Essay on the origin of Civil Services in India


The Civil Service was brought into existence by Lord Cornwallis. As we have seen in an earlier chapter, the East India Company had from the beginning carried on its trade in the East through servants who were paid low wages but who were permitted to trade privately.

Later, when the Company became a territorial power, the same servants assumed administrative functions. They now became extremely corrupt.

By oppressing local weavers and artisans, merchants and zamindars, by extorting bribes and ‘gifts’ from rajas and nawabs, by indulging in illegal private trade, they amassed untold wealth with which they retired to England. Clive and Warren Hastings made attempts to put an end to their corruption, but were only partially successful.


Cornwallis, who came to India as Governor-General in 1786, was determined to purify the administration, but he realised that the Company’s servants would not give honest and efficient service so long as they were not given adequate salaries.

He, therefore, enforced the rules against private trade and acceptance of presents and bribes by officials with strictness. At the same time, he raised the salaries of the Company’s servants. For example, the Collector of a district was to be paid Rs 1500 a month and one per cent commission on the revenue collection of his district.

In fact, the Company’s Civil Service became the highest paid service in the world. Cornwallis also lay down that promotion in the Civil Service would be by seniority so that its members would remain independent of outside influence.

In 1800, Lord Welleslev established the College of Fort William at Calcutta for the education of young recruits to the Civil Service. The directors of the Company disapproved of his action and in 1806 replaced it by their own East Indian College at Haileybury in England.


Till 1853 all appointments to the Civil Service were made by the directors of the East India Company who placated the members of the Board of Control by letting them make some of the nominations.

The directors fought hard to retain this lucrative and prized privilege and refused to surrender it even when their other economic and political privileges were taken away by Parliament.

They lost it finally in 1853 when the Charter Act decreed that all recruits to the Civil Service were to be selected through a competitive examination.

A special feature of the Indian Civil Service since the days of Cornwallis was the rigid and complete exclusion of Indians from it. It was laid down officially in 1793 that all higher posts in adminis­tration worth more than £500 a year in salary were to be held by Englishmen.


This policy was also applied to other branches of government, such as the army, police, judiciary, and engineering. In the words of John Shore, who succeeded Cornwallis?

The fundamental principle of the English had been to make the whole Indian nation subservient, in every possible way, to the interests and benefits of ourselves.

The Indians have been excluded from every honor, dignity, or office, which the lowest Englishmen could be prevailed to accept.

Why did the British follow such a policy? Many factors combined to produce it. For one, they were convinced that an administration based on British ideas, institutions, and practices could be firmly, established only by English personnel. And, then, they did not trust the ability and integrity of the Indians.


For example, Charles Grant, Chairman of the Court of Directors, condemned the people of India as “a race of men lamentably degenerate and base; retaining but a feeble sense of moral obligation; and sunk in misery by their vices”. Similarly, Cornwallis believed that “Every native of Hindustan is corrupt.”

It may be noted that this criticism did apply to some extent to a small class of Indian officials and zamindars of the time. But, then, it was equally if not more true of British officials in India.

In fact, Cornwallis had proposed to give them high salaries in order to help them resist temptations and to become honest and obedient. But he never thought of applying the same remedy of adequate salaries to eradicate corruption among Indian officials.

In reality, the exclusion of Indians from higher grades of the services was a deliberate policy. These services were required at the time to establish and consolidate British rule in India.


Obviously the task could not be left to Indians who did not possess the same instinctive sympathy for, and understanding of, British interests as Englishmen. Moreover, the influential classes of British society were keen to preserve the monopoly of lucrative appointments in the Indian Civil Service and other services for their sons.

In fact, they fought tooth and nail among themselves over these appointments. The right to make them was a perpetual bone of contention between the directors of the Company and the members of the British Cabinet.

How could the English then agree to let Indians occupy these posts? Indians were, however, recruited in large numbers to fill subordinate posts as they were cheaper and much more readily available than Englishmen.

The Indian Civil Service gradually developed into one of the most efficient and powerful civil services in the world. Its members exercised vast power and often participated in the making of policy.

They developed certain traditions of independence, integrity and hard work, though these qualities obviously served British and not Indian interests. They came to believe that they had an almost divine right to rule India.

The Indian Civil Service has often been called the ‘steel-frame’ which reared and sustained British rule in India. In course of time it became the chief opponent of all that was progressive and advanced in Indian life and one of the main targets of attacks by the rising Indian national movement.

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