The steel frame between two stools
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The steel frame between two stools

A great deal has been written about the role played by the officers of the Indian Civil Service – the Steel Frame –in administering the country. Here's another one.

india Updated: Jun 29, 2007 15:28 IST

Between Two Stools: My Life in the ICS Before and After Independence


Jayavant Mallanah Shrinagesh


Rupa & Co.


192 pages


Rs 495

A great deal has been written about the role played by the officers of the Indian Civil Service – the Steel Frame –in administering the country, and establishing sound traditions before and after Independence.

The British chose the officers of the Indian Civil Service for their ability and loyalty. Most of them were educated in England, as the impression was that the education available in India only trained persons to become clerks.

Once admitted to the Indian Civil Service, it was not an easy task for the officers to serve in colonial India. They had to remain loyal to their British masters while administering the country. When the country became independent, they had a new set of masters in Indian politicians who were critical of the ICS before Independence.

Even senior leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru called the ICS a ‘kept service’, ‘expensive luxury’ and the officers were accused of ‘clinging to their superiors and bullying their inferiors’. They were accused of being the ‘cause of intellectual decay’ of the country.

Looking back, the Officers of the Indian Civil Service remained loyal to the country and administered it without fear. They ensured that the system that the country inherited from the British remained stable.

The main credit for retaining the ICS should go to Sardar Vallabhai Patel, the first Home Minister of India. Sardar Patel took the decision to retain the ICS and stated in public as early as October 1947: “All that we have been able to achieve, whether it is in the sphere of States or in Kashmir, or any other theatres, has been possible only because of their loyalty and wholehearted support.”

Many who retired from the ICS have written their reminicenses, in which they have recounted the difficult days that the country passed through on the eve of Independence and during Partition. The latest is a compilation of the experiences of Jayawant Mallanah Shrinagesh, who joined the ICS in 1928 and retired in 1963. He passed away in 1986.

The autobiography of J M Shrinagesh, has been edited from a manuscript retrieved by his sister Shakuntala Hartog. It tells the story of an ICS officer who functioned as an efficient administrator before and after Independence, and helped in establishing what Nehru called ‘modern temples’ of India – the Steel plants, Oil Refineries and Aircraft factories.

J M Shrinagesh hailed from an illustrious family. His brother was s General S M Shrinagesh, who rose to become the Chief of Army Staff in independent India. His father, Dr Mallanah Srinagesh, was the consultant physician to the Nizam of Hyderabad, who could afford to send his children for education in the United Kingdom.

J M Shrinagesh served in United Punjab before Partition. At the time of Independence, he was the commissioner of the Jullundur Division and was witness to the mindless communal violence that engulfed the country.

He recounts that as an officer in the Punjab State, he never faced a case of communal rioting, but what happened during Partition was appalling. He recalls how the whole process was done in a hurry. Lord Mountbatten, who was sworn in as Viceroy on 22 March 1947, produced the Partition plan on 4 June, 1947, and the transfer of power was to take place on 15 August 1947.

The demarcation of Punjab was entrusted to Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a lawyer from London with no experience of India at all. He arrived in India on 8th July and was required to complete the job in five weeks. People in the province did not know whether they will be in India or Pakistan. It was said that Sir Radcliffe refused his fee for the work. Shrinagesh says: “I do not blame him. The sheer inhumanity of the task was something no decent man could digest.”

The task of maintaining peace was entrusted to the Boundary Force, which consisted of about 50,000 officers and men with its headquarters in Jullundur. Shrinagesh had his offices both at Jullundur and Lahore.

He witnessed what political strife can make of a people, who had lived in amicable friendship for many years in a province that had become one of the richest in the country. He recounts how the Sikh community, which owned rich irrigated lands of Rawalpindi, Montgomery, Multan, Gujranwala, Sialkot and Lahore were forced to leave their homes. He writes: “One morning we learnt that a complete column of Sikhs had left their homes and lands and were on a trek, several miles long towards India.” Many were killed on the way, which resulted in reprisals.

He recounts the difficult task he had to perform to ensure that Muslems, who were bound for Pakistan, could cross the border safely. He recalls that one night, he received a message that ‘if a single Muslim passed Amritsar on way to the border, I would be held personally responsible.”

Refused to be cowed down, he took the help of a Cavalry Officer and stationed tanks along the route though which the refugees were to pass. Those who wanted to attack the column and were hiding in the sugarcane fields, could not come out. The column of Moslem refugees passed through safely.

The next phase of J M Shrinagesh’s career saw him employed in the ‘modern temples’ of India. He headed the Hindustan Aeronautics, established the Oil Refinery Guwahati and set up steel plants at Durgapur , Rourkela and Bhilai.

Between two stools is a valuable addition to the historical accounts available to the country. It brings out the fact that our founding fathers, though suspicious of the Indian Civil Service at the time of Independence soon realised that they were tools to implement the State policy and learnt to repose faith in them.

Can the same thing be said about our present rulers? As soon as a new political party secures power in a State, hundreds of transfers are announced overnight. One also hears very often of cases being filed against civil servants and police officials. Do we ever learn lessons from history?

The writer - I Ramamohan Rao - is Former Principal Information Officer, Government of India

First Published: Jun 21, 2007 16:31 IST