Lecture on the Indian Civil Service (ICS); 20 October 2022

What the Crown Services did for India.

Sir Colin Budd spoke at a meeting of the Indian Civil Service Association on 20 October 2022.  The notes for his lecture are below.

Sir Colin’s father Bernard served in the ICS from 1935 to 1947 and in the Pakistan Administrative Service to 1951.

Lecture on the Indian Civil Service (ICS); 20 October 2022

For clarity, my theme this afternoon is NOT what the British did for India – a vastly more complicated subject. Instead the narrower but still very central story of how the ICS -the Indian Civil Service and the Imperial Police Service developed and maintained the basic structures which did so much till 1947 to hold India together and give it a common framework.

Secondly, in the time I have tonight, there has to be some generalisation. The ICS and Police were of course not all perfect, not all the same, not all orthodox. There are books enough on their histories which cover the most obvious exceptions. My aim will be to seek out that which was broadly characteristic and illustrative of the whole. Not a balanced academic study. More a series of impressions.

I also won’t cover as such the historical narrative of 1600-1947, which has been more than amply dealt with by Philip Mason and others.

What I want to do instead is to reflect on the contribution the Services in question made to India – to consider what they were trying to do, how well they did it, and what they were actually like.

Much of the debate about all this too often becomes a dialogue of the deaf between the extreme views – those who insist that the ICS was some kind of Platonic perfection, and the Indian commentators who still bitterly resent its very existence, in the manner of Nehru’s sally that it was “neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service”.

As an example of the latter approach, let’s take as a benchmark of sorts the views of Shashi Tharoor. A figure of some consequence. Now 66. A member of the Indian Lok Sabha. Quite close in 2006 to becoming Secretary General of the UN. Recently ran for the Presidency of the Indian National Congress but lost. His book “Inglorious Empire” in 2016 was a highly emotional hatchet job on what the British did to India, and included a dozen odd pages on the ICS, arguing inter alia that:

  • it failed dismally to include enough Indians;
  • even its British members were not the best and the brightest (“mediocrities ruled the roost”);
  • it was overpaid, obtusely process-ridden, remarkably inefficient, and largely indifferent to the well-being of the Indian people;
  • its members took decisions “with no connection to those whose fates they were deciding”.

Points to which I will return. But in a way the most remarkable thing, if one examines the historical record, is that from not long after the start, one finds, alongside the usual greed of empire, a quite striking emphasis, from many of the British participants in the story on the importance of integrity, benevolence and duty. That was already true before Victoria became Queen – while the Victorians, as Philip Mason notes, felt they were God’s trustees for every corner of the world where they could plant the flag.

The ICS proper of course only dates from 1858, while Victoria was Queen from 1837. But the periods before 1858 and before Victoria are important because the debates then conditioned much of the atmosphere in which the ICS germinated and was started.

I was lucky enough to do a special subject in my Cambridge history degree on the four great prototypes of the generation just before Victoria, who all make for exhilarating reading:

  • MUNRO already in 1795 was showing how to be a good Collector and ensure that rents were fixed at a fair level. The House of Commons in 1812 squarely agreed with him, concluding that the Collector could and should be the best safeguard of the interests of the peasant, since by dealing direct with the peasant he would get to know what a man could fairly pay. Munro also insisted on the benefits of having Indian judges;
  • MALCOLM and ELPHINSTONE restored peace and order to the Maratha country, after fighting the Pindari gangs. Elphinstone was steadfast in his strong support for the greater employment of Indians, and farsighted enough to look forward to the end of the imperial age;
  • METCALFE, who ran Delhi from 1811-19, ended capital punishment, as a matter of principle, and in most of his penal theory was a century ahead of his times.

These were all in their way great men. They and others like them had by the middle of the 19th century brought peace to much of India, instead of anarchy, had mapped the fields and made lists of every man’s rights, and had made a beginning of building roads, bridges and railways, and of improving irrigation. As individuals they of course varied greatly – but nearly all of them felt that the performance of duty was something good in itself, that equal justice for all was of very great importance, and that there should be real warmth and affection between the district officer and the peasant. Albeit in varying measure, they derived much inspiration and conviction from Bentham’s utilitarianism – from Bentham’s strong belief that the best criterion for policy making was to pursue that which brought the greatest happiness to the greatest number. Already then, many of them were trying their best to be minutely just, and inflexibly upright. As Eric Stokes showed in 1959, in his book on “The English Utilitarians and India”, many ICS actions could be traced to Benthamite roots, as illustrated in the works of such men as James Mill, the father of John Stuart Mill, and Macaulay – who wrote the Indian Penal Code. India was a great stage on which Englishmen could try out ideas and practices which were not yet accepted at home.

