The Bible and The Creation of Indian Civil Services - Revelation Movement

The Bible and The Creation of Indian Civil Services


Did you know that British colonialism survived for two centuries because of India Civil Services (ICS)?  “The Iron Man of India” Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who served as India’s first Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, called the ICS “The Steel Frame of India” and argued that Independent India ought to continue this colonial administrative machinery.

Welcome to this series entitled The Bible and the Making of Modern India. My name is Vishal Mangalwadi. For decades I have been researching and writing about the role the Bible has played in creating the modern world. In this session I shall explain how the Bible reformed the corrupt British East India Company and built a trustworthy system of administration and the police.

Initially, the British rulers were as corrupt as many of today’s Civil Servants and police. Most voters believe that many of our politicians use civil servants to loot our tax-money and to extract bribes from helpless citizens. In some States they are also using the police, courts and civil servants to persecute political opponents, free press and religious minorities. For that reason, some viewers may find it hard to understand why India’s first Home Minister called colonial Civil Servants the “Steel Frame” of justice and fairness that held India together.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel fought against the British Raj but complemented Colonial Civil Servants prior to India’s Independence. To be precise, on 21 April, 1947 in the Metcalf House in Delhi. It was Patel who had argued that after independence, the Indian Civil Services (ICS), created to keep India as a colony, ought to continue serving the Independent India. Only its name was changed from ICS to IAS (Indian Administrative Services). Patel’s phrase “the steel frame” came from a 1922 speech by British prime minister, David Lloyd George.

Management guru Peter Drucker described the colonial Civil Services as a model of public administration and management. Many of its staff were sons of British pastors. Their parents and churches prayed that these young men would serve India with diligence and integrity. Their prayers were answered. Drucker does not defend colonialism. He agrees that the British Raj was marked by muddled policies, indecision, misdirection and failures. It survived for as long as it did only because the Bible-based Evangelical movement built the Indian Civil Services as we shall see. Drucker calls the ICS,  Britain’s “supreme administrative accomplishment”:

“[the Civil Servants] were younger sons of poor country parsons, with no prospects at home and little standing in English society. Their pay was low; and such opportunities for loot or gain as their predecessors had enjoyed in the swashbuckling days of the East India Company a hundred years earlier had, by 1860, been eliminated by both law and custom. These untrained, not very bright, and totally inexperienced youngsters ran districts comparable in size and population to small European countries. And they ran them practically all by themselves with a minimum of direction and supervision from the top. Some, of course, became casualties and broke under the strain, falling victim to alcohol, to native women or—the greatest danger of them all—to sloth. But most of them did what they were expected to do and did it reasonably well. They gave India, for the first time in its long and tragic history, peace, a measure of freedom from famine, and a little security of life, worship, and property. They administered justice impartially and, at least as far as they themselves were concerned, honestly and without corruption. They collected taxes, by and large, impartially and equitably. They did not make policy; and in the end they foundered because they had none. But they administered and administered well” (Drucker. Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, Ch 32, Pg 403–404. Emphasis added.)

Robert Clive, a clerk in the Madras office of the East India Company, laid the foundations of the British Raj in 1757 by defeating Bengal’s Nawab or ruler, Siraj-ud-Daulah. Clive supported the appointment of the new Nawab, Mir Qasim, who ruled until 1763.  In 1762, Mir Qasim described British corruption in a letter to the Governor and his Council,

“And this is the way your Gentlemen behave; they make a disturbance all over my country, plunder the people, injure and disgrace my servants…They forcibly take away the goods and commodities of the peasants, merchants, etc., for the fourth part of their value, and by ways of violence and oppressions they oblige the peasants to give five rupees for goods which are worth but one rupee.” (Mason, 38-39)

