Recalling a bygone era evokes mixed feelings. On one hand it reminds you of the glorious past and the memories are gleeful. On the other, it makes you melancholic because the time gone by can't be retrieved or relived.
It was 32 years ago during these days that Nirmal Kumar Mukherjee, ICS, demitted office as cabinet secretary of India. One evening in April 1980, Mukherjee came down the steps of Rashtrapati Bhawan from his office in the cabinet secretariat. It was curtains on the steel frame of the British Raj on that day. Mukherjee was the last ICS (Indian Civil Service) officer to retire. He was the junior most officer of the Punjab Commission and had joined as ICS on October 25, 1944. The last batch of ICS.
The ICS was called the 'heaven born service' during the Raj days. It was started in 1855 and the first batch joined in 1856. The British Parliament had acknowledged in 1833 that Indians must be admitted to the higher posts of service. Though the first exam for ICS was held in 1855 in London, not a single Indian, pejoratively called natives then, was there to take the exam because either Indians did not possess the required education and grooming or did not have enough means to travel to London which also included the expenses for boarding and lodging.
Besides, Indian society was superstitious and crossing oceans was considered a bad omen, especially among Hindus. Initially, the ICS was an all-white affair, but the elder brother of Rabindranath Tagore, Satyendranath Tagore, became the first Indian to qualify the ICS in 1863. Satyendranath was allotted Bombay Presidency Cadre and retired after more than 30 years of service. By 1871, only four Indians had joined the service. By 1883, the total number of Indian ICS were 12 and in 1915, exactly 60 years after the first competitive examination of ICS, only 63 Indians had joined the ICS.
Most Indian ICS aspirants took loans to go abroad. In the late 1890s, the philanthropist JN Tata set up a scholarship/loan fund for Indians to study abroad, which included as a condition that they give the ICS exam (by 1924, over a third of all Indian ICS officers were Tata scholars).
The first Indian to be dismissed from the ICS was Surendranath Banerjee, who cleared the ICS examination in 1869 but was barred from joining owing to a dispute over his exact age. He again cleared the exam in 1871 and was posted as assistant magistrate in 'Sylhet', but was dismissed for a minor offence.
The first Indian to stand first in one of two parts of ICS exam held in 1904 was Gurusaday Dutt of Bengal.
In 98 years of British rule over Punjab, 11 Sikh officers were selected for the ICS. They were Sir Datar Singh (1921 Central Provinces), maternal grandfather of BJP leader Meneka Gandhi; Hardit Singh Malik (1921-Punjab), Ram Parsad Singh Grewal alias S Pertab (ICS-1921-Punjab); justice Shamsher Singh Dulat (1928-Punjab); Nawab Singh (1929-Punjab); Kapur Singh (1933-Punjab); MS Randhawa (1934-United Provinces, later Punjab); BS Grewal (1936-Punjab); Tarlok Singh (1937-Punjab); Kewal Singh Chaudhary (1939-Punjab) and Gian Singh Kahlon (1938-Bengal).
It is worth mentioning that of these 11 officers, three officers - Kapur Singh, Gian Singh Kahlon and Shamsher Singh Dulat - were nominated officers, whereas the others took the exam.
Kapur Singh became the first ICS officer to be removed from service a few months after independence.
There were some other brilliant Punjabi officers such as Sir Ram Chandra, ICS (1918); CN Chandra, ICS (1921 Punjab); HD Bhanot, ICS (1921 Punjab); PKKaul, ICS (1923 Punjab); Amar Nath Bhandari, ICS (1924 Punjab); Gopal Dass Khosla, ICS (1926 Punjab); PN Thapar, ICS (1927 Punjab); BR Tandon, ICS (1927 Punjab); Mulkh Raj Sachdev, ICS (1928 Punjab); and SN Haksar, ICS (1933 Punjab).
In 98 years rule over Punjab, the British government posted only one Indian deputy commissioner in Lahore. He was S Pertab, ICS, (alias Ram Parsad Singh Grewal). He was deputy commissioner for two stints. He is always remembered for his dexterity and sagacity in resolving the Gurdwara Shahidganj issue in Lahore and restoring it to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. He died in 1939.
It would not be out of tune to mention Sir William Wedderburn, ICS, of the 1859 batch, who remained judge of the Bombay high court and retired as chief secretary, Bombay Presidency (present day Maharashtra Gujarat and Sindh province of Pakistan), along with retired director general of agriculture of Government of India AO Hume, ICS, founded the Congress party in 1885.
Hume became its 1st president in 1885 whereas Wedderburn served as Congress president in 1889 and 1910.