1853 brought the advent of open competitive exams. 1858 replaced Company rule with the Raj proper.

The ICS exam, devised by Macaulay’s Committee, was based on the principle that “the civil servant should have received the best, the most liberal, the most finished education that his country affords”. Candidates could offer as many subjects as they liked, from a range including Greek and Latin, French, German and Italian, Maths and Science. So much for Tharoor’s jibe about the ICS not being the best and the brightest. All this, remember, at a time when entry to the English civil service was still by patronage.

But after the high flown intellectual exam, what did the new District Officer then do? Philip Mason gives a vivid picture. He adds a reminder of the different streams of ICS work – the choice between the executive line, continuing as a District Officer, and the narrower specializations – political, judicial, secretariat and so on.

In 90 pages of his book Mason gives the flavour of the period from the Mutiny to the First World War, through the liveliest of pen pictures, which together show how the tapestry was developed. One almost constant leitmotiv is the determination of the ICS to be close to the people – an attitude frequently criticised by the English trading and planting communities, and reflected in the British press by articles about the civilian’s bias in favour of “the native”. Despite the Mutiny, Lyall [of Lyallpur] wrote in 1858 that he took “immense interest in the natives of India and liked to be constantly among them”.

Frere in Sind built roads, railways and above all canals, and started a postal service. Beames in the Punjab worked like a Trojan. While he was in Behar he dealt with the Police Act of 1861, which introduced a new uniform Police system for the whole of British India (The Police were always an essential part of the ICS story: there was only one British soldier to every six thousand Indians, and only one British policeman to every million or so, so great skill was needed to keep the peace). Lyall always encouraged his teams to get out and see the people, and pursued a wide variety of good works. These were men who always urged their District Officer colleagues to be up early and ride widely. They were typical of many others.

After the First World War there were of course many new challenges, as the political scene changed, but the role of the District Officer still included all its familiar old facets, as well. As the twentieth century wore on, the kind of ICS work an officer did depended more and more on where he was based, but the basic structure remained the same. Of the 1200 odd ICS total, around 50% were District Officers, 15% judges, 25% at the provincial level, and 10% in Delhi.

Time now to step back from the individual pen portraits and look at the picture in the round.


ICS - Governor of the UP in 1941
Sir Maurice Hallett, Governor of the United Provinces, and Lady Hallett receiving guests at a garden party in 1941

Their primary task was to run a system of administration, their key functions being the maintenance (with the police) of law and order, the role of the district magistrate, and the collection of the revenue (hence Collector). Their memorial in Westminster Abbey has the famous quotation from Micah: “What doth the Lord require of thee but to act justly and love mercy …”.

On top of that came the obligation to become expert about their territory. They were trained in law, history and oriental languages, and many of them kept up good libraries, conducted a lot of research, and produced good books and gazetteers.

Partly for material reasons – prosperity brought more revenue – and partly for moral, they put much emphasis on the promotion of health and prosperity, and on fighting famine. After a terrible famine in Orissa in 1865, the Viceroy (Lawrence) declared that district officers had a duty to preserve the lives of every person in their districts. All across India they fought locusts. In Bengal they fought the plague of the water hyacinths. In many, many cases their constant preoccupation was the welfare of their charges. District officers often became obsessed by their work, as Leonard Woolf was in Ceylon, rarely thinking “of anything else except the District and the people, to increase their prosperity, diminish the poverty and disease, start irrigation works, open schools”.

The idea of enlightened despotism chimed rather well with the concept of being a Platonic Guardian. Many district officers, however much they were suspicious of educated Indians, were comfortable in the paternalistic role when being addressed by the local peasants as their “Man Bap”.


Lord Wavell, in a speech made after he left India, said that in his view the English would be remembered, not for this institution or that, but by the ideal they left behind of what a district officer should be. Long before, Warren Hastings had had a rather similar thought, saying that “It is on the virtue, not the ability of their servants that the Company must rely”.

David Gilmour, in the preface to his book “The Ruling Caste”, gives a good summary of attitudes towards the ICS. Many non-Brits greatly admired its work, including Bismarck and Theodore Roosevelt. So did many Indians and Pakistanis. And many left wing British observers – such as Lloyd George and John Strachey, the Labour Minister, who judged the ICS to have been the “least corruptible … ablest … and most respectable of all the great bureaucracies of the world”. Even Tharoor admitted that there is no doubt about the heroic efforts of many individual civilians, who dug canals, founded colleges, administered justice and even, in some cases, advocated Indian self-rule. These British civilians, said one Indian observer, built world class infrastructure in a land that had no railways, metalled roads or irrigation systems, and transformed the face of the sub-continent.


