Constitutional status of civil service in India: Its raison d’etre

By Vivek Pattanayak*

The earliest form of civil service from the ancient times was found in imperial China. It was based on merit determined through competitive examination. Kautilya’s magnum opus, “Arthashastra” refers to salaried officials and high officials, their duties and code of conduct and how they are selected.

After the British arrived in India and gradually took political control of territories, they organized civil service although only after the War of Independence of 1857, the British established a professional civil service based on merit after recruitment examination. The creation of the Indian Civil Service was high point in growth and development of the civil service in modern India. By the time of India’s independence, the civil service had acquired an institutional status in the government comparable to other institutions like executives consisting of premier, ministers, parliamentary secretaries, legislature with chairman, speaker, judiciary with judges and chief justice, public service commission with chairperson and members etc.

The Government of India Act of 1919 and the Government of India Act 1935 had given statutory status to civil services by creating Public Service Commissions for recruitment, promotion and disciplinary purposes.

World over civil service known as bureaucracy had been recognized as a fulcrum of power of government from the nineteenth century. The British civil service, French civil service, the German civil service and even the American civil service had adopted the principle of merit-based recruitment through independent body.

When the Constitution of India was adopted based on earlier constitutional developments from the time of British India and evolution of different political and legal theories in other parts of the world, the institutions like legislature, judiciary, executive, federal structure, Public Service Commission, Election Commission, and CAG, the civil service also got constitutional status.

Theory of separation of power, principle of  federalism, institution of  professional civil service, devolution of power and decentralization had been well established. The  Constitution of India did not escape such modern trends. Hence, idea of professional civil service was incorporated into the Constitution.

Part XIV dealt with services under the Union and States. Article 308 to 323 covered the services including Public Service Commission. Acts of Parliament and Acts of State legislatures further fortified status of civil service.

Sequel to these developments concerning civil service was security of members of civil service in the career which covered tenure, protection of salaries, pension, retirement benefits, medical facilities, home travel etc. More than anything service was not guided by the principle “hire and fire” prevalent in private sector employment or under feudal system. With these embellishments as the civil services evolved, there was underlying expectation that civil servants would remain honest, sincere, and efficient, and more than anything  remain impartial in dealing with public. Political neutrality flowed out of this expectation. Tradition of the Indian civil service developed in the British lines. When the Government of India Act of 1919 came into force, interface between politicians and civil service began and further expanded after Government of India Act 1935 brought provincial autonomy. By the time of independence, the political neutrality as a concept had ingrained in the civil service tradition.

After the Constitution of India gave a robust status to bureaucracy the political neutrality became almost foregone conclusion in spite of increasing political control of the government.

Coincidentally, the British nation saw change of government along with independence of India. The Labour Party replaced the Conservative Party. Clement Attlee became Prime Minister replacing Winston Churchill with socialist ideology which aimed at nationalization of coal and steel. Civil service demonstrated its neutrality when it came to assist Attlee in nationalization effort. Interestingly, when the Conservatives came back to power after few years, they intended to denationalize steel and coal. The same civil service assisted the new government in doing the denationalization. Again, when Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister came to power, he wanted to nationalize the sector which the civil service readily followed his policy. After few years, the Conservative Margaret Thatcher came to power, she denationalized industry which the civil service dutifully did. This is a typical example often cited to the students of public administration of political neutrality of civil service. This also demonstrated accountability of civil service to political power.

Notwithstanding the theory that in a democracy ultimate responsibility lies with political executive and hence civil servants must accept final decisions flowing from that source, they have to be bold, free, and frank in giving advice to political masters.

They must not hesitate to render blunt advice however unpalatable it may be to the politicians because of their professional knowledge of constitution, law, rules and regulations, custom, usages and practices. They must have a sense of right or wrong, what is moral or ethical and what is not. Under these circumstances there is no scope for twitching law and rules, hiding facts and misguiding the political authority.

Consequences to blunt advice may be there if the political executives are unscrupulous, immoral and dishonest. There are examples of malicious transfers and harassment through many illegal and immoral actions initiated against the civil servants  through other civil servants and politically oriented media, conducting of raids, searches and seizures, adverse publicity, and scurrilous attacks in the fora of legislature. These are hazards of civil service, just has armed service have their risks and dangers. Nevertheless, civil servant has protection under the constitution and law. A clean and honest civil servant has nothing to fear as long as his conscience is clear. Ultimately, he is answerable only to his own conscience.

Civil servants exercise statutory power, judicial and quasi-judicial power where they must be impartial and politically neutral. Just as the judges are expected to be impartial and neutral free of bias and prejudice, civil servants are expected to be the same.

Under the government every post is important, and there is scope to serve the nation. There is nothing called good posting or bad posting. Some one or other has to hold that post. Idea of glamorous post reflects convoluted thinking. Seeking a post is unethical and illegal. Post retirement  pensions and other benefits are more than sufficient to satisfy one’s needs. Looking for a post retirement statutory or constitutional post is unnecessary, and it compromises one’s moral standing as a neutral civil servant.

All those institutions and its members whether legislative, judiciary, executive, CAG, Election Commission, Public service Commission and civil service which have constitutional and legal status create an underlying but perpetual obligation to serve the nation with impartiality, legally, morally free of personal bias or prejudice.



*The author is a former bureaucrat and held important positions in aviation and power regulatory body. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.


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