At the apex of the Raj

M A Siddiqi offers a look at the administrative mindset of the British officials who ruled an immense Subcontinental empire

At the apex of the Raj
Quite often, those in power in Pakistan have bemoaned and cursed the unsuitability of an ‘alien’ governance structure thrust upon them. Many Pakistanis meander through the annals of our history, talking about the difficulties of governance in these lands, appearing oblivious of the relatively ‘recent’ British example.

After all, the British ruled a united Subcontinent with a number of tools at their disposal. But arguably, at the core of colonial rule lay a certain vision of law and its scrupulous implementation – as well as checks and balances on executive power. The British ran a tight ship through a shrewd combination of indigenous traditions and ‘enlightened’ perception. Pure coercion cannot explain the fact that never more than a hundred thousand of them were present in India at a given time (regular contingents of British Army forming the bulk). And yet they managed millions through the writ of law, and more importantly, the ‘disinterested’ implementation of policies.

The conduct of the proconsul sitting atop the official pyramid reveals the governing ethos of the British – as he was its focal point. Termed sui generis (unique), the position of Governor-General was created in 1772, and when the Crown replaced the East India Company in 1858, the title of Viceroy was added to it – making the incumbent Charles ‘Clemency’ Canning (known to advocate leniency about the 1857 mutineers) the first to hold this dual title. Although not accorded a patent, Viceroy was a sobriquet underpinning his status as royal representative denoting paramount status over the Indian princely states.


He maintained a state almost royal. It was said that “ceremony walks behind and before him and does obeisance to him” – he was entitled to a 31-gun salute. Indubitably the most powerful figure in his realm, he ruled over a massive population: estimated by some at 400 million by end of the Raj. Equated with the autocratic Tsar of Russia, he operated from the exalted confines of viceregal palace, rarely exposed to the people. His inability to speak the vernacular was not considered a handicap. Despite his regal rank, he was styled ‘Excellency’ and his normal official attire was usually a tall hat and a frock coat emphasising his civilian status.

The Viceroy was the highest office accorded to a Briton outside the UK and was considered second only to the Prime Minister. The position was seldom refused, the only notable exception being George Canning (‘Clemency’ Canning’s father) who rose to become Prime Minister. The tenure of assignment was five years and until as late as 1935, during incumbency he was not allowed to travel outside his domain – although that condition was somewhat relaxed and he could avail home leave from 1924 onwards.

Lord and Lady Chelmsford

Whatever his pomp, the ‘Laat sahib’ was not allowed to act an autocrat as he was checked by a powerful four-member Executive Council – later extended to six, with the Commander-in-Chief (known as ‘Jangi Laat’) thrown in as additional member – whose fiercely independent members were appointed by London and an equally brazen Council at the India Office, London. The exercise of joint authority was described in characteristically clipped British jargon as the ‘Governor General-in-council’ running the show. There was no dearth of policy differences between top tiers of government and there exists many a tale of opposition to the Viceroy by his council members, prominent being that between Warren Hastings and Phillip Francis in the 18th century and Curzon and his commander-in-chief Kitchener in the 20th century.

Although the Viceroy was held on a leash by London – one that became tighter with the advent of marine telegraph – and Whitehall rarely relented its grip but the most effective check on his power was the unrivalled introspection of the British administrator. After all, the Viceregal hauteur could not sit well with British penchant for deflating notions of grandeur. Curzon caustically commented that the Viceroy was “only a transient phantom in India” and to further water down the description of viceroyalty by Lord Minto as “an unnatural atmosphere of holy awe that surrounds his person creating an unnatural gene”, a civil servant Sir Michael Edwardes lampooned it as a combination of “the irresponsibility of the great Mughal with the infallibility of the Pope”. And to top it all, Lord Dufferin, a former Viceroy, remarked that 25 minutes in Pall Mall would take the conceit out of any Viceroy!

Warren Hastings

There was no dearth of policy differences between top tiers of government and there exists many a tale of opposition to the Viceroy by his council members

Nevertheless the era of imperial pro-consuls was a unique phenomenon and their conduct worth studying closely. For 175 years, from 1772 to 1947, 32 of them ruled India: 20 English, 6 Scots and 6 Irish. The English were noted for steadiness, the Scots for application and tenacity and the Irish for lighter hands. To curb rapacity, Pitt’s India Act of 1784 saw the appointment of Peers accustomed to public life to govern India – a requirement largely adhered to. 21 of them had inherited Peerages and the rest were sons of distinguished men. Only two, Reading and Wavell, were from the middle class. A majority of them, twelve, were working politicians and six were professional soldiers. One of them, Hardinge, became Commander-in-Chief of the British army. Four of them – Dufferin, Lansdowne, Minto and Willingdon – were Governors-General of Canada before coming to India. Only three belonged to the Indian civil service: Hastings, Shore and John Lawrence.

Most of them were educated in prestigious institutions: fourteen from Eton, fourteen from Oxford and four from Cambridge. The pride associated with alma mater was immense: as Curzon noted, for a quarter of a century – 1884 to 1910 – seven successive Viceroys were Etonians. Five of them were ranked as scholars of distinction, particularly Lytton who was a poet of note. But most were sportsmen, an outstanding quality in imperial officialdom. All but one – Auckland – were married, although two World Wars took a heavy toll on them: Lytton, Dufferin, Lansdowne, Minto, Hardinge, Chelmsford and Willingdon lost between them twelve sons and grandsons.

