not selected because he was deemed to have failed the riding test. (He went on to achieve worldwide renown and immortality as Sri Aurobindo, founder of a global spiritual movement that flourishes in Puducherry.)

The long-term consequences of this system included the failure to build up human capital in India, as Dadabhoy Naoroji argued in 1880: “With the material wealth go also the wisdom and experience of the country. Europeans occupy almost all the higher places in every department of Government directly or indirectly under its control. While in India they acquire India’s money, experience and wisdom; and when they go, they carry both away with them, leaving India so much poorer in material and moral wealth. Thus India is left without, and cannot have, those elders in wisdom and experience who in every country are the natural guides of the rising generations in their national and social conduct, and of the destinies of their country; and a sad, sad loss this is!”

But this was deliberate policy. William Makepeace Thackeray spoke of the need to suppress ‘haughtiness’, ‘deep thought’ and ‘independence’ of spirit in India: “they are directly adverse to our powers and interest. We do not want generals, statesmen and legislators. We want industrious husbandmen.” The result, of course, was racist discrimination in every sphere.

The British bureaucracy in India was also absurdly over-compensated by comparison with their local counterparts. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the Yorkshire-born American JT Sunderland observed that the imbalance in salaries and emoluments was so great that 8,000 British officers earned £13,930,554, while 130,000 Indians in government service were collectively paid a total of £3,284,163. The Indians were shown their place in their ranks, authority, positions assigned, lack of career advancement—and every month when their salary slips arrived.

This, then, was the ‘steel frame’ of the Raj, whose heritage would be acquired and adapted by the independent Government that came into being 69 years ago. A different ruling caste now takes precedence.