Indian Civil Service (British India)

The Indian Civil Service (ICS) for part of the 19th century officially known as the Imperial Civil Service, was the élite higher civil service of the British Empire in British India during British rule in the period between 1858 and 1947.

Its members were ultimately responsible for overseeing all government activity in the 250 districts that comprised British India and were appointed under Section XXXII of the Government of India Act 1858,[1][2] enacted by the Parliament of the United Kingdom.[3] The ICS was headed by the Secretary of State for India, a member of the British cabinet.

At first almost all the top thousand members of the ICS, known as "Civilians", were British, and had been educated in the best British schools. By 1905, five per cent were from Bengal. In 1947 there were 322 Indians and 688 British members; most of the latter left at the time of partition and independence.[4]

Until the 1930s the Indians in the service were very few and were not given high posts by the British.[5] Wainwright notes that by the mid-1880s, "the basis of racial discrimination in the sub-continent had solidified".[6] At the time of the birth of India and Pakistan in 1947, the outgoing Government of India's ICS was divided between India and Pakistan. Although these are now organised differently, the contemporary Civil Services of India and the Pakistan Civil Service are both descended from the old Indian Civil Service.

Historians often rate the ICS, together with the railway system, the legal system, and the Indian Army, as among the most important legacies of British rule in India.[7]

Civil service

Origins and history

From 1858, after the demise of the East India Company's rule in India, the British civil service took on its administrative responsibilities. The change in governance came about due to the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which came close to toppling British rule in the country.[8]

Entry and setting

An appointment to the civil service of the Company will not be a matter of favour but a matter of right. He who obtains such an appointment will owe it solely to his own abilities and industry. It is undoubtedly desirable that the civil servants of the Company should have received the best, the most finished education that the native country affords (the Report insisted that the civil servants of the Company should have taken the first degree in arts at Oxford or Cambridge Universities).
 Macaulay Committee Report[9]

The competitive examination for entry to the civil service was combined for the Diplomatic, the Home, the Indian, and the Colonial Services. Candidates had to be aged between 21 and 24, which gave everyone three chances for entry. The total marks possible in the examination were 1,900. Successful candidates underwent one or two years probation in England, according to whether they had taken the London or the Indian examination. This period[10] was spent at the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, the School of Oriental Studies in London or Trinity College, Dublin,[10] where a candidate studied the law and institutions of India, including criminal law and the Law of Evidence, which together gave knowledge of the revenue system, as well as reading Indian history and learning the language of the Province to which they had been assigned.[10]

By 1920, there were five methods of entry into the higher civil service: firstly, the open competitive examinations in London; secondly, separate competitive examinations in India; thirdly, nomination in India to satisfy provincial and communal representation; fourthly, promotion from the Provincial Civil Service and lastly, appointments from the bar (one-fourth of the posts in the ICS were to be filled from the bar).[11]

Uniform and Dressing

Sir Henry Edward Stokes
Sir Gabriel Stokes
Sir Henry Edward Stokes and Sir Gabriel Stokes in the uniform of the Indian Civil Service.

Queen Victoria had suggested that the civil servants in India should have an official dress uniform, as did their counterparts in the Colonial Service. However, the Council of India decided that prescribing a dress uniform would be an undue expense for their officials.[12]

Although no uniform was prescribed for the Indian Civil Service until the early twentieth century. The only civilians allowed a dress uniform by regulations were those who had distinct duties of a political kind to perform, and who are thereby brought into frequent and direct personal intercourse with native princes.[12]

This uniform included a blue coat with gold embroidery, a black velvet lining, collar and cuffs, blue cloth trousers with gold and lace two inches wide, a beaver cocked hat with black silk cockade and ostrich feathers, and a sword.[12]

Nature and role

The civil services were divided into two categories - covenanted and uncovenanted. The covenanted civil service consisted of only white British civil servants occupying the higher posts in the government. The uncovenanted civil service was solely introduced to facilitate the entry of Indians at the lower rung of the administration.[13][14]

Posts and postings

The ICS officers were given fifty percent judgeship in the state high court and rest were generally elevated from the high court bar.[15]

There was no fixed retirement age for ICS officers.[15] They had to serve for 35 years from the date of arrival in India after their training at Haileybury. The tenure of ICS officers serving as judges of the high court and Supreme Court was determined by the retirement age fixed for judges.[15] The governorship of a British province was the highest post an ICS officer could aspire for.[15]

Changes after 1912

If a responsible government is to be established in India, there will be a far greater need than is even dreamt of at present for persons to take part in public affairs in the legislative assemblies and elsewhere and for this reason the more Indians we can employ in the public service the better. Moreover, it would lessen the burden of Imperial responsibilities if a body of capable Indian administrators could be produced..
 Regarding the importance of Indianising Civil Services, Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms[16]

With the passing of the Government of India Act 1919, the Imperial Services headed by the Secretary of State for India, were split into two – All India Services and Central Services.[17]

British control of the Indian Civil Service remained after the First World War, but faced growing difficulties. Fewer and fewer young men in Britain were interested in joining, and distrust of such posts among Indians resulted in a declining recruitment base in terms of quality and quantity. By 1945 Indians were numerically dominant in the ICS and at issue was loyalty divided between the Empire and independence.[18]

The finances of India under British rule depended largely on land taxes, and these became problematic in the 1930s. Epstein argues that after 1919 it became harder and harder to collect the land revenue. The suppression of civil disobedience by the British after 1934 temporarily increased the power of the revenue agents, but after 1937 they were forced by the new Congress-controlled provincial governments to hand back confiscated land. The outbreak of the Second World War strengthened them again, but in the face of the Quit India movement the revenue collectors had to rely on military force, and by 1946-47 direct British control was rapidly disappearing in much of the countryside.[19]

The All India and class 1 Central Services were designated as Central Superior Services as early as 1924.[20] From 1924 to 1934, Administration in India consisted of "ten"[20] All India Services and five central departments, all under the control of Secretary of State for India, and 3 central departments under joint Provincial and Imperial Control.

