Inside India #47 – The Indian Civil Service: when bureaucrats ruled an empire

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

Joseph Stalin once mused on a question that has occupied the minds of many, both during, and after, the British Raj in India – how did so few Brits maintain rule over a country of three hundred million? The answer is not simply through force of arms or even the machinations of divide et impera. Instead, the real answer lies in the monolithic bureaucracy established by the British, once known as the Imperial Civil Service, and then the Indian Civil Service – the legendary ICS.

Image credit: Anjaneyadas CC 4.0

Given the moniker the “steel frame” – i.e. the frame underpinning Britain’s colonial enterprise – the ICS personified the Raj for millions of Indians. It was the administrative arm by which Britain governed its colony, managed by a tiny cadre of trained individuals spread sparsely throughout the vastness of the subcontinent, yet somehow managing to strangle the country by means of a regulatory morass incomprehensible to all but the most masochistic bureaucrat.

The ICS was founded when the British government took over responsibility for governing India from the East India Company following the Indian Uprising of 1857. Prior to that the East India Company’s version of a civil service had been a loosely-regulated band of merchant-statesmen, ably assisted by private armies and cannon, and operating primarily for the gain of the Company, though ostensibly representing the interests of the British government.

The East India Company first came to India in the early 1600s, pursuing the lucrative oriental spice-and-silk trade, inveigling their way into the courts of successive Mughal emperors with heady promises of mutual enrichment and brandied tales of British kings and queens. These initial traders – who, by and large, operated in good faith – gave way to the likes of Clive Plassey, buccaneering chancers willing to employ violence and ruthless cunning to acquire political power that could be parlayed directly into obscene wealth. Finally, with the crushing of the uprising of 1857, came the martinets of the Raj, establishing an administrative structure – the aforementioned Indian Civil Service – that gradually strangled the remaining sparks of rebellion out of the country. What cannons and navies couldn’t quite achieve, a system of chits and registers managed in a few short decades. If there was one thing the British had learned, it was how to suck the fight out of a local populace by the simple expedient of blinding them with paperwork.

For the greater part of its existence, the ICS was run by white men, lured to the subcontinent and its manifest perils with outrageous salaries and the heady promise of power. The natives were relegated to the lowest ranks, little better than pen-pushing coolies. But, with the advent of the independence movement, this make-up slowly shifted to favour more Indians – often Oxbridge-educated – in the middle ranks. When the Raj ended, the majority of Brits departed, leaving a void quickly filled by those Indians already barnacled to the system.

Even at its heyday, the British members of the ICS rarely numbered more than a few thousand, recruited by competitive examination held, initially, in London, and led by officers who oversaw all government activity in the two hundred and fifty districts that comprised British India, routinely interfering in the courtly workings of local nawabs, nizams, and maharajahs, who were bullied or bribed into cooperation. The ICS cadre answered to the Viceroy of India, who, by virtue of the subcontinent’s vast wealth, wielded power akin to the most influential men in the world.

And what of the ICS today?

When India became independent in 1947, the ICS was re-badged as the Indian Administrative Service. (In the newly-created country of Pakistan, it became the Civil Service of Pakistan). Nearly all of its British officers returned to their homeland, though a handful stayed on.

In the seventy-five plus years since, the IAS has grown in line with India’s population, now numbering 1.4 billion. It is one of the world’s largest bureaucracies and suffers from the challenges of administering to such an enormous populace, across a large and varied landmass. In 2012, the consultancy company Political and Economic Risk Consultancy ranked bureaucracies across Asia on a scale from one to 10, with 10 being the worst possible score. They scored India at 9.21.

Nevertheless, the country continues to grow as a global economic powerhouse, and in part this is due to the sterling work carried out by its monolithic civil service arm, in the face of criticism and considerable political and financial hurdles.

For most Indians, an India without the ICS would be unimaginable.

My latest novel, The Lost Man of Bombay, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the body of a white man found frozen in the foothills of the Himalayas with only a small notebook containing cryptic clues. Soon, more bodies begin to pile up in Bombay, India’s city of dreams … Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

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