I sat for the ICS and PCS examinations in 1935, and was selected for the PCS. As I was barely 22 years of age, I got my appointment deferred so I could appear for the ICS examination again in 1936. I was not selected, so I stayed in the PCS and was appointed Deputy Collector at Hardoi (in Uttar Pradesh) on July 1, 1936. I stayed at the house of Agha Mirza Saheb, a senior Deputy Collector and a friend of my father-in-law.

Agha Mirza Saheb lived in an old and huge bungalow with a large compound, where there were around 15 servants. Each servant got a salary of four to five rupees a month. Agha Mirza also had an apartment away from the main house where a Brahmin cook and kitchen were kept for his orthodox Hindu guests. When he was posted at Allahabad as Registrar, Board of Revenue, Agha Mirza Saheb had a boat and a panda (Brahmin priest) and would go to the confluence (Sangam) of the Ganga and Yamuna for a bath almost every morning. During this time, there was an atmosphere of communal harmony and understanding at all levels.

After joining, I called on the Collector, GWM Whittle. He passed orders attaching me to senior officers for training, and also asked me to read Dr Panna Lal’s Guide to Junior Collectors. He also asked me whether I had read the autobiography of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. I should explain here the significance of these two books at the time.

Dr Panna Lal’s book gave guidance to officers on how to conduct themselves and also how to meet the landed gentry – the zamindars and taluqdars. The feudal system was well entrenched and big landowning zamindars and taluqdars were owners of whole villages and land that was cultivated by the peasantry. This institution was the main bulwark on which the British system of administration rested. It was more or less a continuance of the system from the time of the Mughals and the nawabs. So the zamindars had to be treated with courtesy and their position and dignity had to be recognised. At the same time, the Collector and his administration had to make sure that the subjects of His Majesty were not wronged or oppressed and hence the district administration needed to ensure justice amongst the people. Injustice and high-handedness were to be eliminated, so that while developmental work was not the objective, life in the traditional ways was not to be tampered with. Land revenue was the source of revenue of the province, there being no taxes like sales tax. Hence the revenue administration from the Collector to the Patwari had to be supervised strictly, and revenue offices had to ensure the correctness of records by doing field-to-field checks.

The District Magistrate, all his Deputy Collectors, and the police had to see that life was secure in the villages. Cases of burglary received great attention. Dacoity and robberies were rare, and murders sporadic. When the officers went to winter camps and rode on horseback, there was calm and peace reigning around the green fields and sleepy villages. The government servants moved about in an atmosphere of cool comfort, indulging in occasional shikar or bird-shootings.

GWM Whittle’s suggestion to read Jawaharlal Nehru’s autobiography was due to a new angle that had opened up in the political situation of the time. The Indian National Congress was forging ahead. The civil disobedience movements of 1930 and 1932 had sent ripples in the villages, as well as among the intelligentsia in the cities. Khaddar-clad Congressmen were to be seen almost everywhere, and nationalist sentiment was high. Gandhiji’s Dandi March had electrified the masses, as had Pandit Nehru’s Lahore Declaration of 1929, demanding complete independence. The Englishmen could not fully understand Gandhiji with his philosophy of ahimsa and of religion mixed up with politics. But the Oxford-educated Pandit Nehru spoke in a language and with a rationale which was understood by the Englishmen.

But I noticed that even in 1936, sycophants were not wanting amongst title-holding and landowning classes who assured the English Collector that the Congress crowd was a pack of hoodlums who would be ousted at the elections. I was one of the presiding officers in a village called Bharail, at the first provincial elections in February 1937 that were mandated under the Government of India Act of 1935. The Congress party scored a complete victory. All Indians rejoiced, including the Indian officers. In this connection, I may mention the visit to Hardoi of the Premier Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant of the first Congress government that was formed in the United Provinces as a result of the election in 1937. Since 1921, Home and General Administration were not transferred subjects to the Indian legislature.

In 1937, the Indian Council of Ministers in the Province were incharge of all subjects, including Home and Administration. It was the first visit of the Premier of the Indian Government in the United Provinces, belonging to the Indian National Congress. So, the Collector JK Coghill (GWM Whittle had left for Allahabad as Collector), the four senior Deputy Collector Sub-Divisional Officers, and myself as extra together with the Superintendent of Police (SP) and Deputy Superintendent (Deputy SP) lined up at the Hardoi railway station awaiting the arrival of the special train of the Chief Minister, or the Premier, as he was called then. There were great crowds of Congressmen from the rural areas. The English Collector, along with all of us, stood at a distance, not rubbing shoulders with the crowd.

On alighting from the train, Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant was greeted and surrounded by the Congress workers and went to the Railway Rest House. There, we sat in the veranda, waiting to be summoned. Despite the inconvenience caused to us, we Indian officers felt a malicious delight in observing Mr Coghill fidgeting about in his chair and impatiently moving about, heartily disliking not being given the priority and the importance which as the Collector and an Englishman he was used to getting. While I agree that the Collector should have received priority as head of the district administration, without doubt we were pleased to watch him wait and squirm.

At this time there was also a black flag demonstration by the militant wing of the Muslim League, led by Nawab Aijaz Rasul of Sandila. Another incident relates to my visit to Shahabad tehsil. As a second-class magistrate, I became Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), Shahabad for a month at the age of about twenty-four. As I rode to the outskirts, I was asked by the tehsildar to get down for a ceremony. A chair and a cot with a bedspread were laid out for me. I was told that I had to beat five men with my shoes! On my way back, I had to do the same to a set of another five men. It was explained to me that in this locality an officer had been assaulted in the near past, and since then this punitive action was taken whenever the SDM passed that way. As a young man fresh from the university, I could not continue the ceremony, and so I stopped it.

Excerpted with permission from Journeying With India: Memoirs of a Civil Servant, YN Varma, Speaking Tiger Books.