Pre-Independence Era

Prof. V.P. Gupta


Rau’s IAS Study Circle, New Delhi – Jaipur – Bengaluru

Ancient and Medieval Times

The Indian Civil Service system is one of the oldest administrative systems in the world. It had its origin in the Mauryan period during ancient India. The expanding Mauryan Empire required meritorious civil servants for efficient administration. The Mauryan administration employed civil servants in the name of Adhyakshas and Rajukas. Kautilya’s Arthashastra lays down the principles of selection and promotion of the civil servants, the conditions of loyalty for appointment to the civil service, the methods of their performance evaluation and also their code of conduct. Arthashastra mentions about certain checks and balances on their appointments vigilance and also recommended a continuous watch on the functioning of the civil service including briefing the king on the performance of the civil servants on a regular basis. During the medieval period, Akbar initiated land reforms and established the land revenue system which later became a major constituent of the Indian taxation system. His concept of service had welfare and a regulatory orientation.

East India Company

East India Company was incorporated in 1600 A.D. by the Royal Charter from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I to trade in silk, spices and other profitable Indian commodities. The Company in furtherance of its trade, established outposts or factories along the Indian coasts notably in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. The company needed personnels to defend its premises and this slowly led to recruitment of soldiers for their factories which soon became their forts. However, the East India Company never established any specific service for governance as its mandate was limited to commerce. Officers of the East India Company used to be nominated by the Directors of the Company and thereafter trained at Haileybury College in London and then sent to India.

The Regulating Act of 1773 brought the Company’s management under the control of British Government. Lord Cornwallis after becoming the Governor General of India in February, 1786, brought about a series of legal and administrative reforms. He enacted the Cornwallis Code in 1793 to improve overall governance of East India Company in India and separated revenue administration and judicial administration by establishing the Cornwallis Code. He is also referred to as Father of Civil Service in India as he reformed and reorganised administration for the Company. To check rampant corruption among company servants, Lord Cornwallis debarred civil servants from taking presents, bribes. He even raised their salaries and debarred private trade for such servants. Governor General Wellesley established Fort William College for training of new recruits which was later disapproved by the Directors of Company. This led to the establishment of East India College which was set up at Haileybury in England in 1806 to impart two years training to the recruits.

Progress made under
Lord Macaulay

The Charter Act of 1833 allowed native Indians to be part of administration in British India. The Charter set up India’s First Law Commission under the Chairmanship of Lord Macaulay which recommended codification of the Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code and other legal provisions. The concept of a merit based modern Civil Service in India was introduced in 1854 after submission of Lord Macaulay’s Report of the Select Committee of British Parliament. The Report recommended that patronage based system of East India Company should be replaced by a Permanent Civil Service based on a merit based system with entry through competitive examinations. On the recommendations, a Civil Service Commission was set up in 1854 in London and competitive examinations were started in 1855. The Charter Act of 1853 officially ended Company’s patronage to appoint servants and this along with Lord Macaulay’s recommendations paved the way for an open merit based examination to recruit civil servants.       

Recommendations of Lord Macaulay (in the backdrop of Charter Act of 1853 along with Queen’s Proclamation of 1858) led to the enactment of Indian Civil Services Act 1861 which allowed Indians to compete at par with the Britishers in an open merit based recruitment. Initially, the examinations for Indian Civil Service were conducted only in London and age limit was set between 18 years and 23 years. The syllabus was moulded in favour of British residents which made it difficult for Indians to succeed. In 1864, Shri Satyendranath Tagore, brother of Shri Rabindaranath Tagore became the first Indian to succeed at the exam.    

Aitchison Committee on Public Services – 1886  

Throughout the next 50 years, Indians petitioned for simultaneous examinations to be held in India but did not achieve much success as Britishers were not keen to have many Indians in the service as they feared its Indianisation. However, years following the formation of Indian National Congress in 1885, led to a growing demand for simultaneous examination both in India and London including the demand for raising the upper age limit. Based on these rising demands especially by the Moderate faction of Indian National Congress who believed in the idea of representation, Lord Dufferin appointed Aitchison Committee on Public Services in 1886 to investigate into the problems of civil services in India. The Commission rejected the idea of simultaneous examination but rather proposed setting up of provincial civil service, the members of which would be separately recruited in every province either by promotion from lower ranks or by direct recruitment. The Commission also suggested that the terms covenanted and uncovenanted be replaced by the terms ‘imperial’ and ‘provincial’ respectively which was accepted. It also suggested 19 and 23 as the minimum and maximum age limits for Indians at the open civil service examinations. The recommendations of Aitchison were accepted and the covenanted civil service came to be known as Civil Service of India. The provincial service was called after the particular province.