Seven decades later, one of Britain’s greatest historians, Lord Macaulay, confirmed Mir Qasim’s testimony regarding corruption of British rule. In his Essay on Clive, Macaulay wrote that the British East India Company was a ‘gang of public robbers’ who had ‘spread terror through the whole plain of Bengal’ (p.113). Its governance was, “oppressive as the most oppressive form of barbarian despotism…strong with all the strength of civilisation. It resembled the government of evil Genii, rather than the government of human tyrants.” (p.74)

British Parliament denounced Clive as a corrupt “Nabob.” He was succeeded by Governor General Warren Hastings who expanded the British rule in India. Hastings too was tried for corruption. During his trial, Edmund Burke, known as the Father of modern Conservatism, perceptively identified  a root of the Company’s corruption.  Accusing the British East India Company, Burke said, 

“. . . these Gentlemen have formed a plan of Geographical morality, by which the duties of men in public and private situations are not to be governed by their relations to the Great Governor of the Universe, or by their relations to men, but by climates, degrees of longitude and latitude. . . . As if, when you have crossed the equinoctial line all the virtues die. . . as if there were a kind of baptism, like that practised by seamen, by which they unbaptize themselves of all that they learned in Europe, and commence a new order and system of things.”

Burke’s charge was that in India, a corrupt East India Company was practicing a ‘Geographical’ that is, Relative morality which was not governed by God’s moral absolutes. God’s greatest command is that we must love, not loot, His children, our neighbors, as ourselves.  In his influential work, The Men Who Ruled India, Philip Mason points out that this moral relativism was justified to maintain the British rule and trade in India. Trade interests overruled God’s moral law. The Company presumed that “to be fair to Indians was to be prejudiced against the English.” (Mason, 39).

Burke’s accusation, confirmed by the Evangelical Christian Charles Grant and others, inspired British Evangelicals to reform the British Company.  The Anglican Evangelicals were just emerging out of the Wesleyan revival of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. They were called Evangelicals because they had individually repented of their sins and asked the Lord Jesus Christ to become their Savior. They used to be moral rebels, sinner, now they had repented and were reconciled to their Father. They dedicated their lives to ensure that God’s will is done in their lives and in His world. Historian Ian Bradley explains their worldview and mission in his book A Call to Seriousness: The Evangelical Impact on the Victorians:

The great obstacle to missionary endeavour in India at the beginning of the nineteenth century arose from the East India Company’s conviction that missionaries would only excite the natives and disturb its profitable trading activities. Because of this it refused them entry to the sub-continent. In this situation there was only one thing for the Evangelicals to do if they wanted to secure the triumph of vital religion in India, and that was to infiltrate the higher echelons of the Company themselves so that they could change its policy. Their take-over of the Company’s directorate in the early nineteenth century was spectacular: there was no year between 1807 and 1830 when either the Chairman or the Deputy Chairman of the Board of Directors was not an Evangelical. (Ian Bradley, A Call to Seriousness, Ch 4 Mission to the Heathen, Pg 74)

Charles Simeon, an Anglican priest in Cambridge, is considered the Father of British Evangelicalism. He responded to the East India Company’s corruption by mentoring Cambridge students to go to India as missionaries. They had to be smuggled into India as undercover missionaries, because in 1793, the British Parliament had rejected the Evangelical Bill to allow missionary-educators into Bengal. The most famous of these was Henry Martyn who lived in Kanpur and created literary Urdu through his translation of the New Testament. His Urdu replaced Mughal Persian as the court language of northern provinces, including Pakistan. His Urdu became the model for the development of the Hindi language.

Rev. Claudius Buchanan was Charles Simeon’s other well-known protege. He shared the Bible-derived Evangelical conviction that British rule in India was not an accident of history. It was God’s Providential act. Buchanan saw it as his duty to reform the Company rule by training the young men recruited to govern India.  They needed to be trained spiritually, morally and intellectually to know God’s will and put it above their self-interest and Company’s profits. 