The upper age limit for the ICS exam always remained 24 years from 1855 to January 1943 - when the last exam was held. However, the lower age limit varied from time to time.
The first person to qualify for the ICS exam from north India was Sir Shadi Lal Aggarwal of Rewari, who was selected in 1902. It's not well known that Sir Shadi Lal after his training in Haileybury resigned and started practicing as a barrister in Lahore. He later became a judge and chief justice of chief's court (later upgraded as Lahore high court in 1921). He got the title of Rai Bahadur in 1912 and knighthood in 1921.
The ICS officers were given 50% judgship in the state high court and rest were generally elevated from the high court bar.
The ICS officers were repeatedly reminded that they should govern India in trust for the natives and for India itself. The ICS examination was held in London from 1855 to 1921 and from 1922 onwards the exams were held both in Allahabad and in London. The only Indian to top the ICS examination in 88 years was Kumar Padmanabha Sankara Menon who stood first in the 1921 batch. In the 1920 batch of ICS, interestingly, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose stood fourth. Bose reported for training and resigned in April 1921 and joined the freedom movement and became Congress president in 1938 and 1939 and also a legendry freedom fighter.
Only one British ICS opted to serve in Punjab after Partition. He was Donald Falshaw who joined ICS in 1928 and retired as a chief justice of Punjab high court in 1966.
Such was the grandeur and pomp of the service that British officers lived in revoltingly exuberant and flamboyantly spacious bungalows in royal style and usually kept a dozen or more servants - even when their wives and children were living in Britain. Gradually their number was pared down. When the 'natives' entered the supreme service, they managed to live with fewer domestic helps.
The prestige did not belong to the ICS officer only, but also to the system of which he was a part. All this was the visible manifestation of the imperial mystique. Authority and rightful power belonged to the empire; ICS officers were exercising it in the name and on behalf of the empire. Merit was meticulously appreciated and incompetence and carelessness reprimanded. Apples and oranges were never mixed; supremacy emerged out of the structure, not out of personal rule.
The ICS officers' grip over the administrative machinery and knowledge of law made their reputation and gave life to their domination over their sphere of activity. But authority and mystique percolated downwards. The police constable who stood guard at the gate was not so much a policeman as the representative of the British empire; hence his unquestioned authority, his protection pertinence in hierarchy. The glamour and the dazzle came fully buttressed by moral authority. The habit of command flowed from prestige, not the other way round. The mastery of direction was rooted in superiority proven in testing times.
At the time of India's Independence, there were 980 ICS officers in pre-Partition India. Of these, 468 were Europeans, 352 Hindus, two depressed classes/Scheduled Castes, 101 Muslims, five domiciled Europeans and Anglo-Indians, 25 Indian Christians, 13 Parsis, 10 Sikhs and four other communities.
The last ICS to retire as a judge of the high court/Supreme Court in India was justice SB Capoor, ICS of 1931 batch, who retired as a judge of the Punjab and Haryana high court in 1969.
There was no fixed retirement age for ICS officers. They had to serve for 35 years from the date of arrival in India after their training in 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.
The governorship of a British province was the highest post an ICS officer could aspire for.
The last ICS officer to retire in Pakistan was Agha Shahi of 1944 batch who retired as foreign advisor to president in 1982.
At present in India there are reportedly only two surviving ICS officers: JB Bowman, ICS, 1938 batch, Bombay Presidency, lives in Mumbai whereas N Sehgal, ICS, 1941, Punjab, lives in Delhi.
In one of the meetings held in early 1946 in Lahore, Sir James Glancy (1906 batch Punjab cadre), the then governor of Punjab, had said: "You want us to leave India. We would leave very soon but one thing you must remember that you would not be able to maintain those vaulting standards of fairness, honesty, efficaciousness and diligence in administration, which we maintained because of the conspicuous role of the ICS and other services despite difficulties of governing and numerous odds faced by us. Time would come when many of you would remember us with tears in your eyes."
The ICS cadre in Punjab had a sanctioned strength of 161 officers and facts gleaned from records show that only 2 ICS officers were charge-sheeted in the 20-year period from 1927 to 1947 in Punjab. One of them, AM Khan Leghari, ICS of 1938 batch, was charge-sheeted for corrupt activities and the other Sir Penderal Moon, ICS of 1931 batch, for his affair with a woman politician (he was later asked to resign as deputy commissioner, Amritsar, in 1943).
Yes, it was as true then as it is now: that with good officers good rules are almost superfluous and with bad officers they are almost ineffective.
The writer is an IAS officer of Punjab cadre