India, as one state, has never been larger. Like Ashoka’s great empire, the Mughal Empire too never went southwards and eastwards very much. The British ruled directly only in the three great presidencies of Bengal, Madras and Bombay and the four smaller units of the Punjab, the United Provinces, the Central Provinces and Berar, and the Northwest Frontier Provinces. Even after the doctrine of lapse was repudiated, 601 princely states remained administering themselves and managing their day-to-day affairs quite independently, as long as Britain was acknowledged as the paramount power in India. The India of today is also much more of a nation, sharing a common perception of its origins and history. With a billion people under its flag, today’s India, a fractious and youthful democracy with a billion unsatisfied aspirations, would easily be the toughest public administration challenge in the world.

The system of public administration in India evolved over the millennia as a system of exercising imperial authority, maintaining law and order, and raising revenues. In return the state offered security and stability, leaving the myriad communities to manage their everyday affairs in the traditional manner. It was a complex set of systems meeting the needs of a very complex society. The imperial state had its system of provincial and regional governors, vassals and satraps, all vested with the authority and power to enforce allegiance, collect taxes, conscript and maintain order. The towns were generally directly governed by the imperial state. In the villages the traditional system held sway. The brahminical system which once exclusively administered social behaviour and catered to the spiritual needs of the populace, was in course joined by the clergy of other faiths like Islam, Christianity and Sikhism. Till the advent of the British Raj, the imperial state and the religious hierarchy collaborated closely as their goals were quite similar. Both wanted allegiance to ensure a steady stream of income, both wanted to preserve the status quo and quite naturally one legitimised the other.

Old administrative practices 

Since land was the main source of income for the state, the maintenance of land ownership records and a continuous stream of information pertaining to its productivity, produce and prices became the central aspects of administration. Since taxpayers are, irrespective of the age, extremely unwilling to part with even a part of their earnings, the most appropriate coercive mechanism to enforce this went hand in hand with revenue administration. This led to a very interesting division of labor between the imperial and traditional governments. Often while a capital offence like murder was a matter for the traditional court, brigandage and highway robbery became a matter for the imperial government because it had the potential to derail the status quo. Then, like now, quite often robbers became chieftains and chieftains became rulers. The easy transition from daaku [bandit] to baaghi [rebel] is quite an ancient institution.

India was thus governed for almost 2,500 years, unchanging despite a quick turnover of Empires, its traditions continuous and often oppressive even when very different from those of its many ultimate rulers, a patchwork of nationalities, regions, communities, vocations, and practices united by a stoicism that finally and happily shows signs of giving in to exasperation. All this ended with the 1857 revolt. The abortive revolt had three great consequences. It marked not just the end of the Mughals and Maratha power in central India, but also the end of East India Company rule.

This “first great war of independence” actually further enslaved India when, on November 1, 1858, Lord Canning, wearing court dress and riding a black horse emerged out of the fort in Allahabad to read a long proclamation by Queen Victoria. The Queen, then 38 years old and still happily married to Prince Albert who was considered to be somewhat of a progressive, insisted that the “document should breathe feelings of generosity, benevolence and religious tolerance.” It is another thing that the reality rarely matched fine sentiments, but that is a tradition that still endures.

The steel frame of India

In 1861 the Indian Civil Service came into being. Each one of the 400 district officers in British India was henceforth an ICS officer as were all members of the higher bureaucracy. At no given time were there more than 1200 ICS officers in India. Two other significant events took place in 1861. Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s codification of Indian law came into effect and the Indian Police Act introduced uniform police service throughout India. In addition to the British District Officer, each district in British India was henceforth to have a British superintendent of police. The ICS was divided into separate departments: the executive, which administered the districts, and collected the land revenues and taxes; the judicial, which provided judges for the district and high courts; the political, which provided officers for the diplomatic corps, residents and agents in the princely states; and the secretariat, which provided senior officials for both the central and state governments. Below this came the largely Indian and uncovenanted civil servants of the police, medical and forestry services, and in the agriculture and engineering departments, all adding up to another 2000 civil servants. This much-vaunted steel frame of India consisted of no more than 4000 British and Indian officers at even the worst of times.

The bedrock of this system were the 400 district officers, variously called Collectors and District Magistrates or Deputy Commissioners, who administered the districts, each with an average size of 4430 square miles conciliating disputes, dispensing justice and collecting revenues. An ICS officer became a district officer soon after the completion of his probation and was usually in his 20s, lording invariably over a million people. Each ICS officer was carefully chosen and was an eclectic combination of brilliance, personality and integrity. It was probably the finest civil service ever drawing its men, usually, from Oxford or Cambridge and after a tough entrance examination that included “the ability to jump a five barred gate on horseback with arms folded and stirrups crossed.” They were well paid and cared for, and usually incorruptible with a well deserved reputation for accepting no gifts other than flowers or fruit. They wore their three initials with pride and saw themselves “as the modern equivalent of Plato’s Guardians, men bred, selected and trained to govern, selflessly and devotedly.” But what helped them most to stay that way was that they were servants of a foreign empire and agents of an authoritarian system. In 1868 the first Indian, Satyendranath Tagore of that famous family, went to London to take and pass the ICS exam. The last Englishman in the ICS, JPL Gwynn, retired in Hyderabad in the early 1960s.

Imperial and authoritarian government, racial arrogance coupled with superior education made the ICS a superb instrument to serve British interests. In 1947 all that changed. Preserving the status quo was no longer the major priority of government. As national goals ostensibly changed newer taxes replaced land revenue as the government's source of income. Serving rather than ruling became the impulse driving government. India was to be transformed into a modern and progressive democracy.

This is the first of a two-part series on the Indian Administrative Service.