The Steel Frame of India
Keeping all branches of administration intact, it was the ICS which successfully ran British India followed by the IAS that laid the foundations of an Independent India
By whichever ideological disposition one may look at British rule, post the Royal Proclamation of 1858, which more or less coincides with the establishment of a merit-based civil service in India, there is a general acceptance that the ICS fulfilled its mandate of keeping the Empire geographically intact, revenue plus and offering protection to the commercial interests of the mother country. Management guru Peter Drucker marvelled at the institution, which despite its (initial) reluctance to accept bright Indians in its fold, emerged as one of the finest organs of administration. India got a merit-based civil service after hundreds of years of arbitrary governance – after Kautaliya's Arthshastra of the 3rd century BC, the next efforts at a rule-based pan India administration was made by Samudragupta. After a hiatus of many centuries, the revenue settlement was done for the Mughal Empire by Todar Mall, but it soon disintegrated, and the later Mughals were a poor shadow of their forbears.
This enterprise of getting 'civilisational India' in a marked territory appears to have been an externality, for, throughout its existence, the British were well aware that the best way to rule this country was to harp on the 'differences' and promote these by playing one against the other. However, the rulership imperative compelled them to have a common currency, a common civil and criminal code, extensive use of English and a system of governance, the topmost echelons of which were manned by the ICS. Controlled by the Secretary of state for India, this elite group kept the country together in all branches of administration – from the revenue to judiciary to the development departments.
This is an abstract from your columnist's article on Sardar Patel and the 'Making of the IAS' for the special issue of The Administrator on the patron saint of the Indian civil service. It argues that irrespective of the nature of the regime, a good civil service keeps territories intact; that the territorial imperative often survives a 'regime change' and that a 'state cannot be a state without a defined territory'.
Let us first take up the territorial imperative for as Kaplan puts it so succinctly in 'The Revenge of Geography', the only reality is the 'ground' reality – both literally and metaphorically. It is true that in the context of civilisational India, the territorial imperative was an externality – more from the point of view of what James Scott would call "seeing as the state". For a while, a general notion of Bharat or Hindustan as a civilisational entity had been existing for several millennia – and the opening lines of the Mahabharata have Sanjaya describing the line-up of the kings with their respective armies, India never had a nation-state in the Westphalian sense of the term. Yes, there was a Chanakya and a Samudragupta, but the concept of Dharma laid greater emphasis on self-regulation and a balance of power, and though there was a general consensus on trade & commerce and traders, minstrels, professionals and mendicants roamed freely, and farmers too voted with their feet, we had areas of influence, rather than integrated state systems. Who, for example, was a Chakrabarti maharaja, and what was the Ashvamedha Yagna. This marked the spread of hegemony and/or the acceptance of a tribute and a marriage of convenience to forge an alliance – but the contours of internal administration and the test of loyalty were determined by the ruler.
Thus, BB Mishra says, "The natural boundaries which the physical features of India provide, have constituted a source of strength in terms of geographical unity. All India empires which could otherwise engender an All India territorial concept were a rarity. And even when there was an all India territorial empire, like that of Chandragupta Maurya in the 4th century BC or of Samudragupta a thousand years later, it proved to be short-lived, and exception, rather than the rule". Therefore, India's political history lends itself to the conclusion that within the limits of its natural frontiers, there was always the quest for power and dominance of the ruling potentate with various well-defined regions, each having a dominant linguistic affiliation.
The regions and frontier states have also tried to make inroads, and Delhi or Agra have not always been centres of power. Often times, the linguistic and religious identities were often juxtaposed – the failure of Tughlaq to establish his capital in Deccan is a good illustration of how he was frustrated by both Muslim and Hindu chiefs. Even in the heydays of the Mughals, Delhi's hold over Bengal, Gujarat, Malwa and Khandesh was notional. The Rajputs were both friends and foes with the Mughals, and in the Anarchy that followed the post-Aurangzeb period – the worst possible depredations were made as there was no central chain of command. It was in this Anarchy that the EIC became emboldened to create an army that was bigger and more effective than the 'sovereigns' from whom it derived its legitimacy.
My proposition is that the predecessor service – the ICS – played a significant role as the lead integrative agency for whether it was as Collectors and Magistrates, or as Political Residents, or later as LGs /Governors and members of the Legislative Councils, they were a group which identified with each other, and also identified their interests with that of the district/province they were serving. They were powerful and dominant not just because of the statute, but on account of the informal network and camaraderie. Of course, they had their share of acrimony and bitter animosities towards each other. But they did what no one had ever done before on a pan-India scale: the determination of boundaries on all the frontiers: with Afghanistan on the North West and with Tibet, Bhutan, Burma (now Myanmar), Sikkim and Nepal in the East. It is interesting to note that at various points of time in our history, all our neighbours have extended their tribute and influence deep into the county – the Afghans actually
captured Delhi and became the rulers though, in the period of the Mahabharata, Gandhara was very much part of the Bharat Varsha which extended right up to Kamarupa and Manipur. The Gurkhas had taken major parts of the Kumaon extending their rule to Tarai and the Garhwal, and came up to Dehradun,
Burmese extracted tribute from all of Assam and the two important centres of Bengal – Chittagong and Murshidabad, and there was both intrigue and adventure in delineating the boundaries of Sikkim with Nepal and of Cooch Behar and Dooars with Bhutan.
The 19th century was also the century of surveys and maps to scale, and these marked the delimitation of India's frontiers. For even if the reasons were greater glory to the Empire, the political stability of India proceeded mainly from ensuring that India under the Raj was insulated from Russia and China (including Tibet) by creating buffers and boundaries. Within India, they clearly marked out territories which had to be administered directly, and those which were to be part of the subsidiary alliance with the Nawabs and the Maharajas. This process was completed by the time of the
Proclamation of 1858 and the control over India moved from the EIC directly to Her Majesty's government who exercised her authority through the Secretary of State for India. Incidentally, the administration of the princely states was also managed by the members of the ICS, who were called Residents.
Thus, it was the ICS which ran the Empire, and it was the ICS and its successor service which laid the foundations of a new nation. Post-independence, the integration of states was achieved by Sardar with the direct assistance of VP Menon who took care to design a common instrument of accession for the very wide range of individual agreements that the Raj had made with the princely states, and the successor service to the ICS carried this mandate forward.
Dr. Sanjeev Chopra is the Director of LBSNAA and Honorary Curator, Valley of Words: Literature and Arts Festival, Dehradun. Views expressed are strictly personal
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