Changes proposed under Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms    

In the context of Indian history, Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms through the Government of India Act, 1919 is more famous for introduction of dyarchy in India i.e. rule by executive councillors and popular ministers. However, it also accepted the long pending demand to hold civil services examination in India. So based on the promises, Indian Civil Service Examination also began to be held in India from 1922 onwards along with being held in London. Government of India Act, 1919 also provided for the establishment of Public Service Commission in India (which was earlier recommended by Islington Commission) which was finally established in October, 1926. Islington Commission (1917) in its report of 1917 had recommended that 25 percent of the higher government posts should go to Indians. However, the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms proposed that one-third of total appointments to higher posts in services should go to Indians resulting in turning down of the proposal of Islington Commission.

Royal Commission on the Superior Civil Services in India – Lee Commission, 1923

The next major development in the permeation of civil services in Indian roots can be said to be the appointment of Royal Commission on the Superior Civil Services in India which was also known as Lee Commission. The Commission was appointed by the British government in 1923 to consider the ethnic composition of the superior Indian public services of the Government of India and had equal numbers of Indian and British members. Earlier, Islington Commission (1917) in its report of 1917 had recommended that 25 percent of the higher government posts should go to the Indians. The Lee Commission examined the recommendations of the Islington Commission report and reviewed the existing position of two groups of services the All-India Services and the Central Services. The Provincial Services were not considered as they had already come under the control of the provincial governments. On the basis of Islington Commission’s report, the Lee Commission proposed in 1924 that 20 percent of the superior posts should be filled by promotions from provincial civil services and of the remaining 80 percent future entrants, 40 percent should be British and 40 percent Indians directly recruited.

The Lee Commission, in their report in the year 1924, recommended that the statutory Public Service Commission contemplated by the Government of India Act, 1919 should be established without delay. So, on October 1, 1926, the Public Service Commission was set up in India for the first time. It consisted of four Members in addition to the Chairman. Sir Ross Barker,a member of the Home Civil Service of the United Kingdom was the first Chairman of the Commission.  The functions of the Public Service Commission were not laid down in the Government of India Act, 1919, but were regulated by the Public Service Commission (Functions) Rules, 1926.

Moments till Independence

Recommendations of Simon Commission got enacted as Government of India Act, 1935 which among other legislative, executive and judicial provisions also provided for Services of the Crown in India (Part X). This part provided for Defence Services, Civil Services, Special provisions as to Judicial Officers and Public Service Commissions for the Federation and Province respectively. The chairman and other members of a Public Service Commission shall be appointed, in the case of the Federal Commission, by the Governor-General in his discretion, and in the case of a Provincial Commission, by the Governor of the Province in his discretion. It was the duty of the Federal and Provincial Service Commission to conduct examinations for appointments to the services of the Federation and services of the Province respectively. Thus, the provision of Federal and Provincial Commission remained till the Government of India Act, 1935 was replaced by the Constitution of India in 1950 after much debates and deliberations in the Constituent Assembly. 


Constituent Assembly of India after much debates and deliberations decided to continue administration of India with the help of Indian Civil Service, although to the much dismay of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. He was not against the existing mode of recruitment for the Administrative Service but wanted the new recruits in the civil services to be well versed with idea of progressive socialisation as a principle of state policy along with their early selection and special training.  However, the view of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel prevailed who had worked with these civil servants and held them in high regards. Thus, the Constituent Assembly included the provisions related to Services under the Union and States as part of Indian Constitution. These provisions in the Indian Constitution can be found under PART XIV – SERVICES UNDER THE UNION AND STATES. It provides for Union Public Service Commission (in place of Federal Commission).    

On the importance of civil service, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar submitted the following while introducing the Draft Constitution:

“The Indian Federation though a Dual Polity will have a Dual Service but with one exception. It is recognized that in every country there are certain posts in its administrative setup which might be called strategic from the point of view of maintaining the standard of administration. It may not be easy to spot such posts in a large and complicated machinery of administration. But there can be no doubt that the standard of administration depends upon the calibre of the Civil Servants who are appointed to these strategic posts. Fortunately for us we have inherited from the past system of administration which is common to the whole of the country and we know what are these strategic posts. The Constitution provides that without depriving the States of their right to form their own Civil Services there shall be an All India Service recruited on an All- India basis with common qualifications, with uniform scale of pay and the members of which alone could be appointed to these strategic posts throughout the Union.”

Note: In our next article, we will explore in detail about the various reforms undertaken in civil services along with important commission reports till the era of liberalisation.

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