Wavell with M.A. Jinnah

Their average age on assuming Viceregal office was 49, but Dalhousie was given this office at 35 while Reading was 61 and Willingdon 65 at the time of appointment. The average tenure of office finally turned out to be five-and-a-half years, though Hastings held it for 11 whereas elder Elgin and Mountbatten were in office for under two years. Cornwallis was appointed twice and an extension was granted to Curzon, Canning, Dalhousie and Linlithgow. Curzon and Northbrook resigned and Ellenborough and Lytton were recalled. Three died in office. Cornwallis passed away two months after coming back on his second term. Mayo was assassinated by Sher Ali, an embittered Afghan. Elgin suffered a heart attack whilst crossing a violently swinging bridge in the Himalayas.

Keeping in view the hardship of assignment, the Viceroy was handsomely remunerated. The financial rolls of 1910 saw him drawing more salary than the Prime Minister: tax-free and with it a large entertainment allowance, free transport including one splendidly-done-up train, one grand mansion decorated and maintained officially and a summer retreat. The Government of India Act 1935 allowed him a salary of Rs. 250,800, a sumptuary allowance of Rs. 45,000, a contract allowance of Rs. 160,469 and a conveyance allowance of Rs. 52,933. The high remuneration prospects were however encumbered by the Viceroy chipping in a considerable amount from his own pocket for purchasing horses and carriages – a wasting asset – from his predecessor. He also had to pay for acquiring his predecessor’s cellar, an intoxicatingly wasting asset! In a few cases of hardship, some compensation was paid on retirement by the East India Company – but no pension.

Lord Irwin was born with one hand

John Lawrence

‘Clemency’ Canning

The Viceregal incumbent was probably the hardest working man in his government. Papers, files, interviews and conferences filled the mornings; ceremonial inspections and visits the afternoons; and constant social engagements hogged evenings that were lengthened by more work far into the night. He was yearly subjected to long progresses up and down the country, extending many weeks at a stretch, during which he was also hosted by Indian princes. The imperial government always paid expenses for a shoot, though based on a niggardly government rate – and that too for the designated Viceregal suite of a few members only! Nevertheless financial emoluments and ancillary services were a pittance in comparison to the vastness of his powers. Except for Warren Hastings, who was impeached but exonerated of corrupt practices, there was no other recognised case of financial malfeasance.

Barring a few such as Curzon, the Viceroys were ordinary men placed in an extraordinary position. But in most cases, the position rubbed off on them. Their initiatives were magnified manifold in the context of an acute dearth of governmental welfare measures in India before the British – where expenditure on public works was previously rare, except the measures of Sher Shah Suri and Feroze Shah Tughlaq. The historical memory was, after all, that the wealth of the Subcontinental realm was squandered on building tombs and gardens reserved exclusively for the ruling elite.

Just a cursory glance at the administrative contributions of the Viceroys will give an idea of the width and profundity of their efforts. Cornwallis, through a sweeping settlement regime, granted proprietorial or effective ownership rights over land to the people who held it, doing away with practice of all land ownership being vested in the Sovereign and, even if a chunk of it was awarded as jagir to a grandee, its reversal to the crown by law of escheat once the noble died. Bentinck, deeply steeped in utilitarian ideals, declared English as the official language streamlined many practices in Indian society with the emerging modern world. Dalhousie connected the Subcontinent through a vast network of railways as the first of many public-private partnerships. He created a public works department and founded engineering colleges to train engineers. His irrigation schemes provided a large number of extensive distributaries proving infinitely beneficial to a predominantly agrarian Subcontinent. He created postal and telegraph systems that are still, so to say, in operation.

Viceregal Lodge, Simla

The singularly outstanding quality of these Viceroys was that they sought and heeded ‘prudent advice’ and consistently encouraged productive and dedicated work from their subordinates, producing a bevy of competent administrators – Elphinstone, Monroe, Edwardes, Malcolm, Frere, and Lyall – who transformed governance in India. Despite differences of opinion, their unity of purpose and action can appear marvelous. They never lost their nerve, not even when besieged by mutineers in 1857.

After completion of their Viceroyalty, nearly all of them were welcomed and feted in their home country. They were made Privy Councilors with their imperial ranks enhanced: Chelmsford went from Baron to Viscount, Curzon to Earl and Willingdon to Marquess. They were treated as national icons and their advice was widely sought. Many were given gainful appointments: Willingdon was taken on the boards of the Westminster Bank and the London & Lancashire Insurance Company, while Linlithgow went straight to the Chairmanship of Midland Bank. Almost half of them played a notable role in politics: Lansdowne and Reading (the only Jew) became Foreign Secretary, as did Irwin (Halifax). The latter got an opportunity to become Prime Minister after the fall of Chamberlain in the Second World War, but voluntarily gave way to Churchill – who appointed him ambassador to Washington. The rise of Curzon was phenomenal but he was also denied the ultimate prize of Prime Ministerial office despite being the most influential Foreign Secretary of his times. As for Mountbatten, realised his cherished dream of becoming Admiral of the Fleet, a position his father was hounded out of during the anti-German tide gripping Britain in First World War.