Edmund Burke had already lamented that the Company was taking to India the dregs of British society who had nothing to gain by remaining in Britain and much to gain by looting India, if they could survive the climate and tropical diseases.  Buchanan decided to challenge British evangelicals to send their sons to govern India. For this reason, he travelled, lectured and organized Essay writing competitions in seven Irish, Scottish, and English universities and colleges. The topic was ’How can Britain give good governance to India?’ As a Cambridge student, Thomas Babbington Macaulay was one of the winners of these competitions. He is famous for his 1835 Minute-on-Education and as the creator of the India Penal Code. We discuss these in other sessions. First in 1833 and then during 1852-56 Macaulay played an important role in laying the foundations of the university movement in India, opening the doors for Indians to become civil servants and for ensuring that civil servants were recruited strictly on merit and not because of nepotism or bribes.

Transforming the moral character of the Company’s governance required Rev Buchanan to change the outlook of British thought leaders and policy makers.  In 1805 he challenged the idea that separation of Church and State meant separating business and governance from God’s moral law. His Memoir on the wisdom of establishing a church in British India became the rationale for establishing the Anglican church in India. An immediate need, argued Buchanan, was to meet the spiritual needs of the British in South Asia. The long-term effect of his proposal would make the Church, not the Company, a foundation for educating and civilizing the natives.  Buchanan’s Memoir became an intellectual foundation for the Anglican Evangelical engagement with India, supporting the spiritual growth of the Company’s employees and building high quality institutions for educating and healing Indians.

The first part of Buchanan’s Memoir dealt directly with the moral degeneration of the British rule in India and emphasized the necessity for a formal Anglican presence to minister to the Europeans in India. (See Memoir, p. 13)

Charles Grant had already pointed out the need for moral reformation in his 1792 book, Observations on the State of Society Among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain. Buchanan went on to make practical suggestions on what the Church must do.  His case was strongly supported by Lord Teignmouth, who served as the Governor-General of Bengal from 1793-1798. He wrote, “Considerations on the Practicability, Policy, and Obligation of Communicating to the Natives of India the Knowledge of Christianity.” His arguments along with those of Buchanan and Grant exposed the hollow prejudice of the critics who believed that missionary-minded Evangelicals were religious fanatics who should not intervene in politics.

Readers of these books were able to see that the Evangelicals had a better understanding of the British Empire. In their biblical view of governance, the ruler and the ruled needed to interact at a level deeper than mere commercialism. Israel’s most famous king, David, composed the Psalms that shaped his people’s worldview. David also laid the material and spiritual foundations of the temple that became the centre of Judaism. The Evangelicals viewed this relationship in the light of the Bible’s teaching on “covenant” between the rulers and the ruled. This political theology, first articulated by the French Calvinists called the Huguenots in 1570s, became the foundation of the Scottish Reformation and Democracy. Their relationship was providential, bound with moral obligations. Relativistic ‘geographical’ morality needed to be replaced by godly governance. God’s “Ten Commandments had not purely local[ized] application” for ancient Israel. They were binding upon the Company, which must not be allowed to govern as a gang of public robbers. (see Mayhew, 25)

Thomas Gisborne, an Anglican priest and a member of the Evangelical “Clapham Sect” went further in challenging the entitlement mentality that pervaded Civil Services even in Britain. In 1795 he wrote what became a textbook for Civil Servants, Enquiries into the Duties of Men . It was a handbook for men who aspired to various callings: pastor, politician, civil servant, armed personnel, lawyer, doctor, tradesman etc. In his chapter On the Duties of the Executive Officers of Government he gave a detailed treatment of the moral composition that ought to constitute a civil servant and the way in which he should conduct himself in given situations.

