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The civil services sans scholarly inclination

The conflict between the so-called elitism of the bureaucrat and uninspiring pragmatism of the politician often proved to be a cultural catastrophe within the administration.

AK Ghosh | Kolkata |

At a time when the civil services in India are caught in a cesspool of corruption and politicisation, it may be iterated that the culture of an administration is a synthesis of personal and social cultures that reflects in the ethos, values and objectives of its organisation.

And culture may be defined as the refinement and intellect obtained from learning for the ennoblement of life, both personal and social. It is sad to notice that while the British administrators sought the assistance of scholars for gathering knowledge and taking decisions, their Indian counterparts excluded them perhaps on the bureaucratic assumption that administrative abilities were acquired by experience, and that conceptualisation of experience was a wasteful exercise.

They hardly acknowledged that promoting intelligence, advancing horizon of thought, expanding perspective, perception, cautioning foresight and range of alternatives for decision-making are the spontaneous bequests of intellectual power. Interestingly, in the wake of Independence, the political leadership which replaced the British rulers was largely the product of English institutions of learning, cherished the values of the west and was eminently competent by any Indian measure.

But once it came to power, contrary to its earliest profession it refused to associate men of radical ideas with the functioning of the government and under a hardened bureaucratic frame sealed the avenues of interaction with free learned men who could have become intellectually motivated. The traditional source of intake to the public services inspite of the introduction of open merit competitive exam in Britain in 1884 has been the fresh graduates of Oxford and Cambridge who are believed to have a rounded groundwork of academic learning to enrich their intellectual equipment.

From its inception, the East India Company, by and large, was very particular in choosing its personnel from among men of letters who had a spirit of readiness for sacrifice. Although they came motivated by commercial gains, the employees of the company had a yearning for knowledge. The first governor general it appointed in Fort William was Warren Hastings who was a brilliant student of English literature as well as Indian philosophy.

Sir William Jones, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Calcutta, who in 1784 along with Charles Wilkins founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal, was a great genius. Jones acquired mastery over Sanskrit and traced the relations between Sanskrit, ancient Persian, Latin and Greek.

Another distinguished company servant, TB Macaulay, revolutionised Indian society on the one hand by evolving a panel system that envisaged the underdog and his overlord on an equal footing before the law and on the other hand by cutting a window to the world of knowledge with the structuring of an educational system using the English language as the medium.

The tradition begun by Warren Hastings moved from strength to strength to receive a new orientation at the hands of AB Keith, a member of the Indian Civil Service who prepared an authoritative “vedic index” and wrote a monumental History of Sanskrit Literature. Even after Keith, the British administration continued the tradition, and there appeared in 1880 The District Officer in India coauthored by Roland Hunt who was a Madras cadre ICS officer, as a companion volume on district administration of the famous The Man Who Ruled India by Philip Woodruff. Sir Penderal Moon of the ICS who served as advisor to the Planning Commission brought out his masterpiece The British Conquest and the Dominion of India.

One of the leading archaeological interpreters and epigraphists was AC Burnell who belonged to the Madras Civil Service. It has been noted that of the 50 historical works on India published between 1825 and 1870 in English, as many as 44 were authored by British civil servants. Both Indian ethnology and epigraphy were the products of the labour of English civil servants working in different parts of the country.

They similarly took the lead to provide the grammar of important Indian languages and tribal dialects with meticulous precision and profound scholarship. The gazetteers they prepared are still a major source of Indian history, geography, sociology, archaeology and administration. The Indian members of the ICS on the whole represented the feudal characteristics of Indian society. They seemed to make by the pretensions of omniscience and self-isolation the administration a confined preserve of the privileged.

The intellectual vacuum created by the withdrawal of the British officers could not easily be filled. Within a couple of decades of Independence, the political leadership became diminutive in stature to vindicate its abnegation of intellectual values and deflection from social morals. The civil servants too did not seem to endeavour to stem the rot.

The conflict between the so-called elitism of the bureaucrat and uninspiring pragmatism of the politician often proved to be a cultural catastrophe within the administration. The docile submission of the civil service served to be attributable to its lack of an intellectual tradition.

The civil servant who neglected to develop his intellectual attributes in all probability became subservient to his political masters and denied himself intellectual development. Admittedly, British social thought could scale new heights with Adam Smith and John S Mill. In our country, the regression of the administrative culture may find its roots in the deterioration of the environment of intellectual life.

Incidentally, political culture which provides some elements of its culture to the administration suffered a setback at the hands of the new-bred politicians. The administrators seemed to grow reluctance for learning that was apparently of no immediate relevance to their functions. Can we refute the fact that unlike their western counterparts, the contributions of the civil servants in India to various disciplines has not been been significant?

Search for “knowledge like a sinking star” is hardly sought after. This intellectual selfalienation may be one of the reasons of the cultural privation of administration. Unless scholarship has the foremost significance, there is little hope for the emergence of a positive cultural pattern to the country’s administration.

(The writer is former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata)