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– Dr C.K. Mathew, IAS (Retd)

Henry Roberdeau, a young officer of the judicial service, who served the East India Company in the first part of the 19th century, as officer in Mymensingh, (now central Bangladesh), wrote in 1805 about life in the district. His narrative could pass off as the truth for any part of the vast British India in the sub-continent in those days. After describing his daily routine, the grind of the daily work, the sports and the expeditions, the food and the wine, he ends his sketch with a character of the Englishman in the east. Quoted extensively in Philip Mason’s classic ‘The Men who ruled India’, the summary goes as follows:

“…Generosity is a feature in the Character… bring distress before his eyes and he bestows with a liberality that is nowhere surpassed.. In the public Character, whatever Calumny and Detraction may say to the Contrary, he is minutely just, inflexibly upright and I believe no Public Service in the whole world can evince more integrity.


The striking words are “minutely just, inflexibly upright”. There is a ring to those words that brings a singular distinction to the role of the British civil servant, not only in the East India Company’s two centuries as master of the sub-continent, but also when the British government took over the reins of the administration in 1857. The British relationship with India had begun in 1608 when Roe and Hawkins landed at Surat and went on until divorce was pronounced in 1947. The marriage had been troubled at times and violent during the Mutiny or when the imperial power strived to exert rigid control in difficult circumstances. On the whole, however, it was one of mutual benefit. Their parting of ways was, at the end, cordial and blessed with many memories that linger still.


The question that Roberdeau’s poignant words raise is inevitable: what is the role of the civil servant, today at a time when the colonial past is gone and the country reigns over itself, when democracy has struck roots that can now never be threatened, when the future beckons with bright hope and optimism. And although the question has been asked many times in the recent and not-so-recent past, and answered too, in one manner or the other, and shall be asked again a million times more as we go along, could this blog-writer dare to try to answer it again in this essay?


Some years ago on an essay entitled ‘The Ideal Man,’ (please see my personal blog at I had quoted Aristotle writing about the perfect qualities desireable in a man. And I quote again:

“…He is of a disposition to do men service, though he is ashamed to have a service done to him. To confer a kindness is a mark of superiority, to receive one is a mark of subordination. He does not take part in public displays. He is never fired with admiration, since there is nothing great in his eyes. He cannot live in complaisance with others, except as a friend; complaisance is the characteristic of a slave. He never feels malice and always passes over injuries. He does not speak evil of others, even his enemies, unless it be to themselves.”


Any of these qualities, in these inimitable worlds could apply to the ideal public servant. So now we have some qualities of the British officer as Roberdeau put it and Aristotle’s words on the ideal man. Could these be a pointer as to what the ideal civil servant should be?


I shall try.


The ideal civil servant is, at the outset, completely disinterested in the matters presented to him. Note, I did not say he has no interest in the resolution of the matter placed before him; but he cares not a whit this way or that, for the claims and counter claims of the parties to the suit. But, he will make his decision on the facts of the case and in accordance with the rules. Again, this is not to say that he will not be human; where the rules may appear to be in favour of a contestant but justice clearly lies in the claims of the other, he will not hesitate to set things right the way it should be. The direction in which the case swings is not his concern, but that he should be fair and impartial in the delivery of justice, not only for his own conviction, but in the manner in which it is perceived by those around him, that is what he holds dear in the core of his heart.


The probity of his official life matches the personal ideals he practices in his private life too. One cannot be a saint in the public world and a sinner at home. One cannot be faithful to one’s public duties and a philanderer in one’s private life. It may be argued that what a man does with his own life is his own business, so long as it does not interfere with his official world. I do not subscribe to that philosophy. At home and in the work place, he is the same man with the same ideals and the same code of conduct. The coinciding of personal and public value system is important in the matter we are discussing.


Needless to say, he is incorruptible and cannot be persuaded to tilt the tangent of his pen to suit the interests of the one who makes the offer. He would rather die than give in to these inducements. There is no need to elaborate on the matter; he is inflexibly upright when temptation comes his way.


More, he will not shun responsibility when it comes his way. There are some who will pass on the buck: to some subordinate or to some senior, saying that the matter cannot be decided at his level. Such a one would evade and duck so that he can go home early for an evening out with the family. The true civil servant would never do that; he has been bestowed with enormous powers by virtue of the statutes and the fiat of the government, particularly for the purpose of resolving public issues and grievances. How dare he give those powers away! It is for him to take the matter in his hands and meet it head on and find the resolution of the problems he has been given to handle. And if that means late hours and endless hours of back-breaking work, then so be it !


Again, he is at his seat during all the hours of his work. Or he is out in the field personally hearing the problems of the commoner, so that complainant need not travel long distances to meet him. He does not mind the dust and the rain, the difficult journey across rural terrain, the flies and the mosquitoes, for it is his duty as public servant to reach out and establish the order and justice for which he has been appointed in that hallowed place. His cell phone is always in his hand and he answers all calls, even from strangers who call him with their myriad problems. He has not authorised his peon or clerk to answer the phone on his behalf and tell the caller that the sahib is in his morning puja or at his bath or out for his morning walk. In other words he is there for them.


He does not seek approbation and approval, the applause of the admiring crowd, the glory of an award by some thankful authority or body. He would rather that he remains unhonoured and unsung, a faceless officer, who does what he knows best to do and cares not for any rewards.

Post Author: pacindia