How the British did everything to keep Indians away from the civil services—yet failed

Cushy job.
Cushy job.
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Civilian administration had always remained in Indian hands, even under the Mughals, as part of a deliberate policy of assimilation. But the British saw themselves as a superior race and, seeking to impose colonial rule for commercial gain, considered it necessary to man their administration at all senior and strategic levels with their own personnel.

The question of the “Indianisation” of the civil service in India thus directly arose for the first time after the assumption and gradual consolidation of administrative power by the East India Company, and subsequently by the British government. The rule of the Company was sought to be legitimised by the concept of the British “civilising mission” in India. So, a policy of exclusion was put in place. Race became an important category and identity in the future. It was inevitable that this would be challenged, As the Crown consolidated its power over the subcontinent in the latter half of the 19th century, opposition against its hold over the administration intensified and the question of Indianisation of the higher civil services became the most important “national” issue of the ensuing nationalist struggle against the British Empire in India for the next 50 years.

Ironically, the first demand and recommendations to include Indians in the civil service came from the most prominent and far-sighted of the Company’s officials in the early 19th century like Elphinstone and Munro. This was first recognised in the Charter Act of 1833, whose clause 87 declared that no person could be disqualified for any place in the Company’s service by reason of caste, colour, creed, or place of birth. Merit would be the basis of employment. However, there was some increased employment of Indians only in lower judicial posts of “Munsifs” and “Sadar Amins” and later deputy collectors and deputy magistrates. The clause remained symbolic. This period coincided with the unfurling of the “renaissance” in Bengal. As colleges and universities were established and education spread, the aspirations of Indian youth also grew. In 1854, the British parliament accepted the principle of competitive examinations for selection to the Service. The removal of patronage allowed Indians to compete for higher posts on merit. Consequently, the main debate became to provide a level playing field between Indians and the British in the examinations, which made the questions of where it would be held, what should be the syllabus, and age limits very important.

The British recognised the superior intellect of the Indians and perceived a high risk of failure if competition was fair. Curzon much later expressed concern that “higher posts…reserved for Europeans are being filched away by the superior wits of the native in the English exams” terming this as the “greatest peril with which the administration is confronted.” The examination was thus held only in London; the maximum age was kept at a low 22 and the syllabus had lower marks for Sanskrit and Arabic. Indians opposed all these consistently and in particular raised the demand for simultaneous examinations to be held in India to overcome the obvious difficulties which Indians would face in going to London. But this was resisted throughout and only acceded to in 1922. The British consistently opposed Indianisation by giving different arguments—that Indians were “bookworms,” effeminate, of low morals, corrupt and inefficient and “simply did not possess the governing and administrative abilities and character.” The hypocrisy between proclaimed principles and actual policy was demonstrated repeatedly.

The epochal event took place in 1864 when the first Indian, Satyendra Nath Tagore, qualified for the Indian Civil Service (ICS). Immediately, the marks of Arabic and Sanskrit papers, which had been increased in 1860, were reduced back to 375 from 500. The maximum age was further reduced to 21 from 22 making it more difficult for Indians to compete. Salisbury reduced it to 19 in 1876. The Indians who succeeded in joining the ICS became living embodiments of the ability of Indians to out-compete Englishmen at a time when the very basis of British rule was a claim of racial superiority. In view of these cumulative restrictive policy measures Indians constituted only 4.24% of the ICS by 1900. Most of them were shunted to judicial posts.

Two trends started around the 1880’s both strengthened after the first world war. Provincialisation gradually became a recurring theme so that Indians did not join the ICS proper and “Indianisation” could flow to provinces and to subordinate services. The British policy of divide and rule also started with discussion regarding possible discrimination against the Muslims since other communities were likely do better in a competitive examination.

This demand for Indianisation had started, perhaps for the first time, a nationalist movement against British rule with this as the main demand. Public meetings were held across the country and memorials submitted by Indian associations. The Indian National Congress voiced these demands through successive Resolutions, 17 in number. This phase of nationalism, led by the newly emerging urban western educated middle class, did not have freedom from colonial rule on the agenda but a desire to secure greater representation of Indians in administration and provincial councils. The approach was soft and the language “gentle and cautious” and thus not very effective.

After the first world war and Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India from South Africa, the nature of the freedom struggle underwent a transformative change. The demand shifted to self-rule and Indianisation of the service became secondary. Ironically enough, however, this started in right earnest as it now became more difficult to recruit Europeans. The efforts of the British Government now focussed on getting more Europeans and select more Muslims from amongst the Indians.

In August 1917, Montague declared that Indians were to be included increasingly in the administration of the country. It was decided that Indians should have 33% of the posts to be increased annually by 1.5% for 10 years to reach 48%. The long-expressed demand for simultaneous examinations in India was also conceded in 1922.

The Non-Cooperation movement had almost brought the British Raj to its knees. There was also a dramatic decline in British aspirants for the ICS. The Government became greatly concerned about its ability to face the continuing “challenge to orderly administration.” In order to encourage more Britishers to apply and dispel feelings of insecurity, prime minister Lloyd George spoke in the British parliament on Aug. 02, 1922, about the “steel frame” which built the British Raj and was not about to go away. In 1924, the Lee Commission recommended considerably raised emoluments and improved service conditions, described by Congress leaders as the “Lee loot.” The British recruitment to the ICS immediately shot up from 3 in 1924 to 20 in 1925 and 37 in 1927. It also recommended that the ratio between British and Indian officers should be 50:50. Forty percent of each should be recruited through the examinations or nominated and 20% should be filled up by promotion of Indians from the provincial services and the bar. In 1925, the British pledged that Muslim candidates would be nominated to keep balance with Hindus. Eighty-seven Muslims were recruited during 1922-43, of which 58 were nominated. In the late thirties, continued shortages of British candidates necessitated even their nomination from amongst university graduates. In 1907, there were only 52 Indians in the ICS rising to a paltry 78 out of 1255 in 1919. By Jan. 01, 1940, there were 625 Indians as against 575 Europeans. The Indians were finally in a majority.

The “Indianisation” of the services during this period allowed Indian ICS officers to experience a working relationship with Indian nationalists. It reflected the capacity of Indians gaining entry into the service on merit competing with Europeans, and also displayed their ability in discharging administrative responsibilities in the traditionally efficient and impartial manner. There was confidence that India could manage its own affairs quite capably with its own officers. This was particularly visible during the almost anarchical conditions over many years leading up to and during the partition. This helped the process, led by Sardar Patel, of the transition of the steel frame from the ICS to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).

Deepak Gupta is the author of The Steel Frame: A History of the IAS, published by Roli Books. We welcome your comments at