One of the stock criticisms of the post-Independence I.C.S. is that it is totally devoid of unusual individuals. Uniqueness and occasional eccentricity, it has been said, vanished with the British. Civil servants in Independent India are uniformly dull. There are no Indian counterparts of Freddie Mills of the Naga Hills, Wyndham of Mirzapur, Ramsay of Kumaon and Cotton of Etah district in U.P. The preference for outlandish places, miles away from hospitals, schools and the company of their fellow men, has not distinguished the remnants of the I.C.S. after 1947, and their successors of the I.A.S. even less. It has become the fashion to run down administrators as squares without it being appreciated that their daily lives are under far closer scrutiny than they ever were in British times. A curious service tradition evolved, with much encouragement from state governments, which imposed a dead uniformity on the behaviour patterns of their civil servants. In some states shikar was frowned upon and photography tabu. Administrators were expected to be absorbed in higher pursuits. For some unknown reason, never convincingly formulated, interests of this kind were thought to be incompatible with the nobler traditions of service.
But unusual men will not be contained by any system howsoever rigid. N.K. Rustomji has spent a lifetime on the Enchanted Frontiers of north-eastern India and his name will be remembered there at least as long as Freddie Mills. K.A.A. Raja, R. Yusuf Ali and N.D. Jayal are other distinguished frontiersmen who have successfully avoided more comfortable postings. R.P. Noronha is another example. He spent many years as district officer of Bastar and Commissioner of Jabalpur division, acquiring a reputation in the process of being one whose views on tribal matters were entitled to respect. In addition he was, as he says, mad keen on shikar. A civil servant who prides in a record of over a hundred tigers must have been pretty brazen about it. Though he was denied his early ambition of being a photographic journalist, because of his success in the I.C.S. examination, he handles photographic equipment as skillfully as any professional. He does not disclose whether he has tried his hand at journalism, but A Tale Told by an Idiot is briskly and at times racily written. It is anything but dull and verbose, the twin hall-marks of most official writings. Those who might be tempted to dismiss it as yet another memoir by the tribe of retired I.C.S. officers will be pleasantly surprised, if they persevere, by this refreshing and breezy book.
It is not really an autobiography. Although there are personal insights, often very revealing, the book is essentially an attempt to convey Noronha’s ideas on service in the LC.S. His method is simple. It is not a day-to-day account; he picks out problems of intrinsic importance and tells us how he dealt with them. In the final war years and early post-war years he became an expert in rationing and civil supplies. This led to his appointment to a committee of which another member was a civilian from the Punjab, perhaps with even greater experience in this field. Their views seem to have been at variance. Noronha felt compelled to write a general minute of dissent and included dissents in each chapter. He has reproduced the main minute of dissent in this book and I think it makes convincing reading. He claims with evident satisfaction that it was his policy which was accepted by government. I am certain however he would not maintain that it is the best policy for all time. If Rafi Ahmed Kidwai found it the most acceptable policy in the circumstances prevailing in 1950, it is highly unlikely that the policy could be adopted now without amendment. Noronha’s emphasis was on supply rather than prices, but I doubt whether he went far enough in his methods of procurement. Yet it is a mine of information and advice which present-day administrators would do well to read. Two years ago we were forced to retreat in disarray from a premature venture in state trading. The issue has been postponed rather than resolved. At some time in the future we are bound to have recourse to some form of state trading; the experience of these administrators, acquired during critical times, would be invaluable in framing schemes when such measures become necessary.
Another theme is that of law and order. Noronha’s view is that this, like peace, is indivisible. If you yield in the small things you will not be able to stem the tide. The history of administration is replete with examples. In Noronha’s phrase, administrators prefer to use tact, which is another way of allowing things to slide. Force is used in panic when things have already got out of hand. Usually it is excessive force, as always happens when the men with the muskets lose their nerve. All this is pretty old hat.
The real lesson is not for administrators but for their political masters. Tact or, as we say in the U.P., hikmat amli, is the sort of approach which is imposed on the law and order machinery by the general reluctance of the political executive to strengthen their hands. And of course this reluctance is understandable, for it is they who have to face the music in the popular assemblies. It should be remembered, however, that no legislature has ever denied support to a strong home minister. When Dr. Katju, who was then Chief Minister, was taken aback by the measures Noronha proposed to take in a law-and-order situation Pandit Jawaharlal admonished him thus:
‘Law and order is entirely a matter for the executive to deal with at field level. You are not concerned. Leave Noronha alone; at least he is clear in his mind.’ There is a dual message in the Prime Minister’s dictum. Firstly, the political executives are told to keep out of the execution of law and order. Secondly, it is implied that administrators must be clear about what they should do in a particular situation. Law and order can be reduced to a fair mess if politicians interfere and even worse if administrators do not know what they can and should do. This is not book knowledge but an understanding of situations. These passages should be compulsory reading for both.
Perhaps the best part of Noronha’s comments on official life bear upon his dealings with the chief ministers under whom he worked as chief secretary. He steadily refused to tender advice on matters of policy. He refers with evident disfavour to the common failing of civil servants getting so involved with their political masters as to venture into the area of policy. On this there could be debate. Does a civil servant not advise a minister on policy when he argues that A is preferable to B the way he sees it? The distinction is fine but not unreal. A prominent British minister insisted that a civil servant ought to be able to formulate ideas in keeping with his minister’s thinking. The forbidden area for a civil servant is not policy making but personal involvement in the minister’s policy to the extent that he fails to advise him against it, if it is wrong. On this point E.N. Mangat Rai, in his Commitment My Style, has useful things to say in the excellent chapter on Pratap Singh Kairon.
Surprisingly, the least satisfying part of the book is on the tribals. He tells a few stories and reproduces extracts from diaries and a broadcast. Except that Noronha considers the tribals to be entitled to respect as human beings, there is little to add to the theory of tribal organization and their part in the Indian mainstream. Perhaps be is holding all this back for a full scale work on the subject. I hope so. And finally, Bharat does not use Rama’s slippers to discipline his subjects (or his puppies); they had been left with him as a symbol of Ram as continuing authority. Too small a point to cavil at perhaps.
J.S. Lall, a retired member of the ICS, is Director, India International Centre, New Delhi.