Independence of India

At the time of the partition of India and departure of the British, in 1947, the Indian Civil Service was divided between the new Dominions of India and Pakistan. The part which went to India was named the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), while the part that went to Pakistan was named the "Civil Service of Pakistan" (CSP). At the time of Partition, there were 980 ICS officers. 468 were Europeans, 352 Hindus, 101 Muslims, two depressed classes/Scheduled Castes, five domiciled Europeans and Anglo-Indians, 25 Indian Christians, 13 Parsis, 10 Sikhs and four other communities.[15]

Most European officers left India at Partition, while many Hindus and Muslims went to India and Pakistan respectively. This sudden loss of officer cadre caused major challenges in administering the nascent states.

Nirmal Kumar Mukherjee, who retired as Cabinet Secretary in April 1980, had been the last Indian administrative officer who had originally joined as an ICS (in 1944), while the last ICS officer to retire in Pakistan was Agha Shahi, also of 1944 batch, who retired as foreign advisor to president in 1982.[15] The last recruited batch of the ICS was in October 1944.

Support and criticism

Dewey has commented that "in their heyday they [Indian Civil Service officers] mostly run by Englishmen with a few notable sons of Hindus and even a fewer Muslims were the most powerful officials in the Empire, if not the world. A tiny cadre, a little over a thousand strong, ruled more than 300 million Indians. Each Civilian had an average 300,000 subjects, and each Civilian penetrated every corner of his subjects' lives, because the Indian Civil Service directed all the activities of the Anglo-Indian state."[21]

Speaking in the House of Commons in 1935, former British prime minister David Lloyd George said of the ICS that it was "the steel frame on which the whole structure of our government and of our administration in India rests".[22]

The ICS had responsibility for maintaining law and order, and often were at loggerheads with the freedom fighters during the Independence movement. Jawaharlal Nehru often ridiculed the ICS for its support of British policies. He noted that someone had once defined the Indian Civil Service, "with which we are unfortunately still afflicted in this country, as neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service".[23]

As Prime Minister, Nehru retained the organisation and its top people, albeit with a change of title to the "Indian Administrative Service". It continued its main roles. Nehru appointed long-time ICS officials Chintaman Deshmukh as his Finance Minister, and K. P. S. Menon as his Foreign Minister. Sardar Patel appreciated their role in keeping India united after Partition, and noted in Parliament that without them, the country would have collapsed.

See also


  1. "The Indian Civil Service". Retrieved 18 September 2014.
  2. "Administering India: The Indian Civil Service". Retrieved 18 September 2014.
  3. Blunt, (1937)
  4. Surjit Mansingh, The A to Z of India (2010), pp 288-90
  5. Michael J. Nojeim (2004). Gandhi and King: The Power of Nonviolent Resistance. Greenwood. p. 50.
  6. A. Martin Wainwright (2008). 'The better class' of Indians: social rank, imperial identity, and South Asians in Britain, 1858-1914. Manchester U.P.
  7. Ramesh Kumar Arora and Rajni Goyal, Indian public administration: institutions and issues (1995) p. 42; Ranbir Vohra, The making of India: a historical survey (2001) p 185
  8. Naithani, Sadhana (2006). In quest of Indian folktales: Pandit Ram Gharib Chaube and William Crooke. Indiana University Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-253-34544-8.
  9. Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances (8 June 2011). "History of civil services in India and Reforms" (PDF). New Delhi: Government of India. Retrieved 15 September 2011.
  10. 1 2 3 "The Colonial Service Training Courses : Professionalizing the Colonial Service". Retrieved 25 February 2016.
  11. Ramesh Kumar Arora and Rajni Goyal, Indian public administration: Institutions and Issues (1995) p 43
  12. 1 2 3 Cohn, Bernard S. (1996). Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691000435.
  13. Meghna Sabharwal, Evan M. Berman "Public Administration in South Asia: India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan (Public Administration and Public Policy," (2013)
  14. "Civil Service". The British Library. 8 June 2011. Retrieved 14 August 2015.
  15. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "Archive: The men who ran the Raj". Hindustan Times. Archived from the original on 4 September 2016. Retrieved 4 September 2016.
  16. P. N., Chopra (2003). A Comprehensive History of India, Volume 3. Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd. ISBN 9788120725065.
  17. Goel, S.L. Public Personnel Administration : Theory and Practice. Deep and Deep Publications, 2008. ISBN 9788176293952.
  18. David C. Potter, "Manpower Shortage and the End of Colonialism: The Case of Indian Civil Service," Modern Asian Studies, (Jan 1973) 7#1 pp 47-73
  19. Simon Epstein, 'District Officers in Decline: The Erosion of British Authority in the Bombay Countryside, 1919 to 1947' in Modern Asian Studies, (May 1982) 16#3, pp 493-518
  20. 1 2 Maheshwari, Shriram. Problems and Issues in Administrative Federalism. Allied Publishers. ISBN 9788170233428.
  21. Dewey, Clive (1993). Anglo-Indian attitudes: the mind of the Indian Civil Service. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-85285-097-5.
  22. Parliamentary debates: Official report, Volume 300 (H. M. Stationery Office, 1935), p. 767
  23. Jawaharlal Nehru, Glimpses of world history: being further letters to his daughter (Lindsay Drummond Ltd., 1949), p. 94

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