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Falling between two stools

A K Bhattacharya  |  New Delhi 

Most civil servants become vain after retirement. They take unusual pride in what they think of the world and in believing that they were powerful agents of governance, acting on behalf of the political establishment of the day. An officer belonging to the Indian Civil Service (ICS) cadre can be even more vain. Yet, the autobiographical account of these officers provide a useful peek into the way the government of the day functioned and how the political establishment behaved on matters of public importance.
The ICS cadre, predecessor to the present-day Indian Administrative Service, was started immediately after the 1857 Mutiny and was terminated a few years before India gained independence. Initially, the cadre had only British officers, but over the years the number of Indians in the service increased. From only 60 Indians out of a total 1,142 ICS officers in 1909, the number of Indians in the service went up to 540 out of a total of 1,299 in 1939.
Since the last qualifying examination for joining the ICS was held in 1943, independent India continued to have quite a few ICS officers running different ministries and public sector undertakings till as late as the mid-1970s. J M Shrinagesh, a Cambridge graduate, joined the ICS in 1928 and stayed on in the service till his retirement in 1963. During the tenure of his service, he travelled mostly in north India before independence and in fact was in charge of the Jullundur division and saw for himself the trauma the partition of India caused to the people. Later he also steered the fortunes of Hindustan Aircrafts and Hindustan Steel. He passed away in 1986.
More than 20 years after his death, Shrinagesh's account of what life was like before and after he joined the ICS has come out in print. There is an interesting story behind this. The publication of his autobiography, Between Two Stools, happened quite by chance. Shrinagesh's brother-in-law, while searching old family documents, discovered the ICS officer's account about his own experience of life in service.
The problem with the book, however, starts with the preface"" written by the brother-in-law Rudolf Hartog and Shrinagesh's sister Shakuntala. In their words, "this account was not intended for those looking either for approval or apology. It is ... an attempt to explain what it was that drove him and men like him to join the ICS and how they coped with a historical scenario, which was to catch them between the two stools of the past and the future". What you get to read at the end is a fairly ordinary account of how a young Indian grew up in a public school in England and opted for the ICS. It is a pity because Shrinagesh's career in ICS spanned an eventful time of India's history.
By way of compensation, the reader gets only a few interesting snippets about the ICS cadre. For instance, Aurobindo Ghosh, the firebrand leader of the Indian independence movement, failed to qualify for the ICS because he did not know how to ride a horse. Jawaharlal Nehru failed to qualify for the service (Shrinagesh is no fan of the Nehru-Gandhi family as earlier he mentions that Indira Gandhi took several attempts before she could pass her entrance test to get into Oxford). The most important lessons he learnt from his senior British ICS officers were fairly rudimentary: Get the job done and verify the facts before taking action.
His stint as the officer in charge of the Jullundur division during the partition days was the most eventful. The heartless manner in which the partition drama was enacted has been brought out quite poignantly by Shrinagesh. This perhaps is the only redeeming feature of the autobiography. Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who redrew the new boundaries of India and Pakistan in only about a few weeks, did not accept any fees from the government, says Shrinagesh. The Sikhs who lived in Lahore and Sindh realised after two days of the declaration of independence that they would have to relocate in India as their undisputed leader Baldev Singh had decided to join hands with Nehru and opted for partition.
For Shrinagesh, this was the biggest challenge to the law and order situation he faced in his entire career. His account of the steps that he took to ensure the safe passage of refugees from across both sides of the border is reminiscent of many fictionalised accounts of several writers in various Indian languages. More importantly it is a lesson for all civil servants on how to act in a crisis situation like this.
Jayavant Mallanah Shrinagesh
Price: Rs 495; Pages: 192

First Published: Wed, May 30 2007. 00:00 IST