Babudom, The Legacy Of Empire, Has To Be Democratised

Babudom, The Legacy Of Empire, Has To Be Democratised

Vithal Rajan

With ‘Vikas!’ as its war cry, Government, it is believed, is thinking of professionalizing the bureaucracy by bringing in experts laterally from other sectors, at least at the joint-secretary level. This has been done before to a very limited extent, with little success. The key question remains, can such infusion of expertise give bureaucracy a human face and make it more people-centred? The historical development of Indian bureaucracy gives us little faith that this can happen smoothly, if at all.

The brown sahibs of the Indian Administrative Service have taken over the administration of India seamlessly from the white sahibs of the Indian Civil Service. During colonial times, it was a bitter joke that the title of the corps was a complete misnomer, for ‘they were not Indians, they were never civil, and they were nobody’s servants!’ Dilution of the service with Indians occurred when the British realized that their rule in India was ending, after the exhaustion resulting from the First World War, the loss of Ireland, their first colony, the militancy of the British working class exhibited during the General Strike of 1926, and the revulsion of feeling against the British among all classes in India, following the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919.

At the business end of the hierarchal power structure of the ICS was the ‘Collector,’ with complete control over the destinies of millions of people in his district. The title, still retained as a symbol of authority, signified that a chief function of this British ruler in immediate contact with Indians was to collect revenue from them for the Empire. His other duty was to ‘keep the King’s Peace,’ in other words to rule over a subject population. He held durbars in the name of the Hon’ble East India Company, and later in the name of the Crown, to ensure the loyalty of the local rajahs, zamindars, and other landholders. As the District Magistrate, he had powers even to hang people during the nineteenth century, and he could take command of any troops in his district during an emergency. The early holders of this post were military officers, and the administration of India was organized on the lines of a military command structure.

There were other administrators in the district, the Superintendent of Police, The Civil Surgeon, the Divisional Forest Officer, The Executive Engineer, The District and Sessions Judge, the District Educational Officer, and others, but their work was subject to the review and control of the British Collector. Any interest the British officer took in matters of social development was left to his personal discretion. Due to this eccentric dispensation, a patchwork of unrelated development activities dotted the landscape; a surge of better schooling somewhere; a canal system somewhere else; an anthropological sympathy for tribals, or an archeological interest in monumental ruins. Of course, several men served with exemplary distinction. The name of Sir Arthur Cotton is still venerated in coastal Andhra, and the statue of Sir Thomas Munro stands even to this day near Fort St. George in Chennai.

Independence should have brought about a thorough overhaul of the structure of administration, but Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru left the elitist structure as it is. Himself an elitist, Nehru was comfortable with a command hierarchy. Mahatma Gandhi who would have insisted on change was dead, as was Sardar Patel, whose shrewd political sense would have shown him the evils that would ensue. In a society where caste forms an overarching template, it was a natural unnoticed process by which the newly established IAS took over the privileges and attitudes of the colonial ICS. The IAS became a super caste in itself. No matter who the recruits were, they would be moulded to command in the old way.

Under Nehru’s romantic negligence, several politicians seized the main chance to enrich themselves and convert their constituencies into their own jagirs in all but name. The Indian police force, formed to protect British interests, was further corrupted to serve the interests of the politicians. Over the decades, power came to be concentrated in the hands of the elites of India, who collaborated to use the machinery of government in their own interests. The IAS which formed the top echelon of administration has supported such elite concentration of power, as any high caste has done. The IAS has accepted wide-spread corruption, extra-judicial killings, the linking of criminals with politicians, all as regrettable but unavoidable in the nature of present-day political development. Some  of its members could not have been eased out in some way or other. Some of the most honourable have left on their own accord, like Harsh Mander. The IAS training institute at Mussoorie has been protected from the democratic influence of some of its best, committed officers, like the late S.R. Sankaran, whose posting as its director was cancelled at the last minute.

Such a hidebound autocratic service, with little technical knowledge among its members, will support only such development initiatives that are promoted by the elite of society, firstly for their own enrichment. The net result has been that while more than half the Indians are left in unacceptable poverty, the leaders can boast of unparalleled growth and the flourishing of a hundred billionaires. Structured as it is, the IAS is unable to forefront alternatives paths to development that could help raise faster the living standards of the poor. On the contrary, the IAS resists change by creating a mask of an administration working flat out in the public interest.

Alternative paths to development, which focus on raising the living standards of the bottom of the social pyramid, can only come from the hard-bitten expertise of educators, engineers, doctors, conservationists, scientists, planners, builders, social workers. If by ‘Vikas!’ it is meant a development process that assists the poor in lifting themselves out of poverty, administration needs to be drastically restructured, permitting experts with domain knowledge to head their own departments and have direct access to the elected leadership of the country, without the convenient translations of ideas given by the generalist IAS. Political foresight needs to be developed to fight against bureaucratic resistance to change. The only way India can begin to climb the path of social progress is when democratic structures of administration replace elite services.

(The writer is a reputed thinker and humanist who lives at Ketti, The Nilgiris)

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