David Gilmour opens his history of the lives of the men who served in the Indian Civil Service (ICS) by citing Joseph Stalin’s remarks to the anglophobe Joachim von Ribbentrop(nicknamed in the London of the 1930s where he served as Hitler’s ambassador to the Court of St James as “Brickendrop”) that it was “ridiculous…that a few hundred Englishmen should dominate India”. In fact at the death of Queen Victoria, they numbered one thousand, of whom at any one time a fifth were either sick or on leave. Yet they administered British India, directly –or indirectly in the 350 or so princely states–a territory that covered modern India, Pakistan, Burma and Bangladesh.
At the time of independence, united India’s population of 358 million was 50% larger than it had been 90 years previously when the Raj was set up. In the intervening years, land under irrigation had multiplied 8 times, and India’s economy was equivalent in size to China’s. Both countries produced no more than one million tonnes of steel, and their per capita incomes, life expectancy and literacy rates were similar. By 1980, when Deng Tsao Ping launched China on the Open Door Policy, India’s economy was two thirds that of China, and by 2010 it was 41% the size of its giant neighbour.
Is one of the reasons for this relatively disappointing performance since independence explicable by India’s legacy from the British Raj? David Gilmour does not ask this question, but the answer one may deduce from his highly readable account of the ICS is that without their dedication to improving the lives of hundreds of millions, India would not have been the success that it has been. That success is not just measurable in economic growth, important as that is in combating extreme poverty, so much as in the creation of the world’s largest democracy. As he records, the British civil servants who retired after independence kept explaining to those who wanted to listen that they had kept the peace between the peoples of India; they had worked to further education, creating schools and universities; they had worked to improve agriculture, forestry and sanitation; they had preserved religious freedom, and they had set India on the road to constitutional and secular government under the rule of law.
In a climate where Congress was re-writing the script of British India, and postcolonial revisionism was in the ascendant, few people listened. Their arguments are well known: India was governed for the exclusive benefit of the rulers; the British practised “divide and rule”; they may not have have imposed their religious preferences on Indians, or their lack thereof, but they studied the languages, the topography, and the peoples of India for purposes of accruing their own power. They did not have the interests of Indians at heart at all. Rather they humiliated the people they claimed to serve by permanent appeal to their self-assumed superiority. When they left, their was much rejoicing in India.
David Gilmour paints a very different picture. At great risk to their own lives, moderately remunerated, separated from their families thousands of miles away, the devoted members of the ICS strove to introduce to India the promise made by Queen Victoria in her Proclamation of 1858: “We disclaim alike, the future Empress of India stated, the right and desire to imppose our convictions on any of our subjects…all alike (must) enjoy the equal and impartial protection of the law”.
To the few, the introduction of enlightened government to India by the ICS was bound to hasten the demise of the empire. And as David Gilmour points out, the time between the creation of the Congress Party in 1885 by members of the Theosophical Society, where Indians and Englishmen met on a footing of equality, and independence in June 1947 was no more than 62 years–a very short period in history. For members of Congress, those 62 years came to seem as an eternity, whereas by contrast, there were members of the ICS who hoped that their enlightened despotism would endure for ever.
Their reason for so thinking, as David Gilmour illustrates, was that if Great Britain were to withdraw from India, the country would succumb to its inherent communalism, the progress achieved in creating a united India would be undone, and the continent would disintegrate into a bevy of warring states. Congress did not share this pessimism. But what its members did admire, and what they did inherit, was the tradition of an ICS, as one nationalist newsdpaper stated, “absolutely above suspicion”.
As David Gilmour writes in this highly readable account, the ICS represented the British Empire at its best. It is a legacy which cannot just be appreciated in growth rates, but must be assessed for “la longue durée”–the ongoing history of the shaping of the world’s largest democracy.
Stalin meanwhile has passed into history as one of the world’s most bloodthirsty tyrants, and Ribbentrop as one of the main architects of the second world war. Communist China is now a major power.What will happen to the regime when the archives revealing Mao for what he was–Stalin’s superior in matters of murder–are opened? The ICS’ enduring legacy, by contrast,is modern India.