How the ‘The Steel Frame’ of IAS Has Bent from British to Bharat

The Indian civil services was created by the British to provide an intellectual grounding for the empire’s need to “improve India”. The early recruits were fed heavily on the dose of liberalism and utilitarianism. The principal of civil services was based on a belief that the triumph of science and reason, of political economy and of law and government, that had made the West superior, would also help India strip herself of the shackles of despotism, custom and tradition.

A new book on Indian Civil services, titled The Steel Frame: A History of the IAS (Roli Books 2019) by Deepak Gupta, is a rich magnum opus of the history of the civil services. Gupta, a retired IAS from 1974 batch, has given a comprehensive account of Indian civil services from the past, its present, and also the future of the IAS.

Gupta holds Masters from St Stephen’s College and MPhil in International Relations from JNU. He retired in 2011 as Secretary, Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, and post-retirement, served as a consultant with the World Bank and UNIDO.

The story of Indian Administrative Service is a fascinating and intriguing tale. According to the author, the Charter Act of 1813 allowed ‘missions’ into India when a private company, East India Company (EIC), was calling the shots. Charles Grant, a director in EIC and a leading evangelist, brought together ‘duty’ and ‘self-interest’ in different ways to give England’s commercial interests in India a moral underpinning.

James Mill, in his History of British India, published in 1817, and which became Haileybury’s most important textbook, showed contempt for the culture and society of India which was even more vehement. Gupta believes that the then British governor General Lord Wellesley was instrumental in unleashing James Mill to target Fort William College in Calcutta. At one point, Mill even observed, “rude nations seem to derive a peculiar gratification from pretensions to a remote antiquity”.

In Haileybury College, the company wanted its future servants to be indoctrinated ‘well’ by the Cambridge clergymen before they sailed to India. These arguments gave shape to the ‘civilising mission’. Max Muller, writing in 1883, considered this to be responsible for some of India’s greatest misfortunes. The EIC’s civil servants were constantly taught that Indian civilisation was retrogressive and had no place in the modernising world. This had a profound effect on their mind-set. Mill stated that ensuring the good of the population was much more important than employment of natives. It followed that this ‘good’ would be decided, and could only be decided, by the British. So, a policy of exclusion was put in place. Race became an important category and identity in future.

Ironically, the first demand and recommendation to include Indians in the civil service came from Englishmen themselves. These were men who were in India and were genuinely concerned about this country and its future, observes Gupta pointing that the exclusion of Indians from responsibility was becoming a major point of criticism by many, including Elphinstone and Maxwell, successive governors of Bombay Presidency and Munro, governor of Madras Presidency. They had come to India in their early teens and were profoundly influenced by Indian conditions and found this exclusion dangerous, unjust and even inefficient.

These feelings were echoed by Lord William Bentinck, the governor general from 1828–35. He commented upon the “monstrous absurdity of committing the government of sixty millions of people to 400 strangers” and “… the still more monstrous rapacity of seizing for the benefit of this incapable few all the honours and emoluments of the administration, to the exclusion of the natives and natural agency of the country.”

When the British Parliament conducted its 21-year review of the renewal of the EIC ’s Charter in 1831–32, the admission of Indians to higher employment was one of the questions considered by its Select Committee. Witness after witness testified to the need for inclusion of Indians.

Raja Ram Mohun Roy became the first Indian to formally present the case for civil service reform. The report of the committee admitted that exclusion of Indians from higher employment and role in the executive government was “not warranted on the score of incapacity for business or the want of application or trustworthiness” and it contended that the admission of Indians under European control into the higher offices would have a beneficial effect in correcting the moral obliquities of their general character; would strengthen their attachment to British dominion; would conduce to the better administration of justice; and would be productive of a great saving in the expenses of the Indian government.

In the framing of the Charter Act of 1833, Macaulay led efforts to have the famous Clause 87 inserted, according to which no person could be disqualified for any place in the company’s service by reason of caste, colour, creed or place of birth.

These developments led to a stage where merit was considered the basis of employment. Macaulay declared in the House of Commons that the successful native competitor “would in the most honourable manner, by conquest, as a matter of right, and not as a mere eleemosynary donation, obtain access to the service.”

This change theoretically gave Indians an equal chance of admission in the higher services, but in practice, hypocrisy prevailed. Only five months later, Sir Charles Wood, president of the Board of Control, wrote to Lord Dalhousie the governor-general “…we have arranged our matters so that they may come here and be admitted (to Haileybury College)… but I do not wish them to do so to any extent… we (will) govern India for many years but it is clear to my mind that we shall govern it as an alien…”

The directors of the EIC, thus, had no intention of appointing Indians to the covenanted civil service, over which they alone had the power of patronage. Recalling traditional practices, Gupta quotes Sir Wood as saying, “They (Muslims) admitted the Hindus to all privileges and the interests and sympathies of the conquerors and conquered became identified. On the contrary, our policy has been the reverse, cold, selfish and unfeeling: the iron hand of power on the one side, monopoly and exclusion on the other.”

It was only after the First World War (1914-18) that the process of ‘Indianization’ really took off because of the changed circumstances and, because, ironically enough, by then it was becoming difficult to get enough Britons to opt for service in India. By that time, however, the civil service question had become less important per se and had to be seen in the context of the movement for self-rule and independence. But this struggle is a fascinating story, and of British deceit and arrogance. Europeanisation started in earnest with Lord Cornwallis. Indians were shut out from the covenanted service, and therefore, excluded from offices of trust and power. Even a man with such high qualifications as Raja Ram Mohan Roy could only be dewan to a collector.

Indians were only employed as copying clerks and some lower posts were assigned as the work and responsibilities increased, and as financial pressures made it difficult to have more Europeans on these posts.

On the positive side, Gupta insists that the imperial civil services (ICS) was the first civil service in the modern world where recruitment was on the basis of open competition and not through patronage. Though much criticised, it developed its own character and traditions.

It is really unusual that such a service — defined as the ‘steel frame’, on which depended the fortunes and the survival of a huge empire — continued essentially with the same structure and traditions, along with the administrative systems developed over a century, into Independent democratic India.

Although much has changed, even today the Indian Administrative Service retains some basic characteristics from the past. This system of governance as it evolved in India is indeed fascinating story.

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