Bengalis in Civvy Street ~ I

The1st of June is a historical day in the annals of Civil Services in India. On this day, in 1842…

Bengalis in Civvy Street ~ I

The1st of June is a historical day in the annals of Civil Services in India. On this day, in 1842 was born Satyendranath Tagore, the first Indian to qualify in the Indian Civil Service examination. He entered the ICS in 1863 and was posted to Bombay Presidency. Satyendranath was the son of Maharshi Devendranath Tagore, elder brother of Rabindranath and grandson of Prince Dwarkanath Tagore.

The Indian Civil Service, which was for a part of the 19th century officially known as the Imperial Civil Service, was responsible for the administration in British India from 1858 to 1947. India, since the ancient times had its own system of administration. The ruler recruited/nominated officials for administration but it was the British who, for the first time in the sub-continent introduced the cadre-based civil services, which eventually became the steel framework of their administrative machinery. The Macaulay Committee gave India its first modern civil service in 1854, which recommended that the patronage based civil service system of the East India Company should be replaced by a permanent civil service based on merit. The Macaulay Committee Report stated: “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.”

After 1855, recruitment to the ICS was totally based on merit. In 1914, only 5 per cent of ICS officers were Indians. At the time of Partition in 1947, there were 980 ICS officers, of whom 468 were Europeans, 352 Hindus, 101 Muslims, two from the depressed classes/Scheduled Castes, five domiciled Europeans and Anglo-Indians, 25 Indian Christians, 13 Parsis, 10 Sikhs and four of other communities. Nirmal Kumar Mukherjee, who retired as Cabinet Secretary of the Government of India in April 1980, was the last ICS officer. He joined the service in 1944, which was also the last batch of ICS officers. The service was the bedrock of the British administrative system in India. Speaking in the House of Commons in 1935, former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George said: “The ICS is the steel frame, on which the whole structure of our government and of our administration in India rests”.


Sardar Patel appreciated the role of ICS in keeping India united after Partition, and once told Parliament: “Without them, the country would have collapsed’.

Post-Independence, Indian political leaders chose to retain the unified administrative system of British India and continued with the Civil Services system selected through annual common Civil Services Examination (CSE). The Civil Services were categorised into three groups:

1) The All India Services (AIS), whose members served both the Union and the State Governments. AIS consisted of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in place of erstwhile Indian Civil Service, Indian Police Service (IPS) in place of Indian Police and Indian Forest Service, which was created in the mid- 1960s. Officers who were selected for AIS through CSE were referred to as ‘Direct Recruits’ .

2) The Central Civil Services (CCS), whose members serve only the Union Government. As of now, there are 24 such Services, which include the Indian Foreign Service, the Indian Revenue Services, the Indian Railway Services, the Indian Audit & Accounts Service and other Accounts & Finance Services, the Indian Postal Service etc.

3) The State Civil Services (SCS), whose members serve the State Governments and are appointed by the State Public Service Commission. After serving for some years with the State, these officers are ‘promoted/ nominated’ to the AIS and are normally referred to as the ‘Promoted/Nominated’ officers.

The first batch of IAS officers was recruited in 1948. The objective of recruitment to the Civil Services is to attract the brightest and the best young minds of the country to assist the Union and the State Governments in formulating and implementing the policies and programme to shape the future of the country and its citizens, to preserve the unity and integrity of the country and to maintain a uniform standard of administration. The civil servants are expected to be neutral and objective, non-political, secular and non-sectarian in their outlook; competent, efficient and professional in discharging their responsibilities; maintain highest level of integrity and imbibed with the idealism to serve the country and its people.

In the parliamentary democratic system of governance as in India, the responsibility for running the administration rests with the elected representatives of the people. But a handful of ministers cannot be expected to deal personally with the manifold problems of modern administration. Thus, the council of ministers lays down the policy and delegates the power to the civil servants to implement the same. The executive decisions are implemented by the civil servants, who serve at the pleasure of the President of India. Article 311 of the Constitution protects them from politically motivated vindictive action.

IAS is the most preferred service among the Civil Services, as is evident from the ‘meritcum-choice’ selection procedure adopted in the allocation of services. Approximately, 50 per cent of the total vacancies of all the services are reserved for SCs, STs and OBCs. IAS officers hold key and strategic positions in the Union and the State Governments, they represent the permanent bureaucracy, and form an inseparable part of the executive branch of the Government, thus providing continuity and neutrality to the administration.

Like the first Indian ICS officer, the last was also a Bengali. This underscores the great pride and value that was attached to the service by the Bengali community. ICS was the social barometer for measuring life’s achievements. Qualifying in the ICS exam was the first choice of the candidates travelling to England. Those who failed, would thereafter try to qualify for the Bar, as was of Monmohan Ghose who appeared unsuccessfully along with Satyendranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru and many others. ICS officers were often appointed judges in the higher judiciary, but the reverse was not true.

For almost two centuries, Bengal was the seat of the British Empire in India. It was therefore natural that the pulse of power and glory was most acutely in the city of Calcutta than anywhere else in the country. The bhadralok’s desire to share the glory of power was encapsulated in the ICS and the surest way to taste the same was to become a member of the service. Qualifying for the ICS was also an indicator of ‘….having arrived….’, as is evident from the fact that children of good families and with good education, aspired and competed for the ICS. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose stood fourth but did not join as he did not want to serve the colonial government, Sri Aurobindo passed the open competition in 1890, but having no interest, came late to the horse-riding practical exam purposefully to get himself disqualified for the service. He became a revolutionary and later a Rishi. Surendranath Bannerjee along with Romesh Chunder Dutt, who stood third, Behari Lal Gupta and Sripad Babaji Thakur from Bombay qualified for the ICS in 1869, when only four 4 Indians cleared the exam. Surendranath Bannerjee was dismissed from service due to racial discrimination. He went on to become a prominent leader of the independence movement. RC Dutt was president of the Indian National Congress in 1899, a member of the Bengal Legislative Council and an eminent economic historian. As per the Civil List, in 1948 the number of ICS officers in the country was 242, of which 42 were Bengalis, roughly constituting 17 per cent of the total. Among the first five Indians to qualify in the ICS exam, four were Bengalis.

The change of nomenclature of the service from ICS to IAS as well as the transfer of the capital to Delhi had no influence on the charm that the service held on the Bengali society and its youth; it continued to be a much sought after career among those, who wanted to be seen as successful, recognised and be counted upon. In the very first year of recruitment of IAS in 1948, seven out of 30 officers selected were Bengalis, approximately 22.5 per cent of the total intake. In 1949 and 1950, among 32 IAS officers selected each year, six and five respectively were Bengalis.

(To be concluded)