Dances with wolves, rains and red tape

The Ruling Caste
March 17, 2006

In 1954, less than ten years after Indian independence in 1947, Philip Mason, a former senior civil servant in India and a talented writer, published his seminal two-volume history of the Indian Civil Service, The Men Who Ruled India , under the pseudonym Philip Woodruff. After this, apart from brief portrayals of ICS officers in the Raj-related novels of Paul Scott published in the 1950s-70s, nothing much was written about this group of now almost extinct British officials. This makes David Gilmour's The Ruling Caste a welcome new look at those imperial lives from all levels of rank, taking them from recruitment through to retirement and covering their official duties, their social setting and their private pursuits. It illuminates nearly 200 years of interaction between Britain and India, leaving little room for the exotic East of Far Pavilions -style legend.

The Indian Civil Service was a driven and hierarchical set of just over a thousand men who administered nearly 300 million people across a huge territory consisting of what is now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma.

They ranged from high-powered members of the Viceroy's Council to lowly district magistrates. Unlike Mason, Gilmour does not seek to justify their rule as altruistic and benevolent. Instead, he captures the gamut of their personal experiences by focusing on a few individuals from the diverse bunch who worked in India. One senses that he accepts that their attitude of racial superiority may have contributed to ushering in the nationalism that ended British rule in India.

Given that the ICS was a relatively small community, its members "had to live on their own resources, their lives determined by individual temperament, environment and experience - and by the eternal problems of human relationships". This fact gives the book its strength. The dynamics of two different races forced together and the many-sided impact of this on both groups are intriguing. Such a protracted and intense interaction between East and West should surely offer insight into today's world of cultural collisions.

The long history of Western encounters with the Indian sub-continent is well documented in official papers and in private letters and memoirs. Both the Orientalists and their detractors have interpreted these writings according to their own viewpoints, especially the postcolonial historians - despite Edward Said's cautionary "Afterword" to his revised Orientalism (1995).

Gilmour became interested in the writings and lives of the ICS while working on his biography of Lord Curzon, who was Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905. Then, British India was divided into 250 districts, the average size of which was 4,430 square miles with an average population of 931,000.

Although all district officers had similar responsibilities, their duties varied according to the local geography. In every case, there was the task of protecting the population from marauding bandits and dangerous wild animals; in the 1880s, about 20,000 Indians a year died from attacks by tigers, wolves, leopards and snakes. But while land in the Punjab, for example, was arid and needed irrigation canals to be dug, Bengal's plains had too much water and required constant monitoring for alluvial sedimentation.

Many districts had mixed populations of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, tribal people, nomads and manifold other factions. ICS officers had to deal with delicate social issues. Only a handful learnt to handle them as well as Sir George Yule. A large district of West Bengal known as the Santal Parganas had sporadic problems with Santal tribals who did not understand the British system of courts and rebelled against it in 1855 with bows and arrows. Yule turned the district into a "non-regulation" district by removing the Bengal police and abolishing the court system. Peace was restored.

The pre-Civil Service education of an officer was typically at an English public school, notably at Haileybury school in Hertfordshire, which sternly fostered the ethos of imperial authority; in India, after success in the entrance examination, Fort William College in Calcutta taught Indian history, languages, ethics and law. The grooming of aspiring members of the ICS in England made it difficult for Indians to gain entry; but after the 1860s, when Satyendranath Tagore became the first Indian to be admitted to the ICS, Indians worked as deputy collectors, deputy magistrates and subordinate judges while being excluded from the higher positions.

The landlord Rabindranath Tagore, a younger brother of Satyendranath, often encountered ICS officers in the course of managing the Tagore family estates in East Bengal in the 1890s. In his private letters and stories written in Bengali, Tagore sketched brief but telling details of the ICS officials that show them as generally fair-minded and dedicated but vainglorious men. However, their true epitaph is perhaps etched not in a memorial tablet or history book, but rather in present-day India's predilection for bureaucracy.

Krishna Dutta is the author of Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History .

The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj

Author - David Gilmour
Publisher - John Murray
Pages - 383
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7195 5534 5

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