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Colonial baggage

Bhaskar GHOSE

Friday 12 March 2004, by GHOSE*Bhaskar

On why politicians in democratic India want the continuance of the post of District Magistrate or its equivalent, a colonial creation.

SINCE Independence there has been a fairly continuous attempt to remove all aspects of the colonial from public life in this country. The activities undertaken by the government moved fairly rapidly from mere administration to the introduction of innumerable development schemes and projects of all sizes and types. Major changes, such as the abolition of the zamindari system, and later the abolition of the princely states, were all parts of the attempt to re-invent India as a democratic, free society where all citizens were equal and shared in the same basic freedoms that were guaranteed in the Constitution.

How far all this succeeded is a different matter; there have been some scholarly enquiries and studies that have pointed out just how specious some of the so-called reforms have been and how, in trying to remove one privileged class all that the state has ended up doing is bring in another; on the other hand, there have been other studies that have extolled the virtues of some of the efforts made to improve and alter social and economic conditions. These, however, are not the point of this essay. It is one, perhaps one of a very few, remaining institutions of colonial times that have not just continued, but have taken on an added importance in some aspects while losing out on others. This is the institution of the District Magistrate, or Collector or Deputy Commissioner; the officer the British placed `in charge’ of a district.

`In charge’ is itself a significant phrase, and is in all likelihood used even now. I remember the imperial tenor of the orders appointing me Deputy Commissioner of Cooch Behar, a district in West Bengal which had formerly been a princely state - "The Governor is pleased to appoint Shri Bhaskar Ghose IAS to be Deputy Commissioner, District Magistrate and Collector of the district of Cooch Behar, and to have charge of that district." You were not merely appointed to a post; you were given charge of a large tract of the State. In other words, you were responsible for virtually everything that went on in that district.

In one sense this was only very slightly different from the situation prevalent in colonial days. Philip Mason in his The Men Who Ruled India quotes Aberigh Mackay on the District Officer of those times: "The Collector lives in a long rambling bungalow furnished with folding chairs and tables and in every way marked by the provisional arrangements of camp life... The veranda is full of fat men in clean linen waiting for interviews. They are bankers, shopkeepers and landlords, who have come to `pay their respects’, with ever so little a petition as a corollary... " Another ICS (Indian Civil Service) officer, G.O. Trevelyan, also quoted by Philip Mason, says: "His power for good and evil is almost unlimited... He makes it his aim to turn off his work in good style, trusting for his reward to the sense and public spirit of his chief... He never speaks of his duties save in a spirit of enthusiasm or of his profession without a tone of profound satisfaction."

This is outwardly, as I said, not unlike a District Officer’s life today. He still has the equivalent of `fat men in clean linen’ waiting to see him, though they are local political leaders, or some influential men who own some commercial units in the district. And I have personally met a number of young district magistrates who have been, as Trevelyan says, full of enthusiasm and totally committed to the work they have in hand. The nature of the work may be, and in many cases is, quite different - today’s district officer is more concerned, perhaps, with development projects and, in some States, has to contend with the chairman of the local Zilla Parishad, or the District Council. But he still remains the key figure in the district. And this is because of the fact that in State after State, and even in the Central government, the district officer is still seen as the key administrator of the district, the person `in charge’.

That is why almost every law provides that it will be executed by the district officer, called by whatever designation is in use in the State unless, of course, it is a purely departmental law, such as one the relating to excise or customs duties. Even in laws relating to crimes the district officer plays a crucial, if at times slightly indirect, role. In most States, he is responsible for law and order together with the Superintendent of Police; and while the judiciary and executive have been separated, the district officer does have some limited judicial powers such as powers under Section 110 or Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

THE question that needs to be asked is whether, in the 21st century, it is necessary to have the country administered by officers who are neither elected by the local people nor have any connection with them; they are either from other parts of the State, or even from outside the State. If we have, as we are repeatedly told, a robust, vigorous democracy, and a tradition of elected governments, if in most States there are in fact elected district councils called by different names like zilla parishads, then why do we persist with a system of administration which is so very much a part of the colonial system the British used? It was useful for the colonial rulers to have such officers to rule the country; but we have other institutions now which perform, or are supposed to perform that function. And yet, in every State, the cornerstone of the administrative system is the District Magistrate, the Collector, call him by whatever name you will.

Yes, there are a number of functions given over to the zilla parishads now, but the role of the district officer continues to be key. One may well ask why. The answer is really very simple, and more than obvious. Both Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati made it clear as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh that district officers can be transferred; this is not possible in case of the zilla parishad chairman. Now, if a Chief Minister gave all powers to the zilla parishad, then there would be no way of controlling the very considerable patronage that can be doled out in districts.. The zilla parishads may well be controlled by a party other than the one that rules the State. But, if officers had the key powers, then the threat of transfers or the induction of pliable officers would make the doling out of patronage not just easy but a very real perquisite that a Chief Minister, or other Minister, or an MLA might arrogate to himself.

You see the cleverness of it all. Pick that part of the British system of ruling the country that lends itself to being transformed into a means of wielding power without too much responsibility and preserve it, add to it, because adding more powers will only increase the amount of patronage that can be distributed. Transform the district officer, in other words, into a mere servant, a subordinate who carries out his master’s orders. And if he does not, then merely move him on, and get someone who will. That in fact is why the IAS now has a set of people who, for the most part, are eager to carry out orders; not because of the transfer order that may come, but because if anyone acts according to any principle, there are several of his colleagues eager to supplant him and do their master’s bidding. `Minutely just, inflexibly upright’ - that was what was said of district officers, but of officers in colonial India. It is one of our greatest tragedies that we cannot say it of most of them today, when India is a free and democratic country.

See online : Frontline


in Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 05, February 28 - March 12, 2004.

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