This audience knows the answer to that better than most. Though the answers are more complicated than one might at first think. Though there clearly certain similarities, there is also quite a lot of variation.

Some of the most rigorous research was done by the late David Potter, recorded in his 1986 book on “India’s Political Administrators”.

The British ICS, according to Penderel Moon, identified themselves as upper middle class [not something all of us will recognise]. Certainly the family backgrounds show heavy traces of the armed forces, the medical profession, the clergy, the law, university academics, and the business world. Around 70% of the 1919-41 new entrants came from that background. Around 65% were from English public schools, around 20% from Scottish and Irish schools. Some 75% went to Oxford or Cambridge, the largest concentrations being from Christ Church and Balliol.
Common elements to most of these backgrounds were strong emphases on integrity, teamwork and the importance of a moral code, as inherent to the concept of public service. The ICS had from the start of their training, an approach only reinforced during it, the confidence that they would be engaged in virtuous work, and this helped to give them a sense of confidence and superiority. What it did not always give them was humility – according to my father, it was no accident that the Westminster Abbey quotation from Micah did not extend to the last part.

Philip Mason drew a connection between the ideals of Victorian public school life and the production of rulers for the empire: “Hardness, self-composure, coolness in the face of pain and danger, confidence in one’s own decisions – these were qualities required by the imperial class which a growing empire demanded”.

But there was also variation. Clive Dewey’s interesting book on “The Mind of the ICS” shows through the prisms of Malcolm Darling and F L Brayne the impact of personal background on attitudes towards work in the ICS in the 20th C. Darling was a cultured humanist, Brayne a born-again Evangelical. Brayne was descended from two low church dynasties, who launched a crusade for the moral regeneration of Indian villagers. Darling was bent on showing what imagination and sensitivity could do to reconcile Indians to the Raj. Brayne wanted to convert India to English norms, Darling wanted to preserve Indian institutions.

The same tension, as Philip Mason shows, could be found in the 1860s. Men like John Lawrence were passionate for improvement, on the English model. While men like Henry Lawrence, Frere and Lyall saw the value of Indians as individuals and of Indian institutions. And both then and in the 20th C there were plenty of ICS men in the middle, drawing partly on the one approach and partly on the other.

Because ICS men were by nature self-confident and more than capable of independent action, one other key divide was between the district officers and those in the provincial or national secretariats. The latter produced endless reams of paper, much anal analysis and endlessly pettifogging complaints about details. The former were usually robust men of action, spending much of their time in the saddle, and impatient with paperwork. Many district officers used variations on Philip Mason’s gambit of the Second Reminder.

Trying to define what the ICS were like is far from easy. There was no one type. As Philip Mason put it: “Their profession encouraged idiosyncrasies because it put them where they were alone, among people of an alien race. There were men among them who were industrious, men who were idle, men devout and men indifferent, scholars in Sanskrit and cheerful sunburnt men whose leisure was spent shooting tigers and spearing hogs. But in all of them there was a combination of two qualities usually antagonistic. A consciousness that they have a great task and belong to a service – but also an independence of outlook, a readiness to criticise and state an opinion, however unfavourable to authority”.

Back to Shashi Tharoor. Some of his assertions are arguable, and will be endlessly matters for debate. Certainly the ICS could have included more Indians, but it did include a good number, many of whom were huge admirers of its approach and attitudes [Hilaly and Shahi]. Certainly the administration of the Raj could be obtusely process-ridden, and very slow, though that had a lot to do with time and distance. But much of what Tharoor wrote was plain rubbish. The ICS was most definitely not mediocre. Not often remarkably inefficient. And definitely neither far removed from the people nor indifferent to their well-being.

A telling comparison can be made, when one has the time, with the other major European empires. A hard look at the Spanish, French, Dutch, Belgian and German empires will not leave many people thinking that the British performance in India was anything but the best of the bunch. Partly because of the opportunities afforded by the sheer size of India, the element of scale. But in very large part also because of the huge contribution made by the ICS and the Indian Police. There is certainly no other empire which has received so much posthumous praise, along with all the brickbats, from those whom it once ruled.

As time wore on the ICS and the Police faced more and more frustrations and difficulties, as the Indian nationalistic ferment became more and more intense. But right up to 1947 the Raj still in many cases brought out the best in them, not least because of the size of the challenges they faced and rose to. As Lyall had told Darling at the start of his career, there were opportunities in India unmatched by those available at home. A lifetime on the 7.45 from Tunbridge Wells would simply not have given them the same story – or India the jolt and the stimuli which their presence there provided.

All in all, the ICS, for all its faults, most certainly deserved the other part of the Westminster Abbey memorial, which I have not yet mentioned: “Let them not be forgotten, for they served India well”.