Civil servants such as Sir James Stephen lived out these duties. His father, also named James Stephen, was also a member of the Clapham Sect. Ian Bradley writes about Stephen Junior’s impact upon the British idea of Civil Service. Their job was to advise, not to make policies. Once statesmen had made a policy, the civil servants’ duty was to implement it whole-heartedly:

“It was he who created the two grades of mechanical and intellectual in the Civil Service and who formulated the modern concept of civil servants as anonymous purveyors of impartial and expert advice to ministers. ‘You stand not in need of statesmen in disguise,’ he told the Royal Commission on the Civil Service in 1854, ‘but of intelligent, steady, methodical men of business.’ (Ian Bradley, A Call to Seriousness, Ch 9 Serious Callings, Pg 163)

Claudius Buchanan served as the Vice Provost of Calcutta’s Fort William College. It was founded in order to educate the officers of the Secretariat. For three years they studied Indian history, law, oriental languages, ethics, international law and general history. Its education system was modelled along the lines of Oxford and Cambridge. It was not a commercial school that taught the art of governing. Its statutes were recorded by Andrew Mayhew who served as the Director of Public Instruction in Central Provinces of India. His Evangelical worldview shaped by the Bible  insisted that the living God governs the cosmos. Therefore, human governance was God’s “Sacred Trust” given to His children whom He had called for that vocation. This Bible-inspired idea of Trusteeship continued to shape the mindset of Indian leaders for 150-years. My undergraduate curriculum included Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of governance as Trusteeship, but my professors never told us the source of Gandhi’s philosophy. . Mathhew, the Director of Public Instruction explains how British robbers were transformed into Trustees, when he writes,

“…the civil servants of the Company, no longer ‘the agents of a commercial concern’ but guardians of ‘a sacred trust’, were to study the people and its languages, improve their morals and fortify their minds ‘ (by science and the classics). Here they would be ‘guarded against temptation and corruption with which the nature of the climate and the peculiar depravity of the people of India will assail them’. Then and then only will they learn ‘to diffuse affluence, happiness, willing obedience, and grateful attachment over every district’.

British young men who aspired to become civil servants were schooled in these reforming ideas at Haileybury College outside of London. Who were these young men? Ian Bradley, a historian, explains:

“The civil servants of the latter part of the nineteenth century were predominantly from the middle-class, and often from Evangelical backgrounds. They had been brought up at home and at school to the discipline of hard work and regularity. They regarded their job as a vocation. For them public service was not simply a source of personal gratification or gain; it was a matter of absolute moral duty. In fashioning this ethic of public service which made British administration the envy of the world, the Evangelicals had played no small part.” (Ian Bradley, A Call to Seriousness, Ch 9 Serious Callings, Pg 163)

The Evangelical leadership in education made it much more than training in leadership skills. It refined the character and cultivated personal integrity.  These public servants became very different from the British rulers in the eighteenth century. They began to be noticed as men of upright conduct and benefactors of the public. They were revered not for brutality but for their intolerance for corruption, for upholding the rule of law over autocratic dispensation of power at the hands of rulers, for being concerned about matters of justice and mercy, and successfully installing infrastructure for the benefit of the governed.

In conclusion, the growing, unabashed corruption of contemporary civil services should make us inquire: what reformed a corrupt Company that ruled and taxed vast amounts of land across India? The straight answers is — The Bible. British Civil Servants had to govern people who did not speak Sanskrit, Arabic or Persian. They spoke vernaculars which had no grammar, textbooks and literature. How could Civil Servants learn the languages of the people they were called to serve? To solve that problem, the college that trained them in Calcutta became the centre for Bible tanslation. Missionary-linguists such as William Carey teamed-up with Indian teachers to translate the Bible into Indian languages. Later, the responsibility for translating the Bibles was handed over to the British and Foreign Bible Society. Its Founders included some of the governors of the East India Company who wanted to reform the Company and the British Raj. Most of these vernacular Bibles were printed at the Mission Press in Serampore. Aspiring Civil Servants studied vernacular Bibles to learn Indian languages and in the process, they also learnt how God wanted nations to be governed.

Corruption is growing in many parts of the world. The good news is that corruption can be and has been cured substantially. Nations such as India need the humility to once again learn the spiritual secret of transforming the depravity of the human heart and governance.


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