The Indian Civil Service

The Indian Civil Service
To hundreds of thousands of Indians the British Raj was personified by its administrative arm, the Indian Civil Service, by which the British governed its imperial possession through a small elite spread thinly throughout the vast sub-continent.

The Indian Civil Service was a tiny administrative elite, never more than twelve hundred in number and, until the Twentieth Century, overwhelmingly British in composition. It was composed of those officers appointed under Section XXXII of the Government of India Act of 1858 to posts reserved for them alone. Officers were recruited by competitive examination at first held only in London but later also in Allahabad and the strength of the Service was restricted to the number 'absolutely necessary to fill the supervising and controlling offices' of the governing structure. The lower ranks of the administration were peopled by a vast army of subordinate clerks and provincial staff, recruited in India to do the more humdrum tasks. But the hierarchy was headed and guided by the well controlled hand of carefully selected ICS officers. These officers held all the key posts: they surrounded the Viceroy, they dominated the provincial governments and they were ultimately responsible for overseeing all government activity in the two hundred and fifty districts that comprised British India.

Much nonsense has been written about the romantic, glamorous notion of a single ICS officer riding around his district, dispensing even-handed justice to a grateful and submissive peasantry. Settling law cases before breakfast, such a paragon apparently corrected land records before lunch, shot a tiger or two before dinner and wrote some Latin verse before taking a cold bath and retiring to a camp bed. The reality was far more prosaic. Stripped of its glamorous trappings, some of which had little reality away from the pages of memoirs and autobiographies, the job of most ICS officers was hard, unremitting, not particularly well rewarded and sometimes frustrating. Neither should we over-estimate how much an lCS officer could hope to achieve. Operating always on a shoe string, the British Raj could make only a limited impact upon the fabric of Indian life. The vast scale of the sub-continent, the ravages of disease and the vagaries of the climate were unrelenting constraints which inhibited change.

The Indian Civil Service perhaps enjoyed most confidence in its ability to rule India during the Nineteenth Century. The higher levels of government were untramelled by popular ministers, whilst the tentacles of bureaucracy had not yet reached out into the districts and, unhindered by motor transport or telephones, the district officer was left alone to get on with the job. Men of powerful character could make their personalities felt. Lawrence, in the Punjab, had a very clear picture of the way in which the job should be tackled: the 'ideal' district officer, he reckoned, was 'a hard, active man in boots and breeches, who almost lived in the saddle, worked all day and nearly all night, ate and drank when and where he could, had no family ties to hamper him, and whose whole establishment consisted of a camp bed, an odd table and chair or so and a small box of clothes such as could be slung on a camel. The ideal magistrate must decide cases either sitting on horseback in the village gateway or under a tree outside the village walls... Heat, sun, rain, climatic changes of all sorts were to be matters of indifference to him. There was no place for drawing room niceties as an officer who made the mistake of taking a piano with him to the Punjab discovered. 'I'll smash his piano for him' Lawrence declared and moved the officer five times from one end of the province to the other in two years.

Gradually, however, the ICS became bogged down in administrative minutiae. Within the secretariats, systems became long-winded and laborious and paper work increased enormously. District officers received continual demands for reports on subjects as various as police administration, excise, tea gardens and railway accidents. Fendall Currie launched a vitriolic attack on the secretariat wallahs who kept the district officer 'tied to his desk writing voluminous reports, which nobody ever reads, and compiling returns and statistics of... hopeless inutility.' Ridiculous practices re-developed: letters were placed in docket covers and their contents 'summarised' at greater length than the original; documents were printed only to be sent a few yards down the corridor. The Public Services Commission of 1886 found that officers too often rose by seniority rather than by merit, whilst the Hobhouse Commission of 1909 found that many officers could not speak the vernacular tongue of their district, knew too little about the customs, way of life and habits of their charges and failed to do sufficient touring.

Efforts were made to ginger up this rather creaky machine but it took the dual impact of a major bout of constitutional reform and the cataclysm of the First World War to bring about a real change in the style of the ICS. The Montagu Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 introduced a degree of popular control of local councils, some responsible government in the provinces and, whilst retaining parliamentary supremacy, promised to relax the control of parliament and the Secretary of State in London. The Montagu Chelmsford Report acknowledged that 'in future, there must be more partnership, which means for the official extra work, explanation, consultation and attempts to carry with him those who will one day do the work themselves.' Members of the ICS had, for the first time, to deal with elected ministers and to face more political criticism than had previously been the case.

Constitutional reform and the advent of elected Indian ministers had a considerable impact on the work of the ICS but the First World War had far more. The War shook the ICS as it shook just about every other British institution. First of all, it disrupted European recruitment. The 1914 examination was in progress when war was declared and by the time that the results were announced, eleven of the successful forty-seven candidates had already entered military service and three more followed them. As the War dragged on, making ever greater demands on manpower, ICS vacancies mounted until, by 1918, the Service was two hundred men short, a serious matter in so small a Service. After the War, it was difficult to interest young men in a career in India and the India Office had to abandon its efforts to maintain a set ratio of Indian and European candidates, admitting a 'disproportionate' number of the former. Greater employment opportunities for Indians had been part and parcel of the constitutional reforms but the government was forced to go further than it had intended because it simply could not get sufficient Europeans to fill ICS posts.

Members of the ICS faced the 1920's with a rather bitter taste in their mouths. Financially, officers were finding it difficult to make ends meet. There was a nineteenth-century joke that ICS officers were a good bet on the marriage market, worth '300 pounds dead or alive', assured of a steady and increasing income, culminating in an annual pension of 1,000 pounds. But the joke turned sour when the bottom fell out of the rupee market. ICS salaries and conditions of service no longer compared well with those offered by the business houses and many European officers began to wonder if they should stay in India. The mounting scale of Gandhi's non-co-operation movement and the vacillation of the government of India in dealing with that movement served to deepen this self-doubt.

In a bid to encourage the ICS and indeed the other Services in India, the British government appointed a Royal Commission to inquire into their grievances and to suggest remedies. The Commission was chaired by Lord Lee, (the man who gave Chequers to the nation), and not by the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, in whom it was clear the Services had little trust. The Commission's Report, published in 1924, proposed much improved conditions of service for the ICS and officers received their first pay rise since Cornwallis had instituted the scales in the early Nineteenth Century.

Whilst the growth of the Indian National Congress and the demand for self-government pressed on officers serving at provincial headquarters or in Delhi, life in the district jogged along reasonably calmly. The telephone and the motor car opened up the districts to more outside interference and the district officer was no longer quite such an independent agent but in the 1920's and early 30's, he still enjoyed considerable autonomy. He remained mabap (mother and father) to his charges: personal rule was still the order of the day and if some old responsibilities had lessened, new laws added different duties. Hut the politicians' demand for further constitutional progress was mounting and the Simon Commission, despatched to India by the British government, recommended that some concessions be made.

The 1935 Government of India Act, a monumental statute, long in its gestation and wide in its range, granted full responsible government in the Provinces and a greater say for Indian politicians at Delhi. Elections were held and the Congress Party swept to power in seven of the eleven provinces. The enthusiasm with which the new ministers set about their work illustrated their determination to prove the reality of their power. But there was a gulf fixed between the hurly burly of the political hustings with their hasty dishing out of lavish promises and the dryness of day to day administration. It was the difficult job of the ICS tactfully to persuade their political master to tackle the latter.

Adjustment was the motif which ran through this period of responsible government. Newly elected ministers on the one hand had to come to terms with their dependence upon the professional expertise of the ICS and with the necessity of working within established administrative convention. ICS officers, on the other hand., who had long viewed themselves as the guardians of smooth administration both in the secretariats and in the districts, had to accept that efficiency alone was no longer enough and that the price of self- government might, in some cases, be the sacrifice of such efficiency. The handover of authority to ministers with a very different set of values and perspectives appeared to threaten the prestige of the Service. But it was not just the politicians and the civil servants who had to make adjustments. So too did the electorate. It was necessary to grasp the complex distinction between a political party and a government composed of members of that party. The implications had also to be worked through of an altered district hierarchy within which the traditional power of the district officer was lessened whilst that of ministerial supporters was increased.

The advent of fully responsible ministers obviously marked a fundamental change in the techniques of government control. But this was, in reality, a very subdued revolution and the ICS, despite the theory, continued to exercise a remarkable degree of influence at all levels of political activity. The Service remained the 'steel frame' upon which government hung, despite the heavy load imposed upon it and the strain to which it was exposed. Nehru declared that the working of the ministries had 'exploded the myth of ICS competence... accustomed to work in a stereotyped way, it cannot adapt to new changes or directions. It put obstacles and showed deliberate disloyalty to the Congress ministers... It showed itself very slow and could not execute the orders issued by the ministers with promptitude. This was an unfair attack for, on the whole, ICS officers and elected ministers worked well together, Of course, there were problems: some ministers devoted too much time to political meetings and too little to routine, departmental work. Others swooped into a district which made for good copy but poor relations with the administrative services. Officers, particularly, in Bengal and Bihar, complained that ministers interfered too much with district affairs. But in Madras, for instance, the reforms worked admirably and The Times praised the prime minister, Rajagopalachari, as a 'leader whose rational approach to most of his problems assures a continuity... of sound and ordered government.'

Constitutional progress was halted in 1939 when the Congress ministries resigned in protest at the Viceroy's automatic declaration of war on India's behalf. In the seven ex-Congress provinces, ICS officers had once more to assume the reins of government. The most immediate effects of the resignation of the Congress governments were felt at the provincial headquarters where secretariat officers were relieved of the burden of coping with inexperienced ministers and overactive legislative bodies. A let-up in the spate of resolutions, questions and new legislation came as a welcome respite and officials reverted to established secretariat procedures. District officers too, although less affected by the period of responsible government, were not altogether sorry to return to old times. They were restored to posts of real authority as the pivots of district administration and in Bombay, for example, district officers once more became chairmen of the various rural development organisations. Even where the Congress regime had worked reasonably well, it is true to say that officers felt some relief at gaining a temporary respite and, whilst there was no widespread overhaul - officers did not set to with the proverbial new broom - there was a discreet tidying up around the edges for which the particular circumstances provided an admirable opportunity.

The demands of wartime, however, imposed a heavy burden upon the administration and ICS officers faced an almost overwhelming challenge. The government of India issued a memorandum stating that 'no business, whatever its intrinsic importance [was] entitled to claim the time of staff unless it [was] directly related to the war effort' but this did little to halt the mounting workload. More and more officers were siphoned off from the districts in order that they might tackle the many headed hydra of expanding secretariat work: civil defence, air raid precautions, food controls and recruiting drives were tagged on to the monstrous growth. One governor became so exasperated that he declared that his districts had been 'fleeced' of ICS officers, leaving even more work for those few remaining.

The government of India had learnt its lesson in the First World War and refused to allow officers to leave the Service in order to join up. This caused considerable resentment particularly amongst many younger officers, anxious about their families at home and disillusioned by the attitude of Indian politicians. In his letter of resignation, a young ICS officer serving in the United Provinces refused 'to help hold on to a seething mutinous country for the British Empire - the country is far too divided into its own petty squabbles to present a problem so far as holding on to is concerned. As a defender of India I am of no real use - any enemy who gets into a position to attack India will be able to simply walk in and help himself.'

Despite the government's best endeavours, however, it seemed that the mistakes of the First World War would be repeated. Recruitment to the ICS dried up, plans to grant leave 'on as generous a scale as is consistent with efficiency' faltered as men could not be spared and the Service as a whole grew tired and disheartened. The inexorable Japanese advance thrust India into the front line and a series of military set- backs caused many Americans and some Britons seriously to questions the colonial system, and a vigorous lobby demanded its abolition before there occurred a ghastly replay of events in Malaya. Britain's military needs thrust her into the arms of the Americans. Despite the Viceroy's vigorous protests that the timing of such an initiative was disastrous, the British government bowed to American pressure and despatched the Cripps' Mission to India in 1942. The failure of the Mission, not least because it appeared to be the desperate act of a government threatened by overwhelming danger, made evident the intransigence of the major Indian parties and disillusioned many ICS officers who felt that such political opposition was ill-timed and disloyal.

The morale of the ICS was further undermined by the revolt which occurred in parts of the United Provinces and Bihar in 1942. The revolt demonstrated the weakness of an administration upon whom it had come as a complete bolt from the blue, proving that vital sources of intelligence had been sealed off. More insidiously, it helped to prise open a gaping fissure within the ICS along racial lines. The legacy of doubt and uncertainty sown by the 1942 revolt and its aftermath was obviously most serious where the conflict had been most bitter. When the Viceroy, Wavell, visited the United Provinces in November l945, he found many senior British officers 'tired of the atmosphere of vilification and misrepresentation' to which they were subject and ready to take the first opportunity of retiring. Their Indian peers were nervous and the Viceroy doubted if he could 'continue to rely on the steadiness of all of them in case of trouble.'

Military setbacks and internal insurrection did much to undermine Service morale. So too did the ghastly object lesson of the Bengal famine. Precipitated by successively bad rice crops, the effects of the Famine had been exacerbated by a virtual breakdown of the administrative machine in the province. The governor concluded that his administration was 'quite inadequate to cope with the problems that the war and the food situation have produced.'

By the end of the War, the ICS was severely stretched. Its officers had worked fantastically hard but against impossible odds. Traditionally an elite band of generalists, capable of turning its hand to all tasks of government, the. Service began to loose ground as those tasks became more complex and sophisticated. Specialists, subordinate services and more important, politicians, took over an ever increasing share of decision making. British officers clearly wanted 'o leave India. For Indian officers the picture was more confusing, for their loyalties were torn not only between their British employers and their new political masters, but also between the different groups into which their own society appeared to be fragmenting.

On August 15th, 1947, India gained her independence and the ICS as such ceased to exist. It is too strong to say that the state of the ICS - its exhaustion and its morale - brought about Indian independence but it did much to determine the pace and timing of that independence. The traditions of this elite service did not pass into obscurity. Of course, the new civil services set up in the newly created states of India and Pakistan were not simply a reincarnation of their common forebear, but they owed much to its traditions and standards. When the last ICS member of the Indian Administrative Service retired on March 31st, 1980, a remarkable legacy came to an end.

The Indian Civil Service was a fascinating institution. Evolving to meet a changing set of tasks in a shifting political milieu, its members managed to hang on to certain ideals and beliefs, principally the ideal of service, the respect for the work of the district officer and a genuine concern for India's well-being. These ideals transcended differences of province, post, age and race. Even in a story of change and challenges, some things remained the same.

By Ann Ewing

Henry Cotton dispensing justice in Bengal
Henry Cotton dispensing justice in Bengal
Further Reading
Plain Tales From The Raj: Images of British India in the 20th Century: Images of British India in the Twentieth Century
by Charles Allen

Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian
by John Beames

Shaft of Sunlight: Memories of a Varied Life
by Philip Mason

Bureaucracy in India: Historical Analysis of Development Up to 1947
by B.B. Misra

The Indian Civil Service 1601-1930.
by L.S.S. O'Malley

The Men Who Ruled India: The Founders, & The Guardians, [in 2 volumes]
by Philip Woodruff

District Officer in India, 1930-47
by Roland Hunt

Anglo-Indian Attitudes: Mind of the Indian Civil Service
by Clive Dewey

A Young Man's Country: Letters of a Subdivisional Officer of the Indian Civil Service, 1936-37
by W.H.Saumarez Smith

by E. Blunt

Indian Civil Service
by Naresh Chandra